One of the side effects of growing up with the TV on is that you become fascinated by all kinds of actors, actors who keep popping up on the screen again and again, in TV shows and old movies that were made when they were at different ages and in different stages of their careers. You notice that some of them were chameleons, while some of them were pretty much always the same; you notice that some of them, like Slim Pickens and Thelma Ritter, where a lot better at always being the same than others, like Barton MacLane. You feel a curious mixture of affectionate respect and sympathy when you see distinguished old pros like Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre reduced to returning Roger Corman's phone calls, and still doing their damndest to honor their commitment to their craft and their audience, working with cardboard sets and dialogue that somebody scribbled down in half an hour in exchange for a slice of pizza. And you start to recognize that certain actors worked in film and TV a long time while hardly ever getting a crack at material that gave them a chance to show a tenth of what they could do.
Wasted talent in Hollywood is an issue that crosses racial and gender lines. Still, there's something especially infuriating, and inspiring, about all those generations' worth of gifted black actors who worked to get a toehold in the industry during those years when roles for black actors in the mainstream were something of a novelty, and the idea of good roles for black actors practically an oxymoron. I'm thinking of people like Roscoe Lee Browne, whose resonant baritone and gorgeously overripe theatrical style made him a go-to guy for sitcom casting directors looking for a black man who could tickle the audience by appearing classier than the white characters. Or Rupert Crosse, a large-spirited, magnetic comic actor who paid his dues with nothing roles in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie and Monte Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind, got an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in 1969's The Reivers, and then never got appeared in another movie. (Cast as Jack Nicholson's sidekick in The Last Detail in 1973, he submitted to the insurance company-mandated physical check-up and learned that he was dying of lung cancer.) The Cinderella story here is Morgan Freeman, who was fifty when he got the Academy Award nomination (for Street Smart) that finally got his movie career going. Like a lot of people, I'd grown up watching him on reruns of The Electric Company, and a year before Street Smart came out, I happened to turn the TV on in the middle of the day and saw him sitting in the background of a courtroom scene on Another World. That's too bad, I remember thinking at the time; I always liked him—I'm sorry his career didn't turn out better for him.
Then there's Moses Gunn. An almost ridiculously well-named man, Gunn easily communicated power and anger and had the dignified ferocity of an Old Testament prophet. (With his trim, compact frame and large, smoking eyes, he looked like a James Baldwin who had half a mind to kick your ass.) A co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company whose New York career included the American premiere of Genet's The Blacks and the title role in a Broadway production of Othello, Gunn was a significant figure in the American theater scene, though his best-known role in movies was probably the harlem gangster who keeps dropping Richard Roundtree in the shit in Shaft and Shaft's Big Score! (He also played Booker T. Washington in Miles Forman's train-wreck movie version of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, a tribal leader in Roots, and Esther Rolle's ailing suitor on Good Times.) Risley Tucker, the arraber who is the chief suspect in the murder of the eleven-year-old Adena Watson, was Gunn's last role. (He died nine months after the episode was broadcast.) I suspect that he showed up for work knowing just about everything a man might know about watchful waiting, about thwarted opportunities and what being ignored and underestimated can do to a man with strong passions inside him.
It would take a combination master detective, psychiatrist, mind reader, and saint to not underestimate Risley. He looks like toast as soon as the detectives sit him down in the box and start to go at him: Bayliss, flailing and overemotional, Pembleton doing his patient chilled-out thing, like a shark just biding his time, waiting until he gets hungry. Part of the pleasure of the episode comes from seeing this two start at opposite ends of the field and then watching as their styles, and their speech patterns, slowly begin to mesh. It's only when the detectives seem to be completely at the top of their game that the old man, having gone so far as to say that he's not as sure as he used to be that he's not a murderer, begins to turn the interrogation, and the episode, on its head. He starts to spell out for Bayliss everything he's picked up on about the young cop's uncertainty and lack of faith in himself, and then he turns on Pembleton. He describes being humiliated in a posh restaurant in front of his fiancee, back when he was younger, and still had enough of a life that he might have had a fiancee. He basically calls Pembleton an Oreo, sneering that the younger black man's life and career is built on the ashes of the wasted, boxed-in lives of men like himself, just as actors like Andre Braugher are the beneficiaries of all the time that actors like Moses Gunn spent throwing themselves against a brick wall. He humbles and disorients them, and he makes their flashy theatrics, such as confronting him with a wall full of pictures of Adena's body, look like amateur night. And then, he starts to talk about Adena Watson.
The arraber's speech about his love affair with a little girl is the hypnotic black hole at the center of "Three Men and Adena", a hole that haunts and resonates in the background of the series from this point on. Risley doesn't cry out that he couldn't help himself, the way Peter Lorre did as the child murderer in M. On some level, he can't bring himself to admit that there was something unhealthy about his passion, though he can't get around the fact that it was damned inconvenient. Lester Bangs once wrote about the man in a Van Morrison song who sits in his car watching a 14-year-old girl, "He loves her. Because of that, he is helpless. Shaking. Paralyzed. Maddened. Hopeless. Nature mocks him… By the end of the song he has entered a kind of hallucinatory ecstasy; the music aches and yearns as it rolls on. This is one supreme pain, that of being imprisoned a spectator." That's a pretty fair description of what Gunn's handling of his big monologue looks and feels like. Talking about the times he and the girl used to spend together, he sounds rapturous yet tortured; recalling the things Adena used to say and do with him, he sounds, despite his protestations that he would have never wanted to harm the girl, like a man who felt that he'd been teased beyond endurance. And the empathic Bayliss, who was sure that Risley had killed the girl, will never be sure again, just as the cold-eyed Pembleton will never be in doubt about it. He's listened to the testimony of an imprisoned spectator who couldn't stand it any more and tore the bars out of his cage.
"Three Men and Adena" was the first Homicide episode credited as being written by (as opposed to being written, by someone else, from "a story by") Tom Fontana. Fontana has talked in interviews about how breaking into TV saved him from a life as a starving playwright, but "Adena" is a celebration of the virtues of theater, caught on film and caged inside a TV screen. It's beautifully shaped and written, though there are moments, especially when Bayliss and Pembleton are leaning on the arraber in two-point harmony, when the words click together in a way that reminds you of those days when every writer in the business with artistic ambitions and a testosterone complex wanted to grow up to be David Mamet. Despite the reliance on talk and the confined space, with most of the action taking place in the interrogation room, it's designed as a conventional make-em-talk episode, with the two detectives who haven't been getting along learning to work together, and finally becoming true partners, through their shared triumph in breaking the suspect. The big difference, of course, is that the suspect sweats, bends in places, but doesn't break. Part of what's surprising is how well the formula works even with this key element missing. By the end, Bayliss and Pembleton have become real partners through the shared experience of getting just so close and then, as Pembleton says, blowing it. And Risley may not be going to jail, but you wouldn't exactly call him a free man.