Let’s be reductionist for a moment and simply state that “The Wire” was a television series that aired on HBO from June 2, 2002, to March 9, 2008. Chances are, if you’re on this site, reading this piece, you already knew that. Chances are, in fact, that you know the show as “The Greatest TV Series Ever Created,” whether you’ve seen it or not. There is a fervor that surrounds the show which can be persuasive and alienating to potential viewers in equal parts, a fanaticism that seems to believe all roads of culture must pass through this work for any discussion whatsoever to be had.
On October 16, 2014 (over six and a half years after “The Wire” ended its run) members of the cast, executive producer Nina Noble and series co-creator David Simon reunited for a panel discussion as part of PaleyFest NY, an annual festival celebrating the best and most promising television series of the moment. It quickly became apparent that long before the fans were putting the Greatest Of All Time label on the show, the cast and crew were well aware they were part of something special.
“I want everyone to know,” panel moderator Alan Sepinwall laughed to the audience, “that in the elevator, everyone was singing along to ‘Way Down In The Hole’ (the series theme song).”
This ain’t going nowhere
While the show dominates conversation now, it was never a ratings hit. “Every season,” remembered Simon, “we were on the verge of not coming back. In fact, the studio actually waited until after everyone’s contract had lapsed to begin talks. I assured them that everyone would come back and there would be no budget increases, without actually knowing if that was the case, if anyone would come back. I had to call them all, and fortunately they all agreed to not ask for bigger trailers or anything like that.”
Apparently, Simon need not have worried, as the word “family” was invoked many, many times by Noble and the cast. “Nobody was watching,” said Noble, “but we felt the work was important, and we were proud to support each other.”
Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk throughout the series, added, “The work you do, the relationships you build, that’s forever. Nobody may have been watching us, but we were watching us, being fans of each other. And partying a lot.”
Sonja Sohn, who played Kima, remembered the early days being a bit rougher. “Wendell and Andre (Royo, who played Bubbles) and I are watching the pilot, and Andre and I are saying, ‘Shit, this ain’t going nowhere.’ But Wendell knew, back in those first three episodes. He told us that we just needed to be patient.”
“Nah, I was just hoping,” laughed Pierce. “And calling my agent, telling them I’m probably going to be free in a few weeks.”
Sohn went on to explain that during those early days, she was struggling in her performance. “I would study the scripts for hours, memorizing my lines, then get to set and draw a blank. Back then, I really didn’t know it was going to be anything more than a paycheck to me, but I had been on unemployment for two years, so it was a paycheck I badly needed. I was constantly worried that I was screwing it up.”
Sohn admitted that she wanted badly to quit the show, because the scripts “resonated with some unresolved personal business.” Then, one day, Sohn was working with Melanie Nicholls-King, who played Cheryl, Kima’s lover, and Nicholls-King said that she’d been upset not to get the Kima role, until she heard Kima was going to be killed. Sohn couldn’t believe her ears. “Had I really screwed things up so bad I was gonna die?!?”
Fortunately, Sohn had a fan in Cheryl Strauss, at the time one of the heads of HBO. Strauss had heard rumblings that Kima might be killed off, and went directly to Simon, saying, “Don’t be cruel. Don’t.” At the end of Season 1, Kima is injured, but survives. Sohn said she knew she was lucky to “dodge the bullet.”
Your last potato salad
This being a show that features crime and punishment, other characters were not so lucky. On the day an actor’s character was scheduled to die, Sohn would gather all of the actors to set, to support the character and the actor as their time in the series came to a close.
J.D. Williams, who played the character of Bodie, had one of the more major death scenes of the series. Williams was in the audience during the panel, and was asked about his character’s death, and in Season 4, Williams was spending a lot of time with the younger actors who had joined the cast that year. During one of their many lunches together, they asked Williams what he thought was going to happen that year. “I told them I thought I was going to be killed,” Williams recalled, “and they all yell, ‘Don’t say that! [Simon] is right over there!'”
