Ed Burns’ new crime drama, “Public Morals,” is a gritty valentine to his police-sergeant father.
Growing up on Long Island and in Queens, Burns was regaled by his father, Edward J. Burns, with stories of his cop exploits. Many of dad’s stories have found their way into the show, which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on TNT.
Burns directs and stars as Terry Muldoon, head of the Public Morals Division, a plainclothes unit of the NYPD specializing in “victimless crimes.” He supervises a tightknit band of officers who crack down on everything from prostitution to illegal craps games.
The actor’s 78-year-old father, who lives on Long Island, served as both inspiration and informal adviser. Muldoon even has the same badge number — 5425 — as the elder Burns did.
“He helped me with the interoffice dynamics,” says the actor-director. “What would the relationship between the captain and the lieutenant be like, what would they share with one another?”
On the vice squad, his father explained that “you didn’t want anyone to know you were a police officer. [You] didn’t have lights on the cars. Or radios in the cars. [You] dressed a certain way to fit in.”
In one episode, Muldoon and his crew arrest some prostitutes, and then take them to grab something to eat. It’s a story drawn straight from the senior Burns.
“If [they] arrested these girls after night court had closed, they’d be sitting all night in jail, so the cops would take the girls out for hot dogs and sandwiches as a courtesy,” says Burns, 47.
Such scenes make being a cop in the ’60s look like a pretty good time, and indeed, “Public Morals” has a lighter tone than the usual brooding, soul-searching Hollywood portrayals of New York police life, like Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico.”
Burns recalls a story that one of his dad’s cop buddies shared. “They got involved in a shootout and they were chasing the guy across several rooftops, and the partner says to my dad’s friend, ‘Can you believe they pay us to do this?’ That’s something I wanted to get across.”
As part of his research for the show, Burns pored over his dad’s arrest records.
“I combed through those to get some sense of what areas had heavy traffic. There wasn’t a street corner in Manhattan where there wasn’t an arrest,” he says. “And nobody gave you their real name.” He mentions one as an example of how silly the game could get: “Cricket Davenport.”
While the main plot of the show concerns Muldoon’s attempts to control the activities of the West Side’s Irish mob, run by Joe Patton (Brian Dennehy), the show also explores what Burns calls “the dynamics of Irish families and the boisterous way we communicate with each other.”
It’s a subject he first tackled in his 1995 hit independent film “The Brothers McMullen,” about three Irish-Catholic brothers on Long Island.
In the new show, there’s a scene drawn straight from Burns’ childhood. Muldoon gives his eldest son, James (Cormac Cullinane), a lecture after he gets in trouble in class with a ball-busting teacher named Sister Paul Eugene (Samantha Buck).
“It is your job to interrupt the class with your asinine jokes,” Muldoon scolds the boy sarcastically. “And that just makes me so proud.”
“That scene is word-for-word from my childhood,” says Burns, who grew up the oldest of two siblings. “You remember getting yelled at . . . That sarcasm was my kitchen.”
Burns shares his own kitchen with his wife of 12 years, supermodel Christy Turlington. They live in Tribeca with their two children, Grace, 12, and Finn, 9. The director’s love affair with the neighborhood began when he was editing his 1996 film, “She’s the One,” on Worth Street, and he hung out at Walker’s, a bar on North Moore Street (which also hosted the premiere party for “Public Morals”).
“I fell in love with how quiet the neighborhood was,” he says. “We’ve been there since 1999. It’s family-centric.”
He attributes the success of his marriage to the fact that both he and Turlingtonare “very close” with their families and have remained in the city.
“We both stayed in New York,” Burns says. “That keeps you in check.”