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Remembering Bob Colesberry

Even seasoned watchers of The Wire might have missed the fact that the character of Ray Cole was actually played by the series' co-creator, Robert F. Colesberry, Jr. A constant presence from the writer's room to the editing room, Bob was a passionate and integral part of the crew-it only seemed natural that he would appear in front of the camera as well.

This past spring, the Wire family was stunned by the news that Bob had died, of complications from heart surgery. He was 57.

A producer for more than two decades, Bob helped create such varied films as "Mississippi Burning," "After Hours" and "61*." He worked arm-in-arm with some of the industry's best regarded directors, including Martin Scorsese, Alan Parker, Ang Lee and Robert Benton.

As the executive producer of HBO's The Corner, a true-life depiction of urban drug addiction, he was honored with a Peabody Award and an Emmy for best miniseries. He received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his work on "Mississippi Burning," and Emmy nominations for HBO's "61*" and the CBS production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

But to the cast and crew of The Wire, he was the glue that held everything together. David Simon, writer and executive producer of both The Corner and The Wire, remembered that it was an "arranged marriage" that brought him together with Colesberry. HBO wanted an experienced, visually-oriented producer on the project. "I went into that meeting and met Bob thinking, 'Who is this studio-type guy who's going to mess up my words?' Pretty soon, I never wanted to shoot another reel of film without Bob as my partner. He was a consummate storyteller and a trusted friend."

An Improbable Film Career

To those who knew him early in life, Colesberry's successful film career was an improbable outcome. Born in Philadelphia to a prominent family, Colesberry's grandfather, the city's district attorney and a socialite, was "a Philadelphia lawyer when that meant something," according to Colesberry's sister, Jean Brown.

But instead of the Main Line, he grew up in a modest Germantown rowhouse after his father struggled in business and ultimately, with alcoholism. Friends at Germantown High School remembered a talented athlete who did little else beyond hang with the neighborhood boys at the celebrated corner of Wayne and Tioga.

"He wasn't a boy that got into trouble," recalled Ms. Brown, making exception for a single loitering arrest and one notable attempted theft of a ceramic cow from the roof of a local steakhouse. "But he was around the boys who did."

Jill Porter, a high school friend who years later would profile Colesberry for the Philadelphia Daily News, recalled that the young man would attend all four periods of lunch every school day, having little use for classes. "He was nice and had this charm to him," Ms. Porter said, remembering that Colesberry struggled to graduate with his class in 1964. "But we all thought he was going absolutely nowhere."

Where he went, at first, was the Baltimore Oriole minor league training camp in Florida, where Colesberry  having played varsity baseball and football in high school and for the Penn-Delaware semipro league  was recruited as a second basemen. The team helped him to enroll at Miami Dade Community College to protect him from the military draft, but after a lackluster semester there  and a sense that other infielders were a step quicker  Colesberry left school and was inducted by the U.S. Army in 1965. It was in the military, Colesberry recalled years later in interviews, that he straightened out, scoring well in his officer-training class and rising to the rank of first lieutenant and battery commander in the 24th infantry division.

After his discharge in 1968, he enrolled at Southern Connecticut State College, where he played varsity football while at the same time working odd jobs. He was a chauffeur for a New Haven lawyer and for a time owned and operated a neighborhood bar in the summer resort of Wildwood, N.J.

Finding Himself, and Blue Stew

Looking for easy undergraduate fare at Southern Connecticut, Colesberry tried a drama course and flourished. His sister recalled visiting the school to see her brother perform several roles in a campus production of Cole Porter's 'Anything Goes.' "He had found something," she remembered. For his junior year, he transferred to the Tisch School for the Arts at New York University. A fellow student at the time who made a student films with Colesberry, Los Angeles film producer Joel Silver recalled Colesberry as "a great mind... he took to everything about film production right away."

Graduating with a bachelor's degree in film and television in 1974, Colesberry began working on various New York productions as a locations manager and first assistant director, working with filmmakers as varied as Andy Warhol and Bernardo Bertolucci. On the movie "Fame," Colesberry not only served as the first assistant director, but cowrote the B-side to the hit title single, remembered director Alan Parker. "It was called 'Hot Lunch'," Mr. Parker laughed, noting that Colesberry received royalty checks ever after for the feat. "Bob actually wrote the lyric: 'If it's blue, it must be stew.'"

By the early and mid-1980s, he was helping to produce such films as Barry Levinson's "The Natural" and Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy" and, ultimately, in 1985, the critically acclaimed dark comedy "After Hours," directed by Mr. Scorsese. Crediting "After Hours," which won the industry's Independent Spirit Award, as "a time of regeneration in my career," Mr. Scorsese recalled that he "couldn't have made that movie without Bob's help. Working with him on that picture, being around his warmth and professionalism, was one of the highlights of my career."

