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by mark spitz for maxim:
Ten years ago this month, The Wire premiered on HBO and… almost nobody cared. The Baltimore saga of cops and dealers, junkies and politicians, poverty and hope, polarized critics, was ignored by the Emmys, constantly struggled for ratings and faced cancellation more than once. But it also inspired a future President, created a bona fide American folk hero, and helped launch the current “Golden Age” of television. Now for the first time ever, the creators, writers, cast and crew recall the making of an American classic.
In the mid-1980s David Simon, a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, met Ed Burns, a homicide detective in the midst of a major case involving local drug kingpin and folk hero Melvin Williams. Key evidence in the case was gathered using wiretap surveillance.
David Simon (creator, executive producer, writer): Ed was the lead investigator. It was Melvin’s third and hopefully last arrest, and I was assigned to do a story on who he was and why he kept coming back.
Ed Burns (co–executive producer, writer): It was supposed to be fully confidential, but David had a lot of friends in the police department, especially in Homicide. So he went to the Police Commissioner and asked if he could follow the case. David has a lot of luck with police commissioners.
David Simon: It was the first time I had ever been allowed in there. Ed was forthright and honest in answering my questions, but the case had not yet gone to trial so he had a lot he had to be cautious about.
Ed Burns: He said “I’ve got permission to follow this, and I’d love to know what’s going on. I won’t write anything until the case is wrapped up, but I’d love to hear some of the wire taps.” And I said to him, “You know, quite frankly, I’d like you to hear them too so I can lock you away for 10 years.” Because that’s the punishment for listening to wire taps if you’re not authorized. He followed the case, and we became, I wouldn’t say friends, at that time, but I trusted him. He knew how to keep his mouth shut.
David Simon: Ed talked cautiously. He was polite and honest but at some point I thought, “Man, if I could talk to him outside the office, he might loosen up a little bit,” so I called him and asked. We met me at the Towson Library, and he had a stack of books in front of him. Not to be stereotypical, but I didn’t expect it from a Baltimore cop. I said, “You’re not really a Baltimore cop are you?” And that was Ed. He’s a complete autodidact.
Simon embedded with the department for the better part of 1988. His 1991 book,Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, is a pulpy, funny, and heartbreaking tale of elusive criminals and “thinking cops.” Then, with a now-retired Burns, Simon spent another year interviewing junkies, dealers, and more cops. The result was The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Homicide was eventually turned into a gritty series on NBC, while The Corner was made into an Emmy-winning miniseries on HBO.
Method Man (Calvin “Cheese” Wagstaff, Proposition Joe’s gang): We had a taste of what The Wire was before The Wire came out when they did The Corner. It was like Star Trek compared to Star Wars. Star Trek was good, but you wanted to see more detail. I wanted to see some space fighting. When Star Wars came out it blew my fucking mind.
Chris Albrecht (former chairman and CEO, HBO): The response to The Corner was far beyond anything we imagined. When David came in with The Wire, his original pitch was, “I wanna do the most in-depth look at a police investigation that’s ever been on TV.”
David Simon: I had discussions with Carolyn Strauss (at HBO) and they were willing to look at the idea of a pilot script. The idea of doing something in the world of the drug war. So we submitted three scripts. And during that writing process, that’s when we put together McNulty and the Barksdales
Casting director Alexa Fogel auditioned future Wire stars like Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka in Season 2) and Seth Gilliam (Ellis Carver), among others, for the show’s two de facto leads, Officer James “Jimmy” McNulty on the law’s side and Russell “Stringer” Bell on the dealers’ side. As the deadline approached, she took the unusual move of casting two Brits, Dominic West from Sheffield and Idris Elba from London.
Alexa Fogel: Idris came very close to getting a movie that I was casting before The Wire. I really wanted him to get this part and he didn’t, so when The Wire came up I told him to come to this audition without his British accent. And it was the right thing to do. I think you can be scared off when you’re telling such a particularly American story.
