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The Consummate Professional: Lance Reddick (1962-2023)

It’s clichéd to say this about someone after they’re gone, but a show or movie changed when Lance Reddick showed up. He brought a quiet intensity and refined gravity to everything he did. So when his face appeared on screen, everything was somehow instantly elevated. Think about when he appears late in Adam Wingard's “The Guest,” taking a film that has been focused on a family and community terrorized by a sociopath and turning it into something much more expansive and intense. His very presence in a scene somehow added stakes to that scene. Oh, wait, we have to take this more seriously now. Lance is here.

Of course, this is much harder than it looks. Sure, having that voice and that striking physical presence helps, but leaning into that gravitas is a skill set that takes refining, and Reddick did exactly that over his quarter-century in the business. He knew how to use his body, his stature, that voice in a way that didn’t feel overly stylized and never seemed desperate for attention. There’s not a single “look at me” moment in Reddick’s career. And yet you couldn’t look away when he was on screen.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Reddick studied music as a child—maybe that’s where the refined rhythms of his screen presence came from—and later at esteemed schools the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, from which he earned a Bachelor of Music degree. He took the careful precision of his music background to acting when he attended the Yale School of Drama next, earning a Master of Fine Arts from that legendary school.

In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Reddick worked steadily in small film roles, but he felt more prominent in television. It’s no exaggeration to say that he helped define the current reputation of HBO, first by starring in “Oz” as Johnny Basil, an undercover cop sent into the legendary prison who is quickly destroyed by the brutal society in Em City. Before you know it, he’s addicted to heroin and a killer himself. Reddick captured a quick fall from grace that was unforgettable. 

But it was his next HBO show that put him on the map and is likely the role that he was most identified with in his career: “The Wire.” As Cedric Daniels, Reddick found the tenor of a man who demanded respect through action more than words. In a show about rampant corruption, Reddick was like shelter in a storm. When he passed last week, HBO tweeted: "Lance has been part of the HBO family for over 20 years, starring in several projects including iconic roles in Oz and The Wire. He is held in the highest regard by all who knew and worked with him and we are proud to be a part of his legacy. He will be missed dearly."

“The Wire” co-creator David Simon also responded: “Consummate professional, devoted collaborator, lovely and gentle man, loyal friend. Could go on, but no, I can’t go on. This is gutting. And way, way, way too soon.” If you want to know what Reddick meant to "The Wire," take a couple minutes and watch one of his best scenes:

After “The Wire,” Lance Reddick alternated film and TV work consistently, notably starring in several memorable episodes of “Lost” and taking main roles on “Fringe” and “Bosch.” He was also a prominent figure in the video game world, voicing a crucial role in the “Horizon” games and really making an impact as Commander Zavala in the “Destiny” series, a game with such a loyal community that they held a sort of digital vigil for Reddick this weekend after he passed. Reddick wasn’t just hired to be in this world, he was a huge fan of it, reportedly playing the game the night before he died.

There was no role too small in film for him to amplify, but his most memorable film work will probably be as Charon in the “John Wick” movies. Star Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski released a statement this weekend that included the same phrase as Mr. Simon: “Consummate professional.” But they also noted how much joy he was to work with. Reeves has spoken before about how much Reddick did with the relatively small part. He always did that. And they ended their statement with five words we all feel today: “We will miss him dearly.” Yes, we will.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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