To ask Edward Burns how long he has been working on his richly detailed new TNT drama Public Morals is a complex thing. After all, Burns is a proud Irish-American and native New Yorker, raised up on Long Island as the son of an NYPD cop and the great-grandson of a bona fide Hell’s Kitchen bruiser.
Thus, the Catholic schoolboy turned respected actor/filmmaker has always had tales of Irish-American cops and criminals percolating in his mind — and spilling out into screenplays. And now he has 10 episodes, a stellar cast rich with the New York-bred talent he insisted upon and the support of executive producer Steven Spielberg to flesh out those stories into a juicy character study saturated with the sights, sounds and social studies of the Big Apple in the early 1960s.
“I was always fascinated with the Irish-American gangs that ran the West Side from the 1880s all the way through probably the 1980s, and over the last 15 years I’ve written three or four scripts that had to do with Irish-American gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen,” says Burns, who also plays Morals’ streetwise vice cop and devoted family man Terry Muldoon, a guy determined to protect his extended clan and his home turf from warring factions of the Irish-American mob. “All of those unproduced screenplays sitting on the shelf in my office, I dusted them off because I was building my bible for this world. I’ve always done family stories and this was a way for me to raise the stakes by putting my families in with the cops and with the gangsters.”
After meeting Burns’ dad and uncle (also an NYPD cop) on the set of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg encouraged his multitalented young star to write about guys like them. Nearly two decades later, the senior Edward Burns serves as his son’s “dialogue and atmosphere consultant” — helping to ensure Morals’ cops speak and act authentically for the time — and the inspiration for the strict but loving Terry. In a memorable early scene, Muldoon addresses his older boy’s classroom antics in a no-B.S. manner that should be laugh-out-loud familiar to anyone over 40.
“A lot of the stuff you’ll see in the series, it’s my memories of what it was like to grow up in a cop house and the talks that my father and my mother had with us,” Burns says. “The ‘school fool’ story, that’s me. Terry is my dad and that speech is word for word. When I wrote the pilot, I remembered the first two scenes — the scene at school and then the scene in the car — but I had forgotten how it ended, so I called my dad. Of course he was dismayed at the fact that I couldn’t remember the most important moment, which is the lesson that came at the end: There’s a fork in the road and you gotta choose what kind of man you’re going to be.”
It’s a quagmire that Muldoon and his fellow vice cops face daily — on and off the job — in a town where hustling for a buck is part of the social fabric. “I think we did a pretty good job of being able to empathize with the situation that all of these people are in,” Burns says. “These cops are making very meager salaries, and there’s the temptation to say, ‘This poor guy who ended up with a hooker, who now is going to go to jail — do we really want to arrest this guy and embarrass him in front of his wife and family? Or do you take a little money from him, let him go home, and you have an extra couple of bucks to help pay the rent?’ Or the hooker who’s also a schoolteacher. I have no political agenda with the show. These kinds of stories are so fascinating, so I’m running with it and trying to make the characters and situations as complex as I can.
“When I started writing, I had this idea of doing this story more like a Western set in Hell’s Kitchen — the idea of the gamblers and the gunslingers and the whorehouses and the lawmen who played by their own set of rules,” Burns continues. “In Hell’s Kitchen, you grew up with your gang of friends and, back then, these working-class men would either join the cops and the firemen or, a lot of times, become gangsters. You would find yourself at a bar on a Saturday night hanging out with the guys you grew up with, only half of them are cops and half of them are gangsters. On Monday morning they’d be fighting it out again.”
In addition to Spielberg’s support, Burns says he also feels lucky that his partners at TNT share his New York roots. “Kevin Riley, who’s the head of TNT, me, him and Brian Dennehy (who plays mob boss Joe Patton, who controls the west side of Manhattan) all went to the same Catholic high school on Long Island,” he says. “One of the other executives is Irish-Catholic from Long Island and both of his grandfathers are retired cops. They all get and know the vibe of what it means to be a New Yorker, and they’re all 100-percent behind me in this show has to be made in New York City.”
And with Big Apple talent.
“I wanted to cast as many people who are born-and-bred, authentic New Yorkers,” Burns says. “I did not want anyone to have to come in and fake a New York accent, because I’ve never heard a good one. We found all of these undiscovered, real New York actors, then you add to that. Wass Stevens, who plays Latucci. Michael Rapaport to play Bowman. The woman who plays my wife, Elizabeth Masucci, she’s from Jersey. Katrina Bowden, she’s from New Jersey. It’s not just the accent that I was looking for, but there is a certain attitude that New Yorkers have. There’s a cadence to the speech and you can’t fake that. We were able to, fortunately, find all of these great folks.
“Brian Dennehy was someone that, the minute I wrote the part of Joe Patton, Steven Spielberg said, ‘You have to get Brian Dennehy to play Mr. Patton. That’s who we’re making the offer to.’” Burns adds. “I was like, ‘I couldn’t agree more because I always imagined Patton as the Irish-American Don Corleone.’”
And after that, great actors teamed with other great actors to create some of Public Morals‘ best moments.
“When Brian found out that Peter Gerety was playing Sargent Mike — he had never met Peter before but he knew him from all of his Broadway stage work — you could see both of their excitement,” Burns recalls. “There’s a scene in, I think it’s the fifth episode, where Dennehy and Garrity — these two old lions — get to go toe-to-toe. That’s the kind of day for the cast where we just get to sit back and watch these two great stage actors go at it.”
Public Morals premieres Tuesday Aug. 25 at 10/9CT on TNT