Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Robert Prosky

DC audiences are mourning the loss of an actor who spent the majority of his artistic life in our midst. He was probably best known for his stint on Hill Street Blues, where he had the unenviable task of replacing the beloved Michael Conrad in the squad room. Conrad, who died of cancer after the show's early seasons, had a catchphrase which became famous, "Let's be careful out there." Prosky's sargeant had his own way of sending his men out into the field: "Let's do it to them before they do it to us!"

Prosky was a multiple Tony nominee (Glengarry Glen Ross, Walk in the Woods) and a long-time presence on big and small screens. He joined Arena Stage in its early decades and remained in the DC area for the rest of his life, making his home and raising his sons on Capitol Hill. Even after Arena disbanded their resident company, Prosky continued to appear on local stages, including a recent stint at Theatre J in Arthur Miller's The Price, a touring production in which he appeared with his two sons. An earlier appearance in a new play at Arena was panned by the Post's theatre critic, and in a very uncharacteristic move, Prosky wrote a now famous letter to the editor eviscerating the critic (the man in question, Peter Marks, reminds us of the incident here). I remember applauding Prosky when I read that letter, which in a way, was an attempt to defend actors everywhere from the opinions of critics who claim objectivity but rarely display any.

I saw Prosky onstage several times here in the city, but more frequently on the streets of Capitol Hill, walking toward Eastern Market. My strongest memory of him took place on the small screen. It was a quiet scene from Hill Street Blues, a holiday episode, though I can't remember if it was Thanksgiving or Christmas. After a day filled with mayhem (each episode covered a single day in the precinct of an inner-city, crime-filled district), the audience watched various characters at home enjoying their holiday meal. Prosky's gruff Sgt. Jablonski was seen alone in a tiny apartment, boiling some bratwurst, which he sat down to eat after sharing a bit with his dog. It was a sad, poignant moment which spoke volumes about the character and his history, brought to tender life by an exceptionally gifted actor.