Actor Ato Essandoh speaks at the “Copper” panel during the BBC America portion of the 2012 Summer Television Critics Association tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 1, 2012 in Los Angeles

Looking for a nice change of pace on TV? Perhaps a break from the reality shows?

Consider BBC America’s first original scripted series “Copper,” a drama from executive producers Tom Fontana (“Oz,” “Homicide: Life on the Street”) and Barry Levinson (“Diner,” “Donnie Brasco”), set in New York’s Five Points, Fifth Avenue and emerging African American community of Northern Manhattan in 1864 – immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation.


Premiering Sunday (Aug. 19) at 10 p.m., the series unfolds from the point of view of Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish-immigrant police detective in the crime ridden slum of Five Points. After fighting in the Union Army during the Civil War, he returned home to find his wife missing and their daughter murdered. His drive to find out what happened to them motivates his quest to seek justice for the powerless as a cop – or “copper,” as he is called in the neighborhood.

(L-R) Ato Essandoh, Kyle Schmid and Tom Weston-Jones of BBC America’s “Copper”

A secret from the battlefield has him linked to fellow former soldiers Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) now a part of Manhattan’s upper class, and Dr. Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh), an African American physician who was Morehouse’s valet during the war (pictured above).

Yes, you read right – an African American physician in 1864. Essandoh admits he was equally as shocked.

“The first thing I thought of when I got the script and I was given the part – or even before unfortunately, because of the history of our country – was there were no black doctors back in 1864. That was impossible,” Essandoh told us at the recent TCA Press Tour. “So for an actor, you need to feel grounded in the reality of what you’re doing. I looked it up, and there were actually, I think, six or seven that existed in New York. And the one that I sort of grounded myself with was this guy called Dr. James McCune Smith, who was about 60 in our time frame. So that’s where I found my anchor, and I found the reality of what I could do. Because, unfortunately, the first thing I thought was this doesn’t sound right.”

Ato Essandoh as Dr. Matthew Freeman in a scene from “Copper”

Dr. Freeman assists Corcoran in murder investigations by using modern scientific methods that were considered nonsense at the time. But all of his work for Corcoran had to be on the down low, as the police precinct supervisors would automatically discount a Negro’s pathology findings. Corcoran, therefore, is forced to take all the credit for Freeman’s work.

Dr. Freeman’s wife, Sarah, has an interesting history of her own. Her two brothers were lynched during New York City’s Draft Riots of 1863. At least 100 black people were estimated to have been killed during the three days of rioting – mostly at the hands of Irish immigrants. It is Sarah’s subsequent fear of white men that prompts their move from Five Points to the African-American community of Carmansville.  (The area encompassed the upper part of present-day Harlem and lower part of what would become Washington Heights.)

Below, Fontana explains why Essandoh’s Dr. Freeman character and his forensics work is so fun to write.

Watch the trailer below.