“There’s a certain attitude that New Yorkers have, and I didn’t want anyone faking an accent… because I’ve never heard a good one.” So says Edward Burns of the casting process for Public Morals (TNT, Tuesdays, 10/9c). Set in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1960s, the new series focuses on officers in the NYPD’s Public Morals Division, coming to terms with vice in the city and their lives as Irish Americans.
Burns himself is New York born and raised, so he felt compelled to make the action as authentic as possible. That meant not only hiring cast and crew from the area, but also writing scenes around memorable NYC locations.
The result is New York, circa 1963, come magically to life on the small screen with all the grit, glamor, gams and guns—plus a star-studded roster including Burns, Brian Dennehy, Michael Rapaport, Neil McDonough and Katrina Bowden. We caught up with the affable auteur to talk Irish cops, classic films and how this show is like a Western.
“This show is like a family saga, dressed up in cop and gangster clothes. These two Irish-Catholic families in Hell’s Kitchen, a tough neighborhood, a tough upbringing. And one family chose to go to the cop side while the other one went the other way.”
You write, direct, and star in Public Morals. What was the toughest part of wearing all those hats?
You know, it felt like a very long feature film. I’ve been very lucky. I have this incredible support team including my producing partner, Aaron Lubin who’s been with me for 15 years. He’s the guy who mapped out the story with me, and he read every single draft I wrote. Then I was able to bring in my longtime director of photography, who shot every episode. My costume and production designers have been working with me for years, like my location people and editor. So I was surrounded by folks I have a great working relationship with, and also importantly, like-minded folks, you know what I mean? All New Yorkers, who’ve had the same experience, and creatively we were on the same page, and that made for a smooth production.
How challenging and fun was it to duplicate New York City in the ’60s?
I’m a little bit of a New York history buff, and I’m definitely obsessed with old school New York. From 1860s to 1880s New York, through the 1920s and post World War II, and to the 1960s. Being born and bred and living in New York for many years, I’ve been keeping a catalog of great locations and streets and old buildings. When we got the green light on this show, I immediately went out and started taking pictures of the places I wanted to use.
What was the coolest part of being on set in your hometown?
The best time on set was being out on the streets in New York. You know, you’d see the period cars start lining up. The actors, all New Yorkers, would come out of hair and makeup in their period clothes—the hats, the suits and dresses. My production designer would be putting up the old signs over the new ones, and then right before your eyes, you’d see the past come to life. That was always my absolute favorite time!
You come from an Irish-American cop family, but who are your character Terry Muldoon and the other cops based on?
They’re not based on anyone specific, but almost every book I read about the NYPD’s history—and I’ve got members of my family who were on the job including my dad who’s now retired—there was a type of cop that has entered New York folklore. That tough-talking Irish guy who was also pretty witty, who could be tough as nails, yet sympathetic when he needed to be. Like the Popeye Doyle character from The French Connection, that sort of mythical character. So, my own character Terry is a composite of the types of cops that I’d read and heard about.
You used your dad as a consultant for dialogue and also attitude and atmosphere, right?
There’s a ton of lines that I pulled from my dad, straight from him. There’s that scene with me as Terry with my son James, reading him the riot act for playing the fool at school—that was me, what my dad told me, word for word. Now Terry Muldoon is having to deal with his son being a jerk-off at school, and he calls him the school fool. That scene and several others are autobiographical.
You’ve mined your own Irish-American background from The Brothers McMullen (1995) to The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (2012). Now what’s your idea about using family as a central spine again?
Growing up in a cop family, it was my milieu. And this show is like a family saga, dressed up in cop and gangster clothes. That’s where I came up with this idea of a little bit of a blood feud between the Muldoons and Pattons, both sides of the law, these two Irish-Catholic families in Hell’s Kitchen, a tough neighborhood, a tough upbringing. And one family chose to go to the cop side while the other one went the other way. I’m fascinated by the fact that they have a shared history but have obviously chosen different directions.
So this is sort of a Western, set in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1960s?
I’m glad you brought up the Western because I’m also a big Western buff, and a big part of the writing of this show, I was thinking about my favorite Westerns—two John Ford movies, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Stagecoach, then more recently Eastwood’s Unforgiven—and I wanted some of those gangster scenes to play out like a Western. They talk about the west side of Manhattan back then as the “wild west” so I tried to have some fun with that.
There’s a great line you have: “There’s the law and then there’s the rules.” Is that pretty much how it was?
According to everything I read, yes, that’s how it was back then. Not just the cops, but the politicians and the citizens where it was accepted that you would make allowances in certain things. I read a book called Island of Vice about Teddy Roosevelt’s time as NYPD commissioner, and his quest to clean up “sin-loving” New York. In it there’s a captain who doesn’t believe in arresting prostitutes or madams who run brothels. He doesn’t like that law, so he chooses not to enforce it. I used the idea of that captain for the captain of our story. He’s got a scene where he has a girlfriend who’s a madam who runs a brothel. It’s not so much specific to the 1960s, as it is specific to New York City. These are the kinds of characters and stories that really only took place in New York. So even if they happened a hundred years ago, I borrowed some for our story.
Muldoon has another great line: “We do what’s been done for the last hundred years, we manage it for the city. Think of us as the landlords, and if you want to be in business you gotta pay your rent.”
Everything I read, they talked about what they described as victimless crimes. Even the Public Morals Division, which in part they created to deal with victimless crimes, as opposed to anything that would have to do with more violent crimes—assault, breaking and entering, robberies, etc. And it was done because I guess there was a temperament throughout the City that, you know, everybody gambled, everybody played their daily number or had a bookie, everybody wants to have a drink on a Sunday. I think it was born out of the attitude that came out of Prohibition, when everybody wanted to drink, so why are we enforcing these laws? I was fascinated by the idea of, how do you police sin rather than a more traditional violent crime?
And there’s an element of cutting people some slack so as to not adversely affect their lives, right?
Exactly. We spoke to one old-timer, one old cop, who said: “You got to remember: Am I going to lock up a guy with a prostitute, or a guy who gets into a bar fight, or a guy who I catch gambling on sports? If I do, then I’m going to change the course of that person’s life, and their prospects moving forward will never be the same. And you’ve got to make that tough decision. Everybody likes to gamble. Many of us have ended up in a fight. So when do I let this guy go?” And that was an interesting thing to play with as a writer.
What are you looking to accomplish with Public Morals? Because you really deliver with this very compelling series.
Ahh, thank you. What we wanted to do was make it like a good time at the movies but deliver it to you on our television in your living room. For me, the films that I grew up watching and through film school, the ones that inspired me to make movies, they were great dramas but were also very entertaining, they were fun. Whether it was Mean Streets, The Godfather, The French Connection, The Hustler, they weren’t dark depressing completely somber tales. These were entertaining pieces. That’s sort of the goal that I set for myself. Yes, a tall goal, but why not aspire to do something like that?