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Mobtown Beat

Robert F. Colesberry

1946-2004

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/25/2004

The 20-plus year feature film résumé of producer Robert F. Colesberry initially made Baltimore writer David Simon leery about working with him. In 1999, HBO suggested pairing Simon with Colesberry to oversee the translation from page to small screen of Simon and Edward Burns' book The Corner. Simon, like many members of Baltimore's tight-knit film community, instinctively doubted a Hollywood veteran with producer credits on The Natural, Mississippi Burning, and Billy Bathgate.

Colesberry, who passed away Feb. 9 in New York from complications from heart surgery at the age of 57, was not a desk-and-suit producer, however; he had literally worked through the production ranks from locations manager to second-unit direction before overseeing projects. Ever since his 1999 arrival here to work on The Corner, and his continued relationship with the city--as the executive producer and co-creator of HBO's acclaimed The Wire, maintaining a Fells Point residence for the past four years during the show's eight-month production cycles--Colesberry was a respected member of Baltimore's film family.

"I can't describe what a warm, gentle, funny, and smart man this was," Simon says. "If the work had turned out half as good, if we had fallen on our ass, if the show were canceled today, I would still count the last five years as being wonderful years just for the adventure of doing [The Wire] with everybody involved, but especially what I learned from Bob. The guy was the best partner I could ever hope to have."

Not only was it Colesberry's breadth of filmmaking acumen that impressed Simon, but the fact that he was as decent as he was talented. The Wire has been Colesberry and Simon's ongoing creation since The Corner. Simon developed the stories and Colesberry the visual template. And though Colesberry wore the executive producer's hat, he was also very attuned to the creative process--Colesberry oversaw much of the The Wire's second-unit shoots and directed the final episode of the second season, for example--which helped him foster collegial relationships that extended throughout the production's ranks.

"He was very unique in this business in terms of his accessibility," says veteran Baltimore casting director Pat Moran, who worked on both The Corner and The Wire. "He was very accessible and he was very honest, which is also very unique in this business. He was--in the same way Simon is and [producer] Nina [Kostroff-Noble] are--just a crew member like the rest of us. People genuinely liked the guy, which is very unusual when you're in the position of show runner."

To honor Colesberry--who is survived by his wife, Karen Thorson, also a co-producer of The Wire, two sisters, and 11 nieces and nephews--a scholarship fund has been established in his name at his alma mater, the Tisch School for the Arts at New York University.

Coleberry's passing has left the The Wire's third season, which was scheduled to begin shooting April 12, in a brief limbo; the date may be pushed back as Coleberry's many duties are absorbed by the executive production staff. The show will go on, but his jovial personality and creative presence will be missed on set.

"I just don't know how it will be to start the first day [on set] without seeing him or hearing from him," Moran says. "Also, I'm the kind of person who, no matter how long I've been in this business, I still am very excited and passionate about what I do. And as soon as The Wire would come on with that song ['Way Down in the Hole'], I would get so excited the minute the first note would hit. It was just so great. And now, I think I'm gonna look at it all totally different."

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