Behind the scenes, Bob Colesberry was a showbiz giant
Appreciation, from the Baltimore Sun, Feb. 15, 2004
Reprinted with permission
It was a shotgun wedding of sorts, with an HBO executive playing pastor.
I was there to get a book that I had written, an account of a year on a Baltimore drug corner, made into television. I had another writer with me, a trusted college friend with experience in episodic drama. David Mills had worked a few years on NYPD Blue, just as I had a couple years under Tom Fontana on Homicide. And we had already hired a line producer who would help us put film in the can.
So why was I being ushered to this New York office to meet another producer? Some studio type named Colesberry. A film producer, no less, from the world of big-budget features where everyone had a producer title, whether they did any work or not. He would probably ask for crane shots and try to rewrite scripts and screw up the casting and blow a hole in the budget.
“Don’t commit to anything,” Mills said before we walked into the office. “If he doesn’t feel right, don’t commit.”
But Bobby Colesberry threw us from the first, when he showed up with a copy of the book not only dog-eared, but marked in the margins with two different colors of ink. In a world in which all stories are reduced to single sentences by studio execs, this man had read a 600-page tome and thought hard about it.
“We’ll take your notes,” I warned him. “But the last pass on the script is ours.”
Of course, he said.
“And we don’t want to get frozen out of production. We may not be as experienced as you, but we know how to put film in the can.”
Great, he said, and Mills and I shared a look. Too easy. Our distrust grew.
“Look,” said Colesberry, “I read the book and I want to help you tell that story.”
We left the HBO offices doubtful and frightened. Two months later, by the time The Corner was in pre-production, I realized I never again wanted to shoot a reel of film without Bob Colesberry as my partner. By the time we began working again to create The Wire, I had learned to love the man, not just for the work we did together, but because of the person he was.
Much left unsaid
When he died Monday of complications from surgery, I realized that I hadn’t said a tenth of what I felt within his earshot. To other people, yes, all the time. To reporters and critics and other people in the film industry, I would invoke his name in every discussion of The Corner or The Wire, insisting that these projects existed only because of his partnership.
But Bob was the quiet one. And television critics tend to be big on story and character, which means ink for writers and actors.
He never complained, of course, being used to the background. For more than 20 years, he had worked arm-in-arm with real talents in the film world — Martin Scorsese, Alan Parker, Ang Lee, Barry Levinson, Robert Benton — and always he had quietly buried himself in the details of each production, ensuring the survival of fragile film projects and making good movies better.
Bernardo Bertolucci embraced him. Parker told him he had the eye to direct, never mind production. Scorsese credits him with helping to revive his career by shepherding After Hours to critical acclaim. He was nominated for an Oscar on Mississippi Burning, and for Emmys on 61* and the CBS adaptation of Death of a Salesman.
As a producer, he was soft-spoken, subtle and discreet. He made his points after everyone else in the room had already had their say. Bob could back you into a better idea and convince you that it was probably your own. And he was forever pathfinding through the forest of overgrown ego that flourishes on any movie set.
An 18-hour day for the crew was a 20-hour day for Bob, and I remember so many long nights on a soundstage, or worse, out in the street, with everyone slumped in those ridiculous chairs, staring at the monitors. When he was bone-tired, Bob Colesberry — an ex-Army artillery man — would playfully pretend to hold a walkie-talkie to his mouth and softly begin calling in salvo coordinates on the cast and crew, and himself.
Our working relationship was fully revealed to me during the first season of The Wire. One particular scene had been badly blocked by the director and the actors’ performances were a bit off. Out on set with our first unit in East Baltimore, Bob watched the tape and called the editor, Thom Zimny, who made changes and then rushed a tape to West Baltimore, where I was working.
Bob had saved the scene visually by cutting deep into dialogue. A bit too deep. The scene didn’t quite make sense storywise. I told Thom to restore some cuts and he did so, ruining the scene visually but keeping the essential story points. Bob countered with more cuts. Finally, on the fourth go-round, I called Zimny.
“Here’s the problem: Bob is the eyes and I’m the ears. We have to be in the same room.”
We got together later that night, after wrap. Half an hour and we had a final cut of the scene.
Into the light
For colleagues, a great delight of the last five years was to slowly coax Bob Colesberry out of the background and toward his rightful place.
First we made him stand at the front of the stage in Pasadena and speak for The Corner when it won the Emmy for best miniseries. And later, on The Wire, we persuaded Bobby — a subtle actor in his own right — to take a walk-on role as a hapless Baltimore homicide detective, Ray Cole. Then we began throwing Cole more lines and more scenes — usually comic, usually at the character’s expense.
Finally, last season, we took Alan Parker up on his prediction, pressing Bob until he agreed to direct the final episode of the season. For the first time in more than two decades of filmmaking, he was no longer standing behind the director’s chair. I barely touched his cut of that episode.
Early last Saturday, he suffered a stroke after surgery, lingering for nearly two days, unable to talk or move. But intellectually, he was all there, trying to reach us as best he could. One blink for yes, two for no. His wife, Karen, was at his side throughout. Family and close friends, too.
“You sonofabitch,” I said when it was my turn. “You’re gonna make me a Yankee fan.”
One blink. Crying, I had to step from his line of sight and wait to catch my voice. Finally, I told him that if he didn’t get out of bed, the producer cuts would be a mess. “I’m just the ears, remember?”
One blink again. I managed to say a little bit more, but all with the lie that he was going to recover. By the next day, Bob seemed to know better and we, too, began hinting at the inevitable. I thanked him not just for the work, but for the doing of it — for the adventure and the friendship. And Nina Noble, the line producer, was promising that we would stay in the wide shots, only going to close-up when necessary, as Bob had long preached.
He wanted to hear music, so Thom Zimny and I ran around Upper Manhattan like idiots to find a boombox and a CD of the show’s first season theme song. Southern gospel filled the I.C.U.
“When you walk through the garden …”
No more blinking. Just a placid expression, eyes straight ahead. An hour later, with family and friends around him, his heart gently gave out.
Those of us who work on The Wire aren’t thinking much about the show right now. No one is ready to care about how to put it back together, about what to do next. We’ll try, of course. Bob Colesberry was a rare professional and for five years, he taught all of us to love his chosen profession in new ways.
But this week anyway, there is a television show in Baltimore, flying blind.
Former Sun reporter David Simon is creator and executive producer of the Baltimore-based HBO drama The Wire. Its third season will begin airing later this year.