As Colesberry's star ascended in the film world, friends from the old days were amazed at his progress. Jill Porter remembers going to the movies one night in Philadelphia and seeing Colesberry listed as associate producer: "I couldn't believe it. How many Robert F. Colesberrys could there be?" She got in touch and during the filming of "Falling In Love" with Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro, Colesberry invited her and another high school friend to visit the set in New York. She did so and found that the truant and corner punk she had known was poised, gracious and meticulously dressed. But at one point, Colesberry delighted his old friends by slipping a toothpick in his mouth, hiking up his pants and performing what they knew to be a flawless Germantown Strut, a Philadelphia "soul walk," circa 1963.

High Ground

By the late 1980s, Colesberry, who resided in both Manhattan and Amagansett, N.Y., had become a veteran, hands-on film producer, obsessed with every detail of the projects on which he labored. He reveled in stories that were rooted in reality, and he was passionate about authenticity.

Working with Colesberry on "Mississippi Burning," Mr. Parker recalled his producer making him drive the Mississippi back roads, using historical maps and photographs to find the actual location where in 1963, local police and Ku Klux Klansmen had detained three civil rights workers, whose ensuing murders were the central tragedy of the film. "He was insistent that we be as authentic as we could," said Mr. Parker, who would go on to make two other films with Colesberry. "He was involved in every aspect and he gave his all. As a director, he was always there by your side."

Colesberry was "what you might call a practical romantic, which in my estimation is the definition of the true film producer," said director Bill Forsyth, who worked with him on several projects. At home on both a large-budget studio project and on smaller, less commercial films, Colesberry had a need, Mr. Forsyth remembered, "to believe utterly in what he was doing. But when that belief was intact, his dedication and loyalty were givens, always there."

His pre-production rituals were famous among those who worked with him. He filled reams of yellow legal pads, writing down every thought, phone call, small detail. He would create shot lists and storyboards for every scene days before shooting. And arriving on any new set, Colesberry would always find the high ground at any film set, to get the lay of the land and see where to hide the film trucks.

On a beach in Africa, Mr. Forsyth remembered his producer typically wandering off on his own, climbing a rocky, bush-strewn outcrop, the highest in sight. A local guide spotted Colesberry at the top, reading the landscape. "Does your friend know he's just climbed Lion Hill?" the guide asked. "Do the lions know they're on Bob's hill?" replied Mr. Forsyth.

Colesberry first began his association with HBO in 1999 when he was brought in to help produce a six-hour miniseries based on The Corner, a non-fiction book about a drug-ridden neighborhood in West Baltimore. In addition to best miniseries, The Corner won Emmy awards for writing and directing. "If I ever have a directing career, it's because of Bob Colesberry," said Charles "Roc" Dutton, the noted stage and film actor who directed the The Corner.

Continuing with HBO, Colesberry, a devoted Yankee fan, worked with director Billy Crystal on "61*," the popular HBO film about the relationship between Yankee stars Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle during the 1961 season's home-run race. He then returned to Baltimore for HBO in 2001 to help create The Wire, which was recently named by the American Film Institute as one of the premiere shows on television.

A subtle actor as well, Colesberry had often appeared in cameos in his films  a gangster in "Billy Bathgate," a truck driver in "Come See The Paradise." And on The Wire, of course, he established himself in a recurring role, the hapless Baltimore homicide detective Ray Cole.

"He was good at so many things," remembered Alan Parker. "But I remember telling him that ultimately, he would have a decision to make because he had the eye and talent to be a director." Ultimately, at the urging of his fellow producers, Colesberry took the plunge, directing the last episode of the second season of The Wire. He was slated to direct the opening episode of the coming season as well.

In May of this year, he posthumously received a second Peabody Award for his work on the show.

"He had spent a lifetime in film learning every aspect of his craft, in every way preparing himself to direct," recalled David Simon. "When he finally did so, it all came to him naturally and beautifully. He understood everything about the process of telling a story visually, and he was utterly committed to that process."

Colesberry is survived by his wife of twelve years, Karen L. Thorson, also a producer on The Wire; two sisters, Jean Brown, and Christine Strittmatter; as well as eight nieces and three nephews.

Contributions to the Robert F. Colesberry Scholarship Fund  which will support young filmmakers through annual awards  can be made to the Tisch School for the Arts, in care of New York University, 721 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10003.

Robert F. Colesberry

Executive Producer