Hassan Johnson (Wee-Bey Brice, Barksdale gang soldier): Idris, I know how powerful an actor he was in the UK, and then coming to the States, he was hungry, the fire was in his eye. You could see it.
Idris Elba (Russell “Stringer” Bell, Barksdale gang): I’d lived in America for a while at that point, so it was like training all day in life—getting a bit of an acute ear for it. I wasn’t perfecting my accent. I was just living life, trying to survive. Stringer was a smaller part as written, but I was given an opportunity, so I’m taking it.
Alexa Fogel: With Domenic, on the page that character was very different physically and age wise. We exhausted our ideas and possibilities and I was pretty desperate. We had not cast this role really close to shooting the pilot.
Dominic West (Officer James “Jimmy” McNulty): It was just another audition tape to send off to a casting director. I suppose the thing that was going through my mind was how I spent most of my boyhood running around pretending to be Starsky or Hutch, so it was something of a fantasy for me to play an American cop.
West’s easy chemistry with Wendell Pierce, already cast as Detective William “Bunk” Moreland, helped secure the role. Clarke Peters, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Seth Gilliam, Domenick Lombardozzi, and Jim True-Frost made up the show’s cops, some of whom embedded with the local authorities and learned how to portray “natural police.”
Seth Gilliam (Sgt. Ellis Carver): Ed Burns said to me once, “You know, this isn’t the kind of cop show where you’re going to be pulling a gun. You might not even fire it. You’re not gonna be T. J. Hooker–ing it.”
Domenick Lombardozzi (Thomas “Herc” Hauk): We were doing some ride-alongs with the police officers there, and they took us to some really seedy parts of town.
Wendell Pierce (Det. William “Bunk” Moreland): I actually was in the (interrogation) box with a couple people as they were asked questions, and then I hooked up with real “Bunk.” He took me around, telling me stories about Homicide, introducing me to all these other cops. “This guy is going to be playing me in this new show. Come here Bunk!” He called people Bunk. It comes from the military. Your bunk mate.
Delaney Williams (Det. Sgt. Jay Landsman): I didn’t even know there was a real Jay Landsman until the end of the first season. I wasn’t told a lot. I’m something like 30 characters down the cast list.
Sonja Sohn (Shakima “Kima” Greggs): In my own history, I had a very conscious dislike for law enforcement, and in order to play a cop I had to get over that. So I made an effort to get to know some detectives. “Why did you become a cop?” “Who are you as an individual?”
Deirdre Lovejoy was cast as the Asst. State’s Attorney and McNulty’s erstwhile girlfriend, while local actors were cast as cops and dealers.
Deirdre Lovejoy (Rhonda Pearlman): I never thought of myself as any kind of romantic anything, but it’s the first day of work and Dominic is on top of me! I’m usually not the girl who has to sit there with her clothes off, but it is cable, so the clothes are off. Dominic said to me, “Oh, last week I was on top of Renée Zellweger!”
Clark Johnson (director of the pilot; editor Gus Haynes, Season 5): The show is legendary for street casting. We’d find people in the neighborhood.
Anwan Glover (Slim Charles, Barksdale gang enforcer): I was born and raised in D.C, like 30 minutes away, and, you know, it was just like being in it in my own life…but you can get up without having the real wounds.
Chad Coleman (Dennis “Cutty” Wise, ex-soldier, boxing coach): Crack just obliterated the city, and gave it a certain desperation and hardness. I grew up around that sort of stuff. I wasn’t in the projects, but I was three blocks away.
Clarke Peters (Det. Lester Freamon): I wound up buying a house in Baltimore, and when I go back I see some of the characters who were just extras, whether they’re bartenders or councilmen or street people. They’re still there. They’re like, “That was your gig, but this is our life!” It’s surreal.
You can’t have a saga about the war on drugs without showing the toll on the addict. The key role of Bubbles, the heroin junkie and informant, went to New York stage actor Andre Royo.
Ed Burns: Bubbles was actually a real guy. He had basically a photographic memory. He could spot faces. And Andre did a superlative job.
