Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Jon Polito’s public complaints about the direction of Homicide: Life on the Street got his character killed off in an ignominious manner.
Homicide: Life on the Street debuted in 1993. Based on David Simon’s non-fiction book of roughly the same name (Simon’s book was called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, as he followed the Baltimore Homicide Department around for a year), the series was a critical smash hit. It is still remarkable the high level of quality that the show (particularly writers Tom Fontana and James Yoshimura and producer Barry Levinson in those early days) were able to achieve with Homicide on network television in the mid-1990s. Homicide would not look out of place on HBO in 2016, that’s how ahead of its time was (okay, the 1990s fashion would probably need to be updated a bit).
One area where the show was very faithful initially was in the cops who worked in Homicide. In real life, the mix tended to be older male white detectives and younger male black detectives. That’s what they did on the show, with Ned Beatty and Jon Polito playing two of the older cops on the show, Stan “Big Man” Bolander (based on one of the major characters in the Simon book) and Steve Crosetti, respectively…
The problem, however, was that NBC was not exactly a fan of this approach…
Throughout the history of Homicide, the show’s producers had to constantly fight back against NBC’s network notes, as the network wanted to make the show more commercial. While the show was a critical hit, it was never quite the commercial hit that NBC thought it could be. It debuted after the Super Bowl in 1993, and yet only had a nine-episode first season. Its second season was even shorter! NBC ordered a four episode second season and aired it as a mid-season replacement, putting the hit (but aging) show L.A. Law on an extended hiatus and airing the second season of Homicide in that show’s prized 10:00 PM Thursday night spot. The changes made in the show were enough to convince NBC to order a third season (although they lost the 10:00 PM Thursday spot immediately, as L.A. Law was canceled and a new show called ER took over the time slot and was fairly popular there).
One of the areas where the network really wanted the show to change was regarding age and gender. They wanted more younger detectives and they wanted more female detectives if there was going to be a Season 3. So Crosetti was written out at the end of Season 2 (Bolander was done after Season 3). Producer Tom Fontana assured Polito that the change was a temporary one and that he would bring Crosetti back into the fold as soon as he could. Polito, however, did not trust Fontana. Things went poorly after that. Polito explained the whole situation in a great interview at Groucho Reviews:
We had some conflicts on the show. I was also not in the best of shape: I was feeling very passionately about the show, and I was very annoyed about NBC’s—what NBC was doing with it. I was very passionate about it. I stepped on the wrong toes. And I made a major mistake. I did not know at the time that Tom Fontana—when Tom Fontana tells you, “You have to be dropped now, but I’ll bring you back”—I didn’t believe that because I’d been screwed by so many producers over the years. He is a serious man when he says that. I didn’t know that. I didn’t trust him. So after he said, “NBC wants to get the girl on the show, and they have to replace somebody, and we’re gonna choose you, but I’ll bring you back in the fall,” I instead, very stupidly, went to the newspapers. And I said, rather openly, I said some very vicious comments, both about the way it was being handled by NBC and the way Fontana and Levinson were handling listening to NBC. I was totally wrong because, in fact, the changes they made meant that NBC put it on a better night, and it became a success. But aside from that, I was wrong to jump at Fontana and all that, and not believe in Fontana and Levinson, because they’re great people and would’ve been faithful to me, but I just didn’t trust it because I’d been screwed too many times before. I actually said in one newspaper, “The producers of the show are like the people on the Titanic,” and the writer said, “You mean they’re the captain of the ship?” and I said “No, no. They’re on the iceberg saying, ‘This way. Come this way.'” That’s in print and that was wrong.
Fontana, naturally, was very angry with him.
Later in Season 3, it was revealed that Crosetti had killed himself (his body was discovered after floating in the bay for some time, so it was all quite gross and sad). Once again, Polito was irate, telling reporters: “I’m furious they’re having me commit suicide. It makes no sense. It’s the last thing in the world I would do.” He claimed that Fontana was “trying to destroy the image of my character.”
Fontant then publicly got into it with Polito, saying, “Let me put this as simply as a I can. I think Jon Polito is a very sad and troubled man. I respect him and like him. I only wish him the best in his life and his career.”
Polito countered, “I’m only sad when I have to deal with mediocre people like Tom Fontana. This is a man with very little imagination.”
They sort of made up years later, though, as Polito explained to Groucho Reviews:
I never agreed with my death, and I never watched the show until they called me years later, and we had sort of patched it up and he said “You’ll come back as a ghost,” which I did. Out of respect for them because I realized how right they were in certain ways—and I was wrong to fight them—but I didn’t trust the situation and I was very hurt. That’s a true statement, dear God.
Thanks to Jon Polito, Groucho Reviews, Tom Fontana and Gail Shister (for the second batch of Polito/Fontana quotes).
The legend is…
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