It wasn’t until I saw Scott Caan portray a Newark police officer on “Hawaii Five-0” did I learn there was more to New Jersey than guidos and mobsters. Having lived in Hawaii nearly all my life, everything I previously knew about New Jersey came from “Saturday Night Live.”
Don’t laugh — my knowledge of New Jersey was about as vast as some of the information folks knew about Hawaii before “Five-0” aired on television. Some people still ask me if I “like being stateside” when I’m in the continental US. As Hawaii has been a state since 1959, it’s an easy question to answer. And if you watch “Five-0,” you know Hawai’i folk all wear shoes, have indoor plumbing and the internet (not kidding — these are all questions I’ve been asked in the last year).
When I recently chatted with New Jersey native Mari Ippolito, I learned that, like me, she also wanted to break down a few stereotypes about her home state. She was happy to see “Hawaii Five-0” worked hard to make their characters seem like real people and real police officers, not simply caricatures.
“We love Danno here, maybe because we ʻget’ him,” she said. “He’s like every nice guy we know.”
Ippolito, an art director who grew up near Newark and now lives 12 miles west of the city, connected me with Fred, a veteran sergeant from the New Jersey Police Department. He’s been on duty for 25 years, 17 as a patrol sergeant working “in the field.” They were both integral in providing me with a very clear picture of what a “real New Jersey” police officer is like, and both agree Det. Danny “Danno” Williams hits the mark.
“New Jerseyans are so often misrepresented on TV and in films,” said Ippolito. “We’re portrayed as badly accented, ‘My Cousin Vinny’ wannabes with bad hair and tempers. No one here says ‘Joisey’ and we’re not all criminals.
“Most of us are second and third generation Americans who work hard and are formally educated, often because our parents or grandparents didn’t have the chance to go to college. Yet, we love Springsteen and/or Bon Jovi and have earned our reputation for toughness.”
Much like the character Caan portrays, Danno loves his pizza “mootz, sauce, and dough” and has been known to proclaim his love for Springsteen. I asked Ippolito if she looked forward to seeing Danno as a Newark police detective.
“I was intrigued,” she said. “I thought, ʻplease don’t let him be a stereotype.’ We’ve been embarrassed enough by poorly written characters and reality shows that make us collectively cringe.”
As she watched the pilot episode, she got a call from her cousin, a NJPD Police Lieutenant.
“As we watched, we saw Scott Caan’s portrayal of Danno and we were thrilled! He didn’t have greasy black hair; he didn’t have an accent (we are often portrayed with bastardized Staten Island accents); he was smart, sarcastic, and funny; he talked fast; and he was a good, honest cop,” Ippolito said.
“Five-0” fans love the fact that Danno is a good cop. Much has been said about how he wants to play by the book and that if he has a pet peeve about his intrepid partner McGarrett, it’s that sometimes McG doesn’t like to do things “like a cop.” Not that McGarrett wants to break laws or go rogue, but he definitely has a different idea of standard operating procedure.
When I asked Sgt. Fred about working with a partner and fellow officers, he was very candid about his experience.
“You spend more time with your partner and police family than you do with your spouse, so you form a certain bond that you don’t have with anyone else,” he said. “I know it’s a cliché, but your life and well-being literally depend on your partner and the guys you work with.”
When he said this, I immediately thought of Danno’s relationship with McGarrett. They depend on each other and it’s definitely part of the reason why we enjoy watching the show.
It was great to also hear Caan’s portrayal of Danno rang true on several fronts.
“As a New Jersey native, I was thrilled at the research that must have gone into the character on the part of Peter Lenkov, who wrote the pilot,” said Ippolito. “Danno had all the mannerisms, rants, and flailings of a real Jerseyan, the dedication and honesty of the cops I’ve always known, and the fierce love for his daughter that made him so likable.
“The references the character makes: ‘I’ll go real Jersey up in this thing’ during a cargument with McG, as well as the pronunciation and use of colloquiums, like ‘Mootz’ for Mozzarella cheese, are spot on. Before the third episode aired, I’d discussed the show with several cousins and friends who are all active or retired Newark cops and detectives. They love Danno. I love him, too. He represents.”
While Ippolito was definite about Danno’s accuracy as a New Jerseyan, Sgt. Fred helped me to understand the day-to-day life of a New Jersey police officer. It was very interesting to hear his take on police work and how evidence was handled. Although he was not a detective during his years on the force, he did have extensive experience with crime scenes.
“In most departments, the Patrol Division handles the initial call, the securing of the crime scene, the initial report, and any tagging of evidence,” he said. “Once the detectives show up, they take over.
“Some cases, such as homicides, could take months or even years to come to an end. I’ve worked some homicides that were pretty gruesome, but again, even when I had to go to court to testify, it would only be about my initial involvement, not the entire case.”
I asked him how the NJPD would set up a task force like the one we see on the show.
“A task force is basically a group of handpicked individuals assigned to address a specific problem,” he said. “As a sergeant, I would relay information concerning a specific issue to my captain. If it could be done on the patrol level, I would pick a few individuals I thought could get the job done, let them work plain-clothes for a while, and then, after a set amount of time, re-evaluate the situation.
“If it was something that required a long term response, such as a drug or gang problem, it would be sent to the appropriate division and handled there.”
His answers reminded me a lot of what McG was tasked with doing by Gov. Jameson in the pilot. When asked about the most rewarding part about being a cop, his answer sounded pretty familiar.
“The look of satisfaction on the faces of people and the thanks you get when you know you’ve done the right thing for them,” he said. “Most of the time, patrol work is boring and uneventful. There are times when you have to be a psychologist and marriage counselor all rolled up into one. And being a detective is more paperwork and hard work than anything else.”
Sgt. Fred also shared his opinion on how police officers are portrayed in the media.
“We have all heard of the ‘Blue Wall of Silence,’ … but it’s not so much a wall of silence as it is a wall of not understanding what we go through. There is a thin, thin line between what we do in a split second and what the general public views as criminal.
“Unless you’ve walked in a cop’s shoes, you will never understand what it’s like. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not easy to become a police officer. If it was, everyone would be doing it. So, yes, we have an affinity for each other and we tend to hang out together as individuals and as families. (And) we don’t tolerate crooked cops, thank you very much!”
So Danno turning his ex-partner in for being dirty, how the Five-0 team has formed a close-knit ʻohana, that they only seem to trust each other — all are true of cops in real life, too.
“Danny Williams is a character we are proud to ‘claim’ as a New Jerseyan,” said Ippolito. “He’s what the cops I’ve grown up with are really like; dedicated, hard working and very loyal to their families, their jobs and their partners. They miss a lot of family events because they’re busy keeping us safe. They struggle with missing family time, just like Danny does, but they’re there when they’re needed.
“All that said; bravo ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and thank you, Scott Caan, for giving us a character we are proud to call one of our own.”
I appreciate “Hawaii Five-0” seems to get more than just police procedure right — they get the characters right too, and this is why fans tune in every week.