Art Imitating Life on ‘NYPD’

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

“NYPD Blue” has taken authentic casting to a new level with the recent full-time addition of retired police officer John O’Donohue.
Mr. O’Donohue is a 20-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. While on the force Mr. O’Donohue practiced acting in his spare time, taking acting classes and appearing in off-Broadway plays as he worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant. He moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and has worked as an actor ever since. He has had a recurring role on “NYPD Blue” for the past four seasons as Det. Eddie Gibson. In 2003 producers decided to give Mr. O’Donohue and his character a promotion, making Det. Gibson a sergeant and Mr. O’Donohue a regular cast member.
“NYPD Blue” executive producer Bill Clark said an actor’s real-life experience can give him an edge.
“In the case of O’ Donohue, not only is he familiar with law enforcement but he’s a real New Yorker, with a real accent,” Mr. Clark said. “He knows what the tone of the scene should be based on the material. He knows how to wear a uniform, he knows how to carry a gun-all the little nuances cops pick up over the years.”
Mr. Clark, however, might be a tad biased-he’s a former Brooklyn homicide detective.
Mr. Clark was on the force when “NYPD Blue” creators Steven Bochco and David Milch came to his precinct to research their new show. He was initially hired as a technical consultant and has gradually progressed to executive producer.
“Mr. Clark is a stickler for detail. He tries to keep it as real as possible,” Mr. O’Donohue said.
The disadvantage of hiring somebody with real-life experience, Mr. Clark said, is some former cops have strong opinions about how a scene should play based on their experiences.
“But that’s a struggle you can have with any actor,” he said.
There are other examples of such authentic casting on the television landscape. Ex-con Brian Goodman played a mobster on ABC’s “Line of Fire,” which premiered in December and is currently on hiatus. Former senator and longtime actor Fred Thompson plays a district attorney on “Law & Order”-not really the same thing, though Mr. Thompson does bring some political gravitas to the role.
Mr. Clark said cop dramas are, in some respects, more real than most so-called reality efforts to capture police work. On “Cops,” for example, officers frequently play to the camera rather than genuinely react to the situation, he said.
“They get very chatty, very over-reactive to the situation,” he said. “I watch that show, not for the cops’ behavior but for the other side, watching how people react to cops and try to lie.”
As for Mr. O’Donohue, he said his “NYPD Blue” experience has been, thus far, an accurate representation of life inside a New York City police precinct-with one exception.
“On the show, crimes get solved a lot quicker,” he said.