The Wire’s Michael K. Williams broke the news that co-star Robert F. Chew (“Proposition Joe”) has died, quietly passing along a short statement on his death via a photo on his Instagram account (picked up by UPROXX), captioned, “R.I.P. to the talented Mr. Robert Chew #propjoe.” Williams’ sentiments were quickly echoed by other members of the cast, in tweets from Wendell Pierce, Jamie Hector, and Jermaine Crawford. These were followed by this obituary in the Baltimore Sun that confirms Chew died of heart failure at the age of 52, and includes some typically lengthy thoughts from David Simon.
Like many in the Wire company, Chew was a born-and-bred Baltimore resident, a local who, from 1992 until just last year, spent much of his time working as an acting coach at various theater programs for inner-city kids while also turning up in bit parts on other Simon-spawned projects The Corner and Homicide: Life On The Street. Chew has said that around 22 of his students ended up landing roles on The Wire, most notably the four young leads who were called upon to carry its fourth season. He continued that mentoring on set, even extending his expertise to Felicia “Snoop” Pearson in helping her and the rest of the show's raw, authentic-yet-inexperienced talent find the natural characters within themselves.
Chew said that his own character, the wise, slyly witty drug dealer Proposition Joe, was originally intended to be more closely modeled after Joe Stewart, a “handsome, debonair ladies’ man,” not the guru who doubles as his own mountaintop that Prop Joe became. But the realness that Chew brought to his reading—in addition to what David Simon called one of the best local accents on the entire show—caused them to reimagine the role, to the show’s incredible benefit.
Across five seasons, Chew got to deliver some of The Wire's most thoughtful and often funniest dialogue—including immortal maxims like, “Look the part, be the part, motherfucker.” Chew's slow, confident delivery further embodied the more rational and business-minded side of the drug business. It wasn’t easy, Prop Joe himself would say, but he civilized this motherfucker.
Chew also became such a reliably solid performer that Simon says he was inspired to pay tribute to his abilities by writing the showcase scene below, in which Prop Joe (and thus Chew) easily and deftly assumes three different characters in rapid succession while grabbing a little recon for Marlo. "If you remember that scene and Robert's performance," Simon says, "you know everything you'd need to know about how good an actor this man was."