Andre Royo (Bubbles): I was excited be-cause, you know, HBO at the time was Sunday night. Me and my lady puffin’ a blunt. It wasn’t like the networks. It was that channel with real writing, real actors, real stories. So I was excited till they said they wanted me to audition for a junkie named Bubbles. I went in, and David Simon was there, and I said, “Look, I’m not doing any characteristic junkie. I’m not cracking. I don’t wanna be the comic relief.”
And then there was Omar Little, a gay stick-up man who lived by a profanity-free code. With his facial scar, cigarettes, and personal warning call (“The Farmer in the Dell”), New York–born actor Michael K. Williams would create possibly television’s last true rebel folk hero.
David Simon: Omar was a combination of various guys Ed had used as informants or knew. He was an amalgam.
Ed Burns: The Omars of the world are warriors, too. They’re the guys who despise the drug dealers. He’s the rebel, and he goes by his own code. When I was a cop, you’d look for guys like this. If you’re sticking up drug dealers, you have to carry a gun. And if you’re carrying a gun, I can lock you up. Pretty simple math. Once I lock you up, then we sit down, and we start talking, and then we start going to the State’s Attorney’s office, going to the judge, making deals. So I knew a lot of Omars, and Michael K. Williams did a phenomenal job.
Alexa Fogel: I remembered him very distinctly from when he’d auditioned for another series, but I couldn’t remember his name. So I went through all my notes until I something about the scar on his face and then brought him in for The Wire.
Michael K. Williams (Omar Little): Ninety-nine percent of Omar was on the page when I came to the table. The main thing I brought was that I needed for Omar to look and sound like a local. I didn’t want him to sound like a dude from Brooklyn.
Wendell Pierce: Michael is transformative. There’s a reason why people are so attracted to his character, because the depth of his work. Michael is the complete opposite of Omar, but he tapped into something that was brilliant.
Unlike most TV series, The Wire filmed on the streets it depicted, and many of the New York–, L.A.-, and London-based cast and crew were quickly given a taste of life in Baltimore.
Andre Royo: They called me and told me I got the part of Bubbles, and my wife got excited. “Oh, shit! You got the part!” Packing her bag for L.A., and I’m like, “Nah, nah, we filming in Baltimore.” And she unpacked real quickly: “I’ll see you when you come home.”
Hassan Johnson (Wee-Bey Brice, Barksdale gang soldier): Baltimore was a culture shock.
Lance Reddick (Col. Cedric Daniels): I feel like in terms of authenticity, the locations were chosen so carefully by people who actually knew the city.
Larry Gilliard Jr. (D’Angelo Barksdale, Barksdale gang dealer): I grew up in West Baltimore, and I remember reading the script and seeing the streets and the neighborhoods, and I’m like, “I know exactly where these places are.”
J. D. Williams (Preston “Bodie” Broadus, Barksdale gang dealer): “The Pit” [where Bodie, D’Angelo, and the other Barksdale employees dealt] was in a courtyard of an actual housing complex.
Michael B. Jordan (Wallace, Barksdale gang dealer): This is some real shit. It was real to the point where crackheads would come up and try to cop. I had fake money, and they would come over, and an exchange would go down. I would think they were part of the crew, and I’d make the exchange. Then security would come around and be like, “No! No! No!” and break it up. I was like, “Oh, shit! That’s really a crack-head! I’m sorry! I’m not really a drug dealer!”
Clarke Peters: Having spent so much time in England, Baltimore was a wonderful education on American politics, American history, American society. And although this was centered in Baltimore, it was easy to see in a very short period of time how Baltimore was just every major city in America.
Wendell Pierce (Det. William “Bunk” Moreland): The great thing about shooting in Baltimore was we were each other’s best company. We worked hard, long hours, but we partied hard, too, man. One bar made the mistake of having celebrity-bartender night. It happened one time, and one time only! That’s all I need to say!
Idris Elba: We smoked a lot of good weed, did a lot of strip clubs. A lot of that.
