Chicago Justice Month: Who is Paul Robinette and Why is He Important?

Who is Paul Robinette and why is he important to ‘Chicago Justice’? We fill you in before Richard Brooks reprises his role as the first ‘Law & Order’ ADA.

February is Chicago Justice Month at One Chicago Center. Every day in February we’ll talk about a different piece of the newest One Chicago series, telling you everything you need to know before the series premiere.

The biggest piece of Justice-related casting news was that Richard Brooks will reprise his role as Paul Robinette in one episode. But for those of you who may not have watched Law & Order or don’t remember that Brooks was the show’s junior prosecutor from 1990 to 1993, we’ve created this primer to help you understand why this is such a big deal.

Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette made his first appearance, along with his boss and trial partner Ben Stone, in the Law & Order pilot that aired on Sept. 13, 1990. It’s not known how long Robinette had worked for Stone at that point but he was likely the latest of a few ADAs because detectives Max Greevey (George Dzundza) and Mike Logan (Chris Noth) make reference to how Stone “eats ADAs for lunch.”

However, Robinette wasn’t going anywhere. He proved to be a capable colleague for Stone as they shared the same fortitude but had differing points of view, allowing them to make an effective team that could thoroughly discuss and tackle any case. Between the two of them they covered both sides of most issues.

It was also clear that both Stone and Robinette had a strong sense of wanting to see the right thing done, even if Robinette was less intense about it than Stone was, having come to the law not through conviction but through an outside influence.

Law & Order established that Robinette had been inspired to work in the judicial system by his mentor, Deputy Police Commissioner William Randolph. A particularly heartbreaking episode early on would see Robinette discover that Randolph had become corrupt and been a co-conspirator in a murder plot.

Unlike Stone, who went to an Ivy League college, Robinette was raised in Harlem and worked his way through law school. He was at some point offered an opportunity to work on Wall Street but declined and eventually wound up at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. (Hilariously, the pilot episode depicted Robinette’s desk as being crammed into the end of a random hallway. He had zero personal space.)

Robinette was a very strong character because he was able to have serious and articulate discussions about a number of race and class issues, without existing solely to facilitate said discussions. His race was not a constant factor but one aspect of his well-rounded character.

Still, one of the best moments of Law & Order as a whole came in Season 1, when Stone asks his second chair if he considers himself a black man who is a lawyer, or a lawyer who happens to be black.

Unfortunately, the wonderful discourse between the two characters and their solid dynamic came to an end after Season 3 for off-screen reasons. NBC executive Warren Littlefield gave Dick Wolf an ultimatum to replace some of Law & Order‘s all-male cast with women, and Brooks was one of the two cast members who was let go as a result (the other was Dann Florek).

It was an understandable decision on Wolf’s part since it was easier to replace the supporting characters than getting rid of a major lead like Stone, but the EADA/ADA dynamic wasn’t quite as incisive until Season 18 introduced Michael Cutter and Connie Rubirosa.

The on-screen explanation for Robinette’s departure was never aired but a deleted scene on the Season 4 DVD set involves Stone telling Lt. Anita Van Buren (future Chicago Med star S. Epatha Merkerson) that his former colleague has gone into private practice at a Park Avenue law firm.

That was born out three years later when Robinette made the first of three guest appearances as a defense attorney. Unlike his original run, the character had changed dramatically into someone for whom race and ethnicity were driving issues. His last appearance was in the 2006 episode “Fear America,” where he went so far as to accuse Stone’s successor Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and the entire Manhattan District Attorney’s Office of conspiring to make all Muslims appear to be terrorists.

This much more reactionary version of Robinette lost some appeal as part of the character’s original strength was in his not attacking and always considering the bigger picture. But it’s the second edition that we’ll expect to see in Chicago Justice.

Chicago Justice has enlisted Brooks to play Robinette as one of what will be many defense attorneys, and it’ll be interesting to find out how his viewpoint has changed in the last decade. That’s a long time. Not to mention that he’ll be working around the son of his former partner, and if you don’t think that’ll factor in somehow, we’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn you should see.

But no matter how Justice chooses to approach Robinette in what will now be his third iteration of sorts it’s good to have him back in the fold. He was a wonderful character with strength, poise and lots of promise. As we talk more often now about portrayals of characters of color, he was one we can look back on with pride.

And given how Chicago Justice has connected itself to Ben Stone it makes perfect sense to bring Robinette back. No one in the Law & Order universe knew Stone better (except for perhaps Adam Schiff, but actor Steven Hill passed away several years ago). If that connection is going to be there, it’s worth exploring from all angles.

Robinette will offer an informed perspective and help to bridge that gap – just like he built bridges between himself and Stone almost 25 years ago.

Richard Brooks will reprise his role as Paul Robinette in the official series premiere episode of Chicago Justice, airing Sunday, March 5 at 9 p.m. on NBC.

Chicago Justice premieres Sunday, March 5 at 9/8c on NBC.

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