What Mad Men did for smokey, sexy advertising, Public Morals aspires to accomplish for cops, gangsters and molls.
The period police drama is the brainchild of New York native Edward Burns, who was born in Woodside, Queens, and lives in downtown Manhattan with his wife, model Christy Turlington, and their kids Grace, 11, and Finn, 9.
So it makes sense that when he set out to create, write, direct and star in a new series, it was all about the city he calls “my other baby.” In TNT’s Public Morals, premiering Tuesday (10 p.m. ET/PT), he’s a cop (and a dad) with a loose ethics code. The main rule of Terry Muldoon, the plainclothes cop played by Burns: “You do not draw attention to yourself.”
For Burns, the show, set in the ’60s, is all about authenticity. “I wanted New Yorkers to look at it and think, ‘That’s the way the city used to be, and the way it used to sound.’ I tried to cast only born-and-bred New York actors. A New York accent is tricky to pull off. We have retired cops on the show. They have the walk, the cadence and the delivery,” he says.
Burns broke through as the director and star of 1995’s The Brothers McMullen, which took place mostly in his Long Island hometown of Valley Stream and dealt with the relationships of three Irish-Catholic brothers. Since then, his career has been something of a mixed bag, but Public Morals is a passion project he’s been nursing since 1998. He’d long wanted to create an homage to old New York, coupled with a look at police and gangster life at the time.
“I recognized that the audience that used to love independent filmmaking and storytelling, that audience was no longer going to the theater but getting that type of storytelling via TV. You have support for your vision, creative control and a real budget. I went home and dusted off the old scripts,” he says. “I always wanted to do a period cop movie and a period Hell’s Kitchen gangster story,” he says, referring to a West Side neighborhood.
Why, you might wonder? It all goes back to Burns’ family.
“My father and my uncle were both retired city cops,” he says. “You hear all these grand old stories about what the city was like in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I wanted to make a show about guys like that. We couldn’t get it made and I put it on the shelf. It’s been one of my passion projects. I became obsessed with Hell’s Kitchen and Irish history in New York. I wrote four scripts about Irish gangsters, (but) all of those films I could not get made.”
Enter TNT, which offered Burns full creative control.
“When we sat down to discuss the look of the show, we didn’t want it to look like a TV show. We’re filmmakers. Let’s make a 10-hour movie,” he says.
On the show, Burns is a foul-mouthed paterfamilias, who berates his eldest son for being a cut-up in class and embarrassing his family with his asinine antics. Burns in real life is nothing like him, but there are other family connections.
“The older son, James, the scenes that involve him and what it was like to grow up in a house where your father was a tough cop, that’s me and my dad when I’m in the 7th grade,” he says. “That was pretty surreal for me to playing a version of my dad, going old school on my son. In my life, I’m nothing like that.”