Unearthing signs of the ’60s in New York

The Bulletin
The Bulletin

NEW YORK — Tourists walking in New York look up at the skyscrapers and blinding billboards. Locals look down to avoid stepping in gum or whatever. Edward Burns lately has been looking here, there and everywhere when he strolls the city: at stoops, windows, cornices, railings. He has been looking for the 1960s.

Burns, an actor, director and writer who first came to prominence in 1995 with the Sundance prizewinning movie “The Brothers McMullen,” is bringing his indie-film sensibilities to television with a new series called “Public Morals.” Shot entirely in New York, it is a cop-and-gangster tale set in the early 1960s. That has had Burns keeping an eye out for places in the fast-changing city that still look more or less as they did a half-century ago.

“Once I started writing the script,” said Burns, who is writer, director and a star of the series, “I would just walk around the city with my phone, taking pictures of any old building I could find that hadn’t been power-washed, that still had the wooden front doors and wooden window frames and the old wrought-iron gates. Old sidewalks. Cobblestone streets. Anything like that that I could find.”

The series has its premiere Aug. 25 on TNT, and it’s a leap for the network, which recently has been trying to broaden its original programming. The show focuses on a squad in the New York Police Department that deals with vice crimes — gambling, prostitution — and its alliances and clashes with an Irish-American gangster family.

Worlds away from a murder-per-episode police procedural, it is thick with characters living in a morally gray zone, calling to mind shows like “The Shield” and “The Wire.” Burns’ character, a cop named Muldoon, is related through an uncle to the gangster operation, and he and the rest of the officers work a balancing act in which they sometimes enforce the law and sometimes take bribes not to enforce it. It’s an atmospheric treatment that asks viewers to invest in interweaving storylines spun out slowly, and for Burns that meant casting a lot of New York actors and sending them out on the street.

“It was very important to us that this was a ‘real’ New York show,” he said. “I’ve said for years that the best co-star an actor can have is a New York street corner, and we did not want a show that took place entirely on a soundstage.”

Despite all those glass skyscrapers, capturing an early ’60s look wasn’t as hard as you might think, Burns said.

“If you put a bunch of old cars on the street and dress your extras up in the period clothes, there are still blocks and blocks that pretty much look the same,” he said. “We’ll go in digitally afterwards and maybe have to erase some air conditioners or a more modern sign or the blinking hand instead of ‘Don’t Walk’ and ‘Walk,’ but there’s enough.”

There’s enough, but sometimes you have to move quickly. Giving a walking tour of locations the show used in Tribeca, Burns pointed out a vacant lot at Desbrosses and Washington streets that until recently held an imposing if somewhat neglected-looking eight-story building with the look of old New York. Hearing that the structure was about to be demolished, he hurried a crew over, stuck one of his actors, Keith Nobbs, in a phone booth outside it and shot a scene that turns up in episode seven. “We got to it about two weeks before it was torn down,” Burns said.

“Public Morals” is aiming for a particular time period, but what it is not aiming for, Burns said, is a lot of specific references in the style of “Mad Men.” “We’re never going to identify what year, or even what time of year,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be a show about the ’60s and have it go from event to event.”

Instead, he said, he took a lesson from old Westerns that he loves. “With a lot of those films, you never had a sense of, ‘Oh, this is 1880s Old West, as opposed to 1850s Old West,’” he said.

His character is a sort of linchpin who keeps both officers and gangsters in line but who also has a home life that includes a son with disciplinary problems at school. Michael Rapaport plays a fellow officer who falls into an odd interdependent relationship with a call girl. Brian Dennehy, as the godfather of the gangsters, has a simmering coup to keep an eye on, as well as a volatile son (Neal McDonough) with strong ambitions.

Although he was born in 1968, after the show is set, Burns has drawn on personal connections to create the series. His father and an uncle are both retired New York police officers, and his father, he said, “really helped me with a better understanding of what the relationships were like within the Police Department — how might the captain treat the new kid who shows up at the office, what those exchanges might be like.”

Oh, and the gangland side of “Public Morals” might also be represented in his gene pool. At his office in Tribeca, Burns pulled out some old family photographs of a great-grandfather, on his roof in Hell’s Kitchen apparently preparing a pit bull for dogfighting.

This article was originally published on the The Bulletin website.