Michael B. Jordan: I kind of grew up around Idris and Wendell and Clarke and everybody. I would just tag along, going to strip clubs. I became a man in Baltimore with those guys
John Doman (police superintendent William Rawls): At one point Clarke Peters bought a house and a bunch of us used to stay there. It was like a college fraternity.
Seth Gilliam: I got Domenick into Madden football, so we used to hold tournaments. It always seemed to work out that the cops were playing against the crooks. We’d play five, six hours in a row. It was intense.
Dominic West: Socially, it did sort of polarize around cops and gangsters. The police tended to go out with police, and the gangsters tended to go out with the gangsters.
John Doman: Two thirds of the cast I never met. I never had any dealing with the drug dealers. When I was there, it was just the cops.
Jim True-Frost (Det. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski): You felt truly like an ensemble, and you know some people naturally have bigger egos than others but it was really like being a part of a troupe, an acting troupe or a military troupe. Everybody was very much pulling the cart together.
Michael K. Williams: It’s a love affair that I have with those brothers and sisters. Dominic West? That’s by brother from another mother. We took care of each other down there. We partied, we ate together, we got mad together, we laughed and we cried together.
When The Wire debuted on June 2, 2002, its pace and style drew mixed reviews, and the show’s ratings were low compared with two of HBO’s biggest hits, The Sopranos andSex and the City. Still, it was compelling television and soon built up a fervent fan base.
Michael Kostroff (Maurice Levy, Barksdale gang lawyer): The first season was on the air, and people were really freaking out about it, and the HBO website was lighting up with comments.
David Simon: We realized, “Hey, not only is it turning out well, but we might get a second season!” That was when I could say to Ed, “Now, there’s a reason to quit your job, because this thing has legs.”
Jim True-Frost: We basically were living it as it was written. We would get the script just days before, or moments before, the beginning of a shooting schedule.
Wendell Pierce: One day David came up to us when we shooting and said, “I’m writing a scene right now for you guys, and I want you to do the whole scene, but you can only say the word fuck.”
Domenic West: 44 fucks? It’s about 20 too many. We even added some in post-production. It came out of something a cop had said to David once, and he thought that he could write an entire report only using the word fuck.
Tray Chaney (Malik “Poot” Carr, Barksdale gang dealer): Every time I got a script, I would look and see if Poot lived through that episode: “Yo, let me see if I’m still going to have a job tomorrow.”
Larry Gilliard, Jr.: It was exciting to get a new script up until people started dying. Then it was scary because nobody was safe.
Domenick Lombardozzi: First you would see if you were going to die, and then, as long as you didn’t die, you read the script, then you read it again, and then you were like, “Fuck, I can’t wait for a week from now when I get the next one.”
As the first season wound down, Simon and Burns decided to kill an audience favorite, the teenage dealer Wallace. This became a Wire tradition.
Michael B. Jordan: David Simon told me when I got the script for Episode 12—he was like, “Look, Mike, we love you, everyone loves you. That’s kind of why we have to kill you.”
J.D. Williams: Part of me was like, “This is insane!” but part of me thought it was a good thing for him. Death scenes are basically what actors live for.
As Simon and Burns began planning Season 2, they decided to minimize the story of the drug street wars and focus the action on another part of the city.
David Simon: Midway through Season 1, I remember saying to Ed, “Now we gotta go find a working-class story.”
Ed Burns: It was David’s idea to go somewhere, so it wouldn’t be just a ghetto thing. At one point in the first season, McNulty is asked, “If you’re transferred, where wouldn’t you want to go?” And that led us to the docks.
David Simon: Ed said “You know we’re not done with this one yet,” and I kept saying “I know, but we have to start breaking the city down now or we are truly are doing just a cop show.” Ed was a little bit resistant then, but classically, as soon as we started learning about this stuff he was fascinated.
Alexa Fogel: It was casting a whole new set of characters for a whole new story line each season.
Domonic West: It seemed mad in the second season to spend so much time building up this incredible bunch of characters and then to do this incredible left turn.
