Craig T. Nelson can’t seem to shake authority-figure roles. Best known in the title role of the sitcom Coach, he’s now a police chief in The District, the adventures of Jack Mannion, a veteran cop brought into Washington, D.C., to slash the crime rate.
”What made Coach so much fun to do was that he was a character in a comedy who was tremendously flawed,” says the 56-year-old Nelson. ”He had so many blind spots — he didn’t understand sexism, for example, so it was funny watching him having to engage in a world of political correctness.”
Now, as the flamboyant Mannion, Nelson is in a drama that risks its own skirmishes with political correctness — namely, the notion of a big white guy coming into D.C., known as Chocolate City, with its predominently black population, and presuming to solve the city’s problems.
In the pilot, Nelson’s newly hired Mannion sweeps into the D.C. police headquarters and upbraids a black police official and the city’s black mayor (the latter role has since been recast to feature The West Wing’s John Amos) for their poor records on crime. It’s an audacious scene as shot by Terry George, a feature-film writer (In the Name of the Father) and one of the series’ creators, but one that might be considered racially presumptuous. Nelson says: ”The way Terry has rewritten that character — I mean, God forbid a black guy and a white guy should argue, you know? But there’s mutual respect — I love it.”
Nelson doesn’t shy away from the notion that Mannion might be a divisive character to viewers. ”Hopefully, [The District] will be controversial. Mannion is an equal-opportunity abuser: As long as you’re for him, you’re with his program, it’s great, but God help you if you’re not — he’ll grind ya, he has no compunction about it. What difference does it make [if he’s white or not]? It’s about saving lives.”
The District is based loosely on crime-prevention tactics devised by former New York deputy police commissioner Jack Maple, who’s credited as a creator of the show. Maple sounds a tad defensive about the series, and likens criticism of The District to what he thinks beat reporters do routinely: ”[Journalists] know that if you don’t have a story to write, if you write a [positive] story about a fireman and a bad one about a cop, you can never go wrong.”
The good-cop/bad-cop debate clearly isn’t preventing Nelson from identifying with the role — he even slips back and forth between referring to his character and himself: ”Mannion has a kind of arrogance, and he’s willing to sacrifice himself for an ideal, and I’ll take down anybody who doesn’t want to work with me … You’re either for me or against me.”
Despite the actor-subject bonding, Nelson says he initially had no intention of coming back to series television. ”I was playing a lot of golf and spending a lot of time with my grandkids. I’d finished writing three feature-film scripts” — it’s not widely known that Nelson was a comedy writer for radio and TV before turning to acting — ”but with The District, the idea was to say something that we really needed to hear with practical ideas about how to solve crime. The issues he’s addressing are so important. It gave me a sense of hope, and I want to give other people out there some hope too.”
Spoken like a new and improved coach, albeit one who could eat Jerry Van Dyke for breakfast.