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Lance Reddick Imbued Even the Sternest Authority Figures With Great Humanity

The late actor played characters who should have kept us at a distance, but instead compelled us to embrace them.
  • Lance Reddick in Bosch (Photo: Aaron Epstein/Amazon/Everett Collection)
    Lance Reddick in Bosch (Photo: Aaron Epstein/Amazon/Everett Collection)

    When the news broke on March 17 about actor Lance Reddick’s sudden death at age 60, it wasn’t long before the tributes started pouring out. His fellow actors recalled a generous, meticulously prepared, and humble collaborator, and his fans seemed genuinely gutted on social media, as if they’d lost an old friend. This heartfelt reaction was striking — Reddick wasn’t famous for a long-running role as an affable sitcom dad nor did he wow moviegoers in 3D as a larger-than-life superhero. He mostly played characters whose very natures should’ve kept us at a distance but his performances resonated with such relatable humanity, we were compelled to embrace them.

    Reddick worked regularly, a character actor’s blessing, but he was almost always cast as members of local or federal law enforcement, perhaps due to his sleek, hawk-like features that conveyed authority before he even uttered a line. Reddick’s breakout role was Cedric Daniels, a stern but principled police commander on HBO’s Baltimore crime drama The Wire

    Daniels was no crusading cop, like Law & Order: Special Victim Unit’s Detectives Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Benson (Mariska Hargitay), for whom the scripts always steered in the direction of resolute justice. Nor was he a straightforward, dirty cop, like The Shield’s Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). Daniels would crack down on his officers who cracked heads, but he more often than not stood behind cops even when they’re in the wrong. But Reddick never relished in his character’s transgressions; instead, he found the drama in compromise. As Daniels, he navigated a demanding job the best he knew how. He could berate a superior officer or a hack politician while also accepting the grim realities of his profession.

    Reddick brought similar complexity to the part of Phillip Broyles, a professional and by-the-book Homeland Security special agent on Fox’s Fringe. He’d described his character as someone whose primary loyalty is to humanity but who struggles with how that allegiance is best served. Reddick let you in just enough so that Broyles remained somewhat unknowable, but never so coy that his actions felt unmotivated. In an alternate universe timeline, Broyles betrayed his cause for personal reasons but eventually does the right thing. Reddick played multiple versions of Broyles across timelines and kept them distinct but similar enough for us to care about all of them.

    Along with leading Netflix's Resident Evil, Reddick most recently played Chief of Police Irvin Irving on the Prime Video crime drama Bosch, which aired from 2014 to 2021. Reddick described Daniels as a “cop at heart,” Broyles as a “soldier,” but Irving was “the quintessential politician.” Irving is overly cautious and somewhat ridiculous but Reddick elevated the character, making him a key part of the series’s success. Bosch author Michael Connolley praised Reddick for giving depth to an originally “paper thin character.” Reddick played Irving as manipulative, scheming, but always sympathetic. 

    Black men in positions of authority often must exert a self-control that Reddick conveyed brilliantly while never seeming cold or rigid. He simmered with intensity and was a master with perfunctory dialogue. He communicated the most when he said the least. He wasn’t a showy actor, but you could still see so much occurring underneath the surface. Reddick said in 2010 interview, “Intensity is not something I try to do. It’s just kind of the way that I am.”

    No one could doubt the intensity of his performances, but we might quibble with his personal self-assessment. Despite his filmography, Reddick seemed one of the least intense actors in the business. Photos of Reddick out of character almost always show him smiling, and interviews with the actor reveal a gentle, kind man with an infectious laugh. He came close to tears when discussing his friendship with actor Keanu Reeves, who he’d met while filming the John Wick movies.

    Reddick played against his natural personality for most of his career, and his apparent agelessness might’ve trapped him in certain roles. For instance, Ed O’Neill was 63, only a few years older than Reddick, when he landed the part of Jay Pritchett on Modern Family. He successfully put Al Bundy behind him in large part because he no longer looked that much like his Married… with Children character. Robert De Niro had transitioned from Goodfellas and Cape Fear to Analyze This and Meet The Parents well before he turned 60. But Reddick in 2023 still greatly resembled Cedric Daniels from 2003. It was uncanny but perhaps too limiting.

    Reddick had a true gift for comedy that remained tragically unexplored. As the unflappable front desk clerk Charon in the John Wick films, he provided subtle comic relief. It’s a hilarious performance, but once again not showy. The humor comes from his cool, detached emotional restraint. He spoofed his own TV persona in appearances on The Eric Andre Show, Funny or Die, and College Humor skits. (He’s especially funny in the “Nice Try, IHOP” skit). We can only wonder what a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live might’ve achieved. 

    Reddick’s most prominent roles may have been as more conventional authority figures, but our imaginations cast him as Professor X in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s X-Men or as the charming, slightly goofy lead in a Netflix rom-com. He’s left audiences a stellar body of work, but we can’t help greedily wanting more. Toward the end of his life, the actor had started to take roles that would fit his more gregarious public image. He’d starred as Daddy Warbucks in a podcast update of the musical Annie, and one of his final roles was as Zeus in Disney+’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians. He deserved this next chapter where his personable nature and comedic gifts could’ve taken center stage. It's a great loss that this chapter will remain unfinished.

    Stephen Robinson is a political columnist, arts writer, and theatre maker.

    TOPICS: Lance Reddick