Season 2, which premiered in the summer of 2003, is essentially a murder mystery. A shipping container full of dead women is discovered by newcomer officer Beatrice “Beadie” Russell (Amy Ryan) and exposes the shadow world of black-market importing, as well as the uneasy alliance between the dock workers’ union leader Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer)—along with his son Ziggy (James Ransone) and his nephew Nick (Pablo Schreiber)—and criminal mastermind the Greek (Bill Raymond), with his partner Vondas (Paul Ben Victor), whose money keeps the dying waterfront alive.
Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka, union leader): There was true inspiration—people down on the waterfront who I wanted to honor and respect. People who basically just broke their backs, and their dads did before them. I can’t tell you how much time I spent in bars on the waterfront there.
James Ransone (Chester “Ziggy” Sobotka, dock worker): I remember my dad talking about the de-unionization of steel workers in Baltimore. This was not foreign to me, being a problem for middle-class people.
Pablo Schreiber (Nick Sobotka, dock worker): I was living in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and there’s still a little bit of the dock culture down there. So I felt right at home. And I watched On the Waterfront again. But Baltimore is such a city unto itself. I’ve never seen a place that has such amazing and spectacular wealth so close to such horrendous poverty.
Amy Ryan (Beatrice “Beadie” Russell, Port Authority police): We called it Small-timore for a long time—but I loved it. I loved living down there on the harbor, listening to the boats clank.
As opposed to Season 1, where bullets fly in the projects, much of the illegal activity takes place in a deceptively serene diner over endless cigarettes and cups of coffee.
Paul Ben Victor (Vondas, the Greek’s second-in-command): For me it was about getting a decent Greek accent. I said, “I need a cup of coffee and some Marlboro Lights.” The problem is, once I did it, then it became a crutch. I remember smoking, like, seven cigarettes in a row, and it was not pretty. “This can’t be good for me!”
Chris Bauer: That air of mystery they had really helped energize that dynamic. Who are these people? Where do they live? I don’t wanna know.
Seth Gilliam: Me and Domenick got frustrated because we were doing a lot of sitting around. We went to David Simon one day and said, “What’s the deal here?” He said, “There’s a long-term plan for your characters, and we’re not phasing you out.”
Michael K. Williams: Season 1 I was just happy to have a gig. I was frivolous with the money. It was all about party time. Season 2 I got real antsy. I thought David Simon bamboozled the black cast when he brought all the white actors in to tell the docks story line. I was like, “This is some bullshit!” But midway through Season 3 I saw that this was bigger than me.
Michael Kostroff: Every season it was a battle with HBO to get the show back on the air. From what I heard, they threatened to cancel it every season.
John Doman: I understand Sopranos was their huge hit so they put a lot of money behind it, but they put very little behind The Wire. We were kind of an underground thing for a long time. I think because David and Ed are kind of outsiders – they’re not part of the Hollywood scene – that the show just kind of got ignored.
Chris Albrecht: The show stayed on because [then HBO president] Carolyn Strauss and I liked it. We’d make David wait. We’d agonize over the decision, and invariably David would write us a long, sometimes vitriolic, but always searingly intelligent letter. And we’d go, “Fuck it. Let’s do it.”
Despite winning a Peabody Award for excellence and public service in television for Season 2, the show never won an Emmy.
Andre Royo: It was crazy. We saw our audience get bigger and bigger, and then come the SAG awards, the Emmy Awards, the Golden Globes—nothing. We were like, “Well, what the fuck is going on?” And David Simon, he was so cool. He was like “Fuck the awards, I’m not about that. I’m about telling a good story.” He was on interviews, like, “We don’t need that.” And some of us, in the back of our heads were like, “Yo, stop sayin’ we!”
Amy Ryan: We would shake our heads, going, “Why are we being overlooked?” It was maddening, but it also didn’t matter, because we knew.
Wendell Pierce: That’s politics. That’s the politics of outside New York and L.A. That’s the politics of race. We had a running joke where after every nomination, this one woman in the hair department would be so hurt, you know, “You guys were so good!” I was like “Janet, sorry, but you’re on a black show!”
