By Patrick Z. McGavin | For the Sun-Times
Joe Kosala was like a Chicago character actor writ large. With his wide, expressive face and large glasses, he fit the archetype of the tough, elemental and direct authority figure.
A natural humor and intelligence were his stock in trade. Acting was his second calling.
Affectionately known by his peers as “Sergeant Joe,” the 68-year-old character actor who died March 22 was a Chicago police sergeant who graduated from the academy in 1971 and served with distinction for 34 years until his retirement in 2006. Fellow officers once presented him with a special windbreaker emblazoned with the words: “Police Sergeant and Movie Actor.”
“He was old school,” said Sgt. Michael Joyce, who worked with Kosala in the 17th district. Kosala also worked as a sergeant in the 14th and 19th districts on the North Side. “He had a mustache, he wore glasses, so he very much looked like a cop,” Joyce said.
He was also a precursor to Clint Eastwood’s iconic Dirty Harry. One of his defining characteristics on the police force, according to Joyce, was his service weapon: a blue six-inch Smith and Wesson Magnum.
Kosala was a cherished member of the secondary ensemble of police officers who brought their expertise and authenticity to the films of Chicago filmmaker Andrew Davis. Beginning with his 1977 autobiographical debut, “Stony Island,” Davis has shot seven of his 13 feature films in Chicago.
Of Kosala’s eight credits in feature films, Davis directed six of them. With the exception of the engineering specialist he played in the 1992 “Under Siege,” Kosala was cast exclusively as a police officer, detective or lieutenant in Davis’s films, including “Code of Silence,” “Above the Law,” “Steal Big Steal Little” and “Chain Reaction.”
“I first met Joe in probably 1984 or 1985 during location scouting for ‘Code of Silence,’ and he helped us a lot on our films,” said Davis. “He worked as the technical supervisor, and he did a lot for the film. That famous scene in the film where the two guys try to rob the cop bar, that’s a true story that Joe told me and we worked it into the film.”
Davis said the cause of death was from complications of congenital liver failure.
Kosala also played a police officer in Gregory Hoblit’s Chicago-set thriller “Primal Fear.” His last professional credit was the independent 2001 Steve Martin-starring project, “Novacaine.”
By his own admission, his most memorable acting moment occurred during a pivotal early scene in Davis’ most popular film, “The Fugitive,” the 1993 adaptation of the television show. Kosala plays a Chicago detective investigating the death of the wife of surgeon Richard Kimble, played by Harrison Ford. In his most important speaking part, Kosala interrogated Ford’s suspect. In a 1993 Chicago Tribune interview, Kosala said Ford sought to improvise the scene but he quickly found more than than he bargained with in the tenacious and skilled interlocutor Kosala.
“Harrison tried to match me word for word, but he couldn’t because he was in my ballpark now,” Kosala said. “I guess he’s a little bit of a method actor, and at first he thought he could handle it. But he broke down.”
Kosala said Ford was so undone by the experience, he “confessed,” to the imaginary crime. Rather than be elevated for his work as an actor, Kosala was subjected to the black humor of his fellow officers, Joyce said.
“People would razz him and say, ‘You’re not going to get the Oscar for that,'” Joyce said.
Said Davis, “That whole scene was improvised, with Joe, Harrison and Ron Dean. There were other cops around, too, but Joe, he kept it real.”
Kosala’s family history was like the plot of Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli.” His father Walter was a decorated U.S. Army tank commander who served in the European theater in World War II. His mother was a political refugee who met her father at a displaced persons’ camp. Kosala was a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy during the war and then joined the police force when he returned home in 1971.
Patrick Z. McGavin is a local freelance writer.