The LAPD Cops Who Play Themselves on TV
The gig has taken on new meaning at a time of heightened national scrutiny of law enforcement.
Retired LAPD Detective Chic Daniel and LAPD Officer Cody MacArthur. All photos by David Austin
It's late morning on a quiet, sunny neighborhood block of Hawthorne, California. The quaint suburban scene of midsize houses and neatly manicured lawns is punctured only by the telltale signs of a Hollywood film shoot: massive trucks filled with cables, video monitors set up under tents, and a robust crew hustling on and off set.
The shoot is for a scene on the pilot episode of a new A+E show called The Infamous, set in 1990s Los Angeles, and staged outside an old police station, where a crowd of angry protesters are confronting a line of uniformed cops. Darting in and out of the action is Chic Daniel, a retired LAPD detective and the "godfather" of Hollywood technical consulting—although he's too modest to ever actually describe himself like that, according to line producer Peter Feldman.
"I was around for Rodney King, and I was around for OJ Simpson, so this is very familiar in my memory bank of how to deal with these circumstances," Daniel tells VICE. "Having actually been there during this period of time is a big advantage."
The low key ex-cop prefers to describe himself as a "go-between" for law enforcement and Hollywood, and while he refuses to boast about his career, his résumé does that for him. For almost three decades, Daniel has worked in the entertainment industry, guiding writers and actors on how to paint an authentic picture of law enforcement—from the proper way to handcuff a suspect to the protocol for searching a home. Along the way, he and other current and former cops have helped shape America's perception of police—a gig that has taken on new meaning at a time of heightened national scrutiny of law enforcement.
In this case, Daniel is schooling actors on the in-and-outs of crowd control, explaining that real cops try to maintain civility in the midst of a chaotic protest, and only engage if demonstrators become physically violent.
"As a police officer, you have to get used to being in circumstances where people are yelling at you," Daniel says.
For almost a decade, Daniel was working for the LAPD while also moonlighting as an actor on film and TV productions. In 2008, after 26 years with the police department that included a stay in the prestigious SWAT unit, he retired and took on technical consulting for Hollywood full time. He's worked on more than 40 films and TV shows, he says, including roles on recent banner projects like The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story and the 2015 NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.
In Hollywood, according to Daniel, nothing goes according to plan. Conditions can change in an instant and the cast of characters is constantly changing.
"To me, it's a lot like police work," he muses. "Every day is completely different."
Daniel's worked with some of the biggest stars in the business, and on-location productions have allowed him to travel widely. But he's also been the lynchpin to helping writers and creators mold the portrayal of police in pop culture. By helping create what he believes to be legit cop characters and scenarios, Daniel has the chance to show police in a positive light—which some officers argue is vanishingly rare in contemporary news media.
"I think most people's opinion of law enforcement and other segments of society are formed by the things you read and what you see," Daniel says. "So if you're constantly being bombarded with negative images of police officers in a shooting or whatever the circumstances, you start forming this opinion that every police officer does it like that."
In reality, though, "bad shootings" are a very small percentage of police activity, Daniel insists—and often the result of good intentions gone awry. (Some Black Lives Matter protesters and even presidential candidates might disagree.) As a technical advisor on the TV series Southland, which foregrounds the lives of fictional LAPD cops, Daniel was able to help writers shape characters who make mistakes, but often in the process and belief they were doing the right thing, he says.
Over the years, he's compiled a roster of nearly 200 police officers, sheriff's deputies, parole officers, and other law enforcement personnel he can call on for background work or consulting assistance. Many of the officers are even members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Daniel explains, so when a role opens up for a cop character with a handful of lines, he'll refer one of his crew to the casting director.
When actors play cops, wardrobe has to fit them for a costume, props have to give them the proper equipment, and Daniel has to train them on everything from how to stand (typically with their hands on their belt) to how to lace up their shoes.
"The cops come with their uniforms on—they're ready to go. All they have to do is give them a prop gun and a prop badge, and they're ready to work," he says.
So when Michael Mann was looking for a cop to play a small part in the 2004 Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx mystery-thriller Collateral, Daniel suggested seasoned LAPD Officer Bob Deamer. The gregarious, Massachusetts-born cop ended up scoring quite a few lines in the film—and even gets to tussle with Foxx on screen. (Deamer and Daniel first met years back when they were both working on the TV series Robbery Homicide Division.)
Although Deamer now only works on a few projects per year (he doesn't have an agent and doesn't actively seek out gigs), he does like to think he uses the whiff of celebrity for good. The cop runs arts-based youth programs in the South LA community where he's stationed, and he says even his brief appearances in films like Straight Outta Compton have won him influence with kids and teens.
Of course, the experienced cop doesn't exactly mind being part of the moviemaking process, and he's never short on war stories or personal anecdotes to share with writers. "If they like one of your stories, they memorialize it in the film," Deamer says. "That's pretty cool to be part of an art piece in a sense."
And some active-duty LA police officers have nearly taken on second careers as actors. LAPD Detective Jamie McBride's rolodex reads nothing like that of a typical cop—the man describes regularly fielding calls from blockbuster director Michael Bay, kicking it with infamous Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, and bonding with actor Michael Peña at a resort in Mexico when they were both shooting Babel.
A 25-year veteran of the LAPD who currently serves as director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents officers up until the rank of lieutenant, McBride's been acting and advising on sets since 2002.
"I either play a cop or a killer because I have a shaved head and a goatee," he says.
Since then, he's cobbled together a serious resume of experiences, including working under Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñárritu and scoring a role in Michael Bay's Transformers.
"I'm a hack who just gets lucky," he jokes. "A lot of times, I have auditions, and I have to cancel them for police work."
McBride has even gone so far as to dabble in stunt work. In addition to a few episodes on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., McBride took the wheel of a police cruiser in the TV movie Sucker Free City at the behest of Spike Lee. The director asked him to drive during a chase scene and to get the car as close to the camera as possible, McBride recalls.
"So I'm driving like a bat out of hell, and I'm beating the shit of this car," he says.
Racing through San Francisco at 65 miles an hour with his siren flashing at every turn, McBride remembers rounding the corner where Lee and other crew were standing just as his cruiser began to wildly fishtail.
"For a minute there, I thought I was going to wipe out Spike Lee and everyone else," he says.
While some cops catch "the acting bug" after just a few gigs and even quit the LAPD to pursue it, McBride says he's "realistic" about the second career and notes acting is merely a hobby to help pad his pension post retirement.
With the industry's lucrative standards, the scene is a cushy one, as McBride once made more than $10,000 in just a few days of overtime shoots. Like many pro actors, though, he aspires to write his own stuff, too; the cop has already written a treatment for a TV series, loosely based on a plainclothes detail he worked tracking down "violent suspects." It's currently circulating between studios.
Throughout his years in film, McBride has befriended not just celebrities but many struggling actors who, even a decade later, continue to bartend and work side jobs to make ends meet. Which makes this cop think the dream of moving to LA and becoming a movie star—or even an actor who earns a livable wage—is just that: a farce.
"That's a movie," McBride says. "That's not real life."
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*Correction 3/20: An earlier version of this article misstated the year of Chic Daniel's retirement from the LAPD, as well as the name of the LAPD officer standing next to him in the main photo.