J.D. Williams: It kind of goes with the lore of the show now.
The third season returned to the drug war with a vengeance and introduced a new kind of dealer, the shark-eyed Marlo Stanfield and his casually murderous enforcers, Chris and Snoop (the latter played by real-life felon Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, whom Michael K. Williams discovered at a local bar).
Ed Burns: The Avon Barksdales disappeared, and then the real sociopaths, the Marlos, showed up. Marlo’s not crazy he’s just a little disconnected and that’s what counts. It’s another generation removed. It just gets worse and worse and worse.
Jamie Hector (Marlo Stanfield, leader of the Stanfield gang): You know, I never looked in the mirror, never worked on that stare. I’d look through the other person, like they just don’t exist. Nothing is gonna stand in Marlo’s way at all. His drive was to be king.
Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow, Stanfield gang enforcer): It was my first television experience, and embodying someone this dark, unfortunately, was not that difficult for me. I grew up with people like this. What was difficult was leaving it behind after we’re done shooting. There was always some residue of negativity
Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (Snoop, Stanfield gang enforcer): I never imagined myself on-screen, shooting a gun, even though they’re blanks. I thought, “This is what I want to do now. I’m an actress.” But I was afraid of the camera. They said, “Don’t look into the camera. Just act natural.” It was kind of hard. The camera sometimes was like two inches away from your face.
Gbenga Akinnagbe: She has many different sides to her. I was surprised initially to find out how inherently charming she is, but every once in a while you remember that she’s got her dark side, too.
Felicia “Snoop” Pearson: People hadn’t seen a female killer [on TV]. People tell me that. I’m pretty, I look good, and I got a baby face. You never seen a baby-face killer just walk down on you.
Gbenga Akinnagbe: She’d show me the back streets of Baltimore. One night she took me to a strip club, gave me a stack of ones, and then walked away.
As morally challenged as the new generation of gangsters was, they paled compared to the local politicos also showcased in Season 3, namely Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), corrupt senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen).
Glynn Turman (Mayor Clarence Royce): I worked with former Baltimore Mayor (Kurt) Schmoke, who Royce was very loosely based on. Schmoke was a very popular mayor in the City. A very bold mayor. He did things very cutting edge in his tenure.
Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Sen. Clay Davis): I didn’t find out until later that the guy was based on a politician down in Baltimore. But when it comes to politicians with the swagger of a Clay Davis, there’s a lot of guys out there you could base a character on. There were some people that just despised me, and then there were some people that just couldn’t get enough of the character.
Three seasons in Whitlock provided the first real Wire catch phrase, an extended “sheeeeee-it.”
George Pelecanos (writer-producer): I love the scenes of Bunk and McNulty drunk in a bar talking about pussy. And seriously, and I would fight to get those scenes. The fact of the matter is when David brought in the political storyline into season three, I fought him tooth and nail. I’m a Washingtonian, and there’s nothing more uninteresting to me than politics. I would tell David, look man you know, these scenes, this is where everybody gets up and takes a piss or they go and get a beer out of their refrigerator.
The centerpiece of Season three’s political story line is “Hamsterdam,” which examined what would happen to the corner if drugs were legalized as they were in Amsterdam. It’s Bunny Colvin’s vision but its name comes courtesy of the corner dealers.
Robert Wisdom (Howard “Bunny” Colvin, Commander Western District, Baltimore Police): Reform was a theme for David. They were looking at Carcetti and what he was coming in with and how his efforts were blocked. They were sabotaged by his own short sightedness and lack of will. And Bunny had a vision but had no political capitol.
David Simon: Carcetti began with a genuine desire to reform, to be a good mayor. But you know the system is moneyed. It’s purchased.
Glynn Thurman: That whole “Hamsterdam” thing was basically true. I spoke with Mayor Schmoke about that because he was the one that tried it. I said, “What would you do differently if you tried it again?” And he said “I would have couched it – I would have made sure it wasn’t looked at as ‘trying to make drugs legal’ as much as it was trying to attack or address a public health issue.”
