Lance Reddick: The Wire’s crusading cop led with command and conviction

On HBO’s crime-and-punishment epic The Wire, the moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. In the dramatized yet scrupulously realistic Baltimore mapped by creator David Simon, institutions – policing, education, politics – preserve their entrenched structures of power at the cost of the individual, and it happens over and over. Red tape renders meaningful change pitifully incremental when possible at all, and those responsible for shaking up the status quo invariably face punishment rather than reward. There’s a deep vein of cynicism at play in this worldview, fairly earned by Simon during his previous career as a reporter on the city desk at the Baltimore Sun, but it comes with a fundamentally idealistic corollary. So long as large, immovable systems of iniquity exist, we’ll always have principled reformers who try in their own modest way to make some small difference.

Related: Lance Reddick, star of The Wire and John Wick, dies aged 60

Through the landmark series’ five seasons, in more episodes than any other character, Lt Cedric Daniels stoked this inextinguishable ember of hope. A born-and-raised Baltimore native himself, actor Lance Reddick never played the no-nonsense lifer cop as a valiant crusader, however, viewing him instead as a shrewd and pragmatic compromiser. For every moment of rousing defiance that sees Daniels extend his middle finger to the system, like his vitriolic kiss-off to a superior pulling his unit’s funding or his instantly immortal declaration that the latest top-down order is “BULLSHIT”, there’s a sobering reminder of how the game is played. Daniels defends his people even when they’re at fault, both out of cop solidarity and the knowledge that bad PR won’t make the job more doable. In the course of a single scene, he could chew out a few of his underlings for cracking skulls in project housing, then advise them on how to beat a brutality investigation with a chilling calm.

Reddick died yesterday at age 60, an unexpected and sudden death in his Los Angeles home attributed to natural causes. The immense outpouring of respect from his peers testifies to the standard of excellence he maintained in an eclectic body of work, its long-running TV engagements and minor-yet-memorable movie gigs defined by his finely honed skill for subtle internal contrasts. With a preacher’s commanding baritone, he embodied stolid paternalism as readily as menace, fragility, or absurdity. Though his journeyman career often returned him to stiff-lipped law enforcement, he distinguished each role through his utter conviction and exceptional adroitness in finding notes of counterpoint within the human soul

Reddick landed his part on The Wire after first impressing HBO’s brass with a season-long stint on the merciless prison drama Oz, his arc typical of the show’s crushing inclination toward tragedy. As Det Johnny Basil, he assumed the alias Desmond Mobay to go undercover and break up a drug ring, only to get addicted to heroin, forced into murder, and bumped off himself. For the first time of many, Reddick revealed all the brittle, breakable things behind the imposing facade of the boys in blue, as susceptible to sins mortal and venal as anyone else.

His face kept popping up around precincts: a special agent fed on Law and Order, a medical examiner on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, a street patrolman on an episode of The West Wing, a homeland security operative on Fringe. Sometimes, he’d divert his naturally commanding air of authority to shadier professions, all business as an enigmatic fixer on Lost or the mercenary hotel’s concierge in the John Wick films. (Reddick’s touching-as-is performance in the fourth installment, in theaters next week, will take on an unbearable poignance in light of this loss.) The industry gradually woke up to the comedic potential of his sharp-eyed intensity, and Reddick turned his type in on itself as the oddball boss on Corporate and one “Senor Dicks” on the cult favorite NTSF:SD:SUV. His legacy will be that of an accomplished thespian, though he must also be remembered in part as the only guest who really seemed to scare Eric Andre.

But The Wire brought out the best from Reddick, constantly testing his steely resolve to expose the strength and frailty underneath. As with everyone trying to better a Baltimore where “the gods will not save you”, the machine chews Daniels up and spits him out; in the finale, he turns his back on a broken police department to start anew as a criminal lawyer, a concession of defeat he spins into a moral victory. Though Reddick spent his career flourishing in the margins of an industry that could’ve shown more appreciation for his estimable talents, he’s nonetheless remembered by his collaborators as consistent, grateful and kind. He logged decades in the character actor roles that hold a project together, even if they may not earn household name recognition. Still, he kept at it with the same indefatigable workhorse steadfastness as the lawmen he played – head down, quietly showing everyone else how it’s done.