When Ed Burns was a kid, he remembers his relatives giving him pictures of his great grandfather, these grainy black-and-white shots that hinted at a wild, we-make-our-own-rules-here past. “He’s standing on the roof of his place in Hell’s Kitchen, with giant scissors in his hand,” the writer-director says, sipping a Guinness in a Tribeca bar near his home. “And he’s about to cut the ears of his champion fighting pitbull, this beast with a muzzle on. I asked my dad, what’s the deal here exactly? Seems the old man was in the trucking business, from the teens until the 1940s. I never got confirmation as to whether or not he was a gangster, but…” He pauses for a second and then shrugs. “It started my fascination with the old neighborhood’s Irish Mob, that’s for sure.”
Years later, when Burns was on the set of Saving Private Ryan, his father and uncles came down to visit for an afternoon and started regaling the crew with stories about being New York City cops during the Sixties and Seventies, colorful tales of busting perps and buying meals (“a sandwich or a hot dog”) for streetwalkers who’d missed night court. Afterwards, Steven Spielberg pulled him aside and said, That’s your next movie. “I told Steven that I already had this idea for an Irish-American Godfather — a big father-and-sons saga dressed up in cop clothes and filled with gangsters. He was like, ‘I love it, let’s do it.’ So I was all set with my post-Ryan project.” Burns laughs. “That was 1998. And now, here we are.”
It would take several false starts, abandoned scripts, side roads and the reinvention/revolution of the small-screen medium before Public Morals, his new TV show on TNT, would finally see the light of day. But according to its creator, he’s glad he had to wait. A sprawling, multi-story series involving a 1960s NYC vice squad headed by plain-clothes officer Terry Muldoon (played by Burns himself), it weaves together tales of ethically compromised cops and young prostitutes in peril, family melodrama and the inter-criminal power plays that happen when a mobster bigwig is made to sleep with the fishes. Blessed with actors like Timothy Hutton, Brian Dennehy, Neil McDonough, and a who’s-who of indie-cinema veterans, this ambitious attempt to chart a vintage era of Gotham law and disorder might have felt rushed in a two-hour setting. Given the freedom to tell its story over 10 episodes, however, Burns uses the breathing room to turn his police procedural into a miniature epic.
The result is a complete 180-degree turn from the sort of movies the Brothers McMullen filmmaker had made his name from over the last two decades. “I mean, I’d done a historical crime story before, but not a real historical crime story,” the director says, referencing his Eighties-set gangland opus Ash Wednesday (2002). “The budget was so low that you never really knew it was another decade! But I’d just played Bugsy Siegel on [Frank Darabont’s post-Walking Dead TV show on TNT] Mob City, which takes place in the 1940s. I watched how Frank was on set with no interference, with enough resources to do something with scope, and with the ability to put together a great cast — and I was starting to get jealous of people who made TV shows.