Season 3 ends with the shocking death of one of the show’s most popular characters, when Omar and hired killer Brother Mouzone gun down Stringer Bell.
Michael K. Williams: I struggled with that scene, and the whole idea of black on black crime. The notion that two grown men can’t sit down and talk about their differences.
Idris Elba: We opted to behead him at the height of his popularity, because it wasn’t about Avon. It wasn’t about Stringer. It’s a show called The Wire. And it’s Shakespearean—we usually don’t kill our heroes.
Chris Albrecht: After Stringer we said to ourselves, “OK, this feels like a natural end. A lot of story lines had been tied up. And then David came to us with the other idea: the kids and the school.
Dennis Lehane (writer): The Wire didn’t really become The Wire until late in the fourth season. That’s when it became a different thing. You can feel this perception change. We were the sort of well-respected, sort of ugly cousin of The Sopranos. HBO was so supportive, and yet at the same time, at the end of the day, they were saying, “if you don’t get any love during season 4, we’re not sure we’re coming back for 5.” And then something really beautiful happened.
The series returned in the fall of 2006 for a fourth season, focusing on the public school system – where Burns worked after leaving the police force – and how did these street kids selling drugs become what they are?
Wendell Pierce: The fourth season really had an effect on me. There was never an explanation of why we have this dysfunction in our society like you see in season four. What makes the corner boy? What makes one person go one direction and one person go the other?
Ed Burns: Many of the kids can’t even read, so what you try to do is show by an example. You hold them to a standard. You coach, push, cajole, smile, laugh, use a lot of popsicle sticks and glue. You try to get them to open up a little bit and try to make it safe and fun. My first year of school, 13 kids in my class had been shot. 2 kids had been shot twice.
Robert Wisdom: At the time they had “No Child Left Behind,” and all we were seeing was all the kids left behind. It was really played out in real time in the most powerful way. Finding boxes of books and computers, all unopened. Those were real finds, and going home at the end of the night, turning on the news and hearing bullshit about education from the politicians.
The season’s dramatic arc hinged on the casting of four minority actors in their early teens.
Maestro Harrell (Randy Wagstaff, student): I’d watched the first three seasons. And I was like, “Whoa, this is some pretty heavy stuff,” you know?
Jermaine Crawford (Duquan “Dukie” Weems, student): I was too young to watch it. I just got the script, and I did my best.
Julito McCullum (Namond Brice, student): Me and Tristan knew each other. So me and him were good friends. It was like the first day of school meeting these guys.
Tristan Wilds (Michael Lee, student, Stanfield gang enforcer): Every time we’d get a script all four of us would sit down with Robert Chew go over the script and make sure we had it down.
Robert F. Chew (Joseph “Proposition Joe” Stewart, drug kingpin): A couple of them were not from Baltimore so they did not have the lingo and the dialect, so I’d give them hints on that and just understanding the emotion of the scene.
Jermaine Crawford: I was confused, and Ed Burns, when we were filming in the classroom, said to me, “The [extra] kids you’re filming with, a lot of these kids in this classroom right now are real Dukies.”
Tristan Wilds (Michael Lee, student, Stanfield gang enforcer): We shot it in an actual abandoned school – all the extras were kids just trying to get out of school – they would come and be extras and partake. Looking back at it, it’s a lot more mind-blowing to me than it was when I was 16. When I was 16 I’d get a script and I’d read it like a book. “Aw, this is cool, yo! I get to shoot somebody!”
Season 5 examines the decline of print journalism as both a commercial and an ethical institution. One thing Simon knew he had to resolve was the fate of Omar, whom then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed as his favorite Wire character (while adding a caveat: “That’s not an endorsement…”).
David Simon: I don’t know why he said it. You’d have to ask him. Listen, I’m just glad he’s the president and not McCain.
Michael K. Williams: I felt pride, you know. I felt good, I felt good to the core.
Tray Chaney: For Barack Obama to say it was one of his favorite shows, I mean, come on, man, what more could you ask for? That was our Emmy right there.
