"...a fake Rolex, cheap Italian shoes and a Member's Only jacket"
Kiel Martin - July 26, 1944 - December 28, 1990
The Hand Joke
It takes courage for an actor to portray a fuck up week in and week out. Kiel Martin's J. D. LaRue was that fuck up writ large. Martin would have been 67 today had he not died of lung cancer in 1990. Chain smoking, heavy drinking and twice divorced, it was said he didn't so much act as he played himself.
Stephen Bocho's brilliant Hill Street Blues took the cop show and put it on its Sam Browne belt. Basket weaved into the boiler plate police procedural were long looks into character's personal lives. Many times these diversions were bizarre but almost always honest. The good guys could be bad and the bad guys could be good.
Shortly after graduating from the police academy, I was assigned to the midnight to eight shift with a sergeant who would park our patrol car outside his girlfriend's double wide trailer, instruct me to listen to the radio and if we were called, honk the horn.
Hill Street Blues captured truth and humor in police work rather than the fictional hand jobs given in films like Dirty Harry or Bullitt. It looked into the darkness of people's lives which is where the gold is. And nobody on the show had more gold than J.D. LaRue. Although it was surely plated.
A swaggering detective with a fake Rolex, cheap Italian shoes and a Member's Only jacket, LaRue could have easily been that sergeant I worked for. A huge ego hid a mountain of insecurity, infidelity and drink. Easily hated the first season, his character, like the others, became more complex, sympathetic and real.
So here's to John LaRue and to Kiel Martin. Cooler than fifty Steve McQueens and a hundred James Deans put together. Happy Birthday.