Robert Wisdom: Anytime you found out that somebody would die, the buzz would go around. Like, “Today Omar’s gonna get it.”
George Pelecanos: [Killing any character] was always up for debate. For example, Omar, that was going up to the 11th hour whether he was gonna go or not.
Dennis Lehane: We were all talking over each other. “He can’t die a dignified death.” You know, because Omar was such a hero in a lot of ways, so if we said this guy is gonna go out in some sort of blaze of glory, then we’re glorifying the street. Michael Williams’ mother, when I met her, she said, “Whatever you do, don’t kill my boy.” And she’s this sweet little old lady, you know? And I remember looking her in the eye and saying, “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt your son.” So [after it was written], all I thought was, Michael’s mother’s gonna beat me to death with her umbrella.
Michael K. Williams: Oh, I was hurt. But it wasn’t like I was surprised. I was glad that Marlo and Snoop and Chris never got to touch him. They couldn’t catch him slippin’ like that.
The Wire’s best death, however, belongs to Snoop, thanks to perhaps television’s best-ever last words, “How my hair look, Mike?”
Felicia “Snoop” Pearson: If you look real closely there’s a star on the back of my hair – it was braided for me just for that line: “How’s my hair look?”
Tristan Wilds: I remember when I first read the script, I was like “Noooo! Why do I gotta do it?” Snoop became like my big sister to me; she was everything. I was actually with my niece a couple months ago and she was watching iCarly –and there was a scene where Sam takes paint ball gun and shoots Gib, but he looks at her before she does and says, ‘How’s my hair look?’ And she says, “You look good, Gib.”
Method Man: I always went online to see the reactions that people would have after someone got killed. Snoop, when she got killed, oh you should’ve seen it. You would’ve thought somebody really died. Like it was a funeral happening: “RIP Snoop, we gon’ miss you,” and all this craziness. They were just two lines short of making “In Memory Of” T-Shirts. Same thing with Omar. Stringer, same thing. Then when I die, it’s like “good for him. They should’ve killed his ass sooner.”
In the four years since the series ended, DVD box sets , DVR, and streaming have enabled audiences to control the show’s pace and absorb the subtleties. This has contributed to a posthumous popularity that the show never enjoyed while on the air.
Anthony Bourdain (writer, Treme, Wire superfan): I’ve seen it on TV and watched repeats. I went out and bought the box set and went through the entire thing in the space of a week.
John Waters (director, Baltimore icon, Wire superfan): The Wire is the best show on television since PeeWee’s Playhouse, and that was the best thing since Howdy Doody. That’s it for me, nothing’s going to get better. I cried watching the ending. I mean it was such a beautiful tribute to Baltimore. That anybody can say it makes Baltimore look bad is amazing to me because it makes Baltimore look smart!
Dominic West: The series means a great deal to people—and it’s rare that you can say that about a television program. It showed a section of society that, particularly during the Bush years, there wasn’t much airtime for.
James Ransone: It’s funny, man. I always make this comparison between Bob Dylan and David Simon. Not in the most flattering way possible: These two intellectual Jews who totally identify with the black man’s struggle!
Lance Reddick: I’ve been amazed at how many teachers and attorneys and cops have come up to talk to me about how real the show was, and how nobody else was addressing these issues in popular culture.
Deirdre Lovejoy: They teach college classes on the show now!
Wendell Pierce: It really is an American classic, and I think that’s something to be very proud of. If you see me on the street, feel free for the rest of my life to call me Bunk.
Clarke Peters: I’ll be crossing the street in London, and someone goes, “Hey, Lester!” and I turn around. They could be talking to any fucking Lester, but I turn around!
Dominic West: When are they making the movie? That’s what I wanna know. We were desperately trying to get one together, but David said it would have to be a prequel—which is all right for the black guys. But whitey? You know whitey will need a bit of surgery to look younger than he did 10 years ago.
Michael K. Williams: Man, it was a family. I call my Wire years my college years. You get any three people in the same room who worked in Baltimore on The Wire, and I guarantee you’ve got a party. We gonna shut it down.
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