But when the time came, while most actors were not given a lot of notice that their character would be dying, Williams was told far in advance 00 pages sent to him through secured messenger. “I got some special treatment, yeah,” laughed Williams.
Simon added, “J.D. took it best of anybody. Usually, you have to have a lot of bedside manner. But J.D. saw a scene, not even the big one with McNulty, but the scene in the sub shop, and said, ‘I’m gonna die, aren’t I?'”
“I know how things work in “The Wire”,” said Williams. “You coming up, getting respect — you’re gonna get killed.”
Asked why actors were typically given so little notice about their character’s impending demise, Simon recounted something Tom Fontana told him early on: “If you tell an actor in advance, they play the finality in everything. When they’re eating potato salad, that’s the last time they’re gonna eat potato salad. Humans don’t know when they’re gonna die, so neither should a character.”
Worth the experiment
Early in the first season of “The Wire,” there is a scene wherein Pierce and Dominic West (who played Jimmy McNulty) investigate a crime scene, and the only dialogue is the F-word, repeated over and over and over again. Pierce remembered Simon telling him about writing the scene, saying, “We’re gonna get pushback on the language anyway, so let’s just go with it.”
“Actually,” added Pierce, “the scene used to end differently, with the [landlord] having the last line. Jimmy and Bunk are looking around, fuck this, digging around, fuck that, and finally Bunk finds the casing, and the super says ‘motherfucker.'”
More than the rampant use of profanity, some felt it was the show’s use of slang that turned off potential viewers. While it may have cost them a viewer or two, the specificity of the language resonated with many of the young actors coming in to audition for the series.
“My agent called and said ‘You’re not going to believe this script,'” said Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., who played De’Angelo Barksdale and is a Baltimore native. “I knew the people, I knew the streets. This part was me, and I’ve been spoiled ever since. That first page, I knew it was something special.”
“A lot of scripts come in,” added Jamie Hector (who played Marlo Stanfield), “and they just don’t sound right at all. My friends and I read them, and we laugh about how we would never say that. But this…there was that specificity, where they knew that someone from Baltimore says ‘dog’ differently from how someone from New York says it.”
Michael K. Williams, who played the show’s iconic Omar Little, remembered being included early in the process of deciding whether Omar would sound more Baltimore or Brooklyn. He chose Baltimore, and then proceeded to struggle with the dialect throughout the first season. He finally decided to follow the lead of Wendell Pierce, who moved to Baltimore before each season, finding a new apartment in a new neighborhood. Williams moved to Baltimore before the second season — when the show switched its focus from the streets to the port.
“I was angry,” Williams laughed. “I called David and said, ‘We made this shit hot! Now you wanna give it to the white people?!?’ But David explained that if we stayed in the projects, we were making the story small. Then we got into Season 3, and I saw the effect the show was having on people, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is not about me. This is something much bigger.'”
The series was shot on location in Baltimore, Maryland, where Simon had lived and worked as a newspaper journalist for years. They even cast locals and non-actors in certain parts, to varying effect. “It was about balancing this semi-permeable membrane of artifice of the show with the reality of the city,” said Simon. “There were moments where we said, ‘You know, having a real actor here would help this moment,’ but it was worth the experiment.”
Not only were locals cast in the series, but some characters were explicitly based on local people. There was, for instance, a real Bunk, who Pierce recalled seeing once early in production of Season 1. “He pulled up to the courthouse in a huge Cadillac, cigar in his mouth. He got out of his car, looked at me for a while, then got back in his car and left. And I didn’t see him after that, because I was afraid of his review. But then, five years later, I hear he’s retiring, so I go to his party. I walked in, and he sees me, and I don’t know what to expect. Then he smiled and yelled across the room, ‘You made me a star! Get your ass in here!'”
Not everyone was so pleased with the show’s portrayal of the people and places of Baltimore. While the first season was shot using a lot of empty buildings, the decision to shift the focus to the port meant they would have to ask the port for permission to shoot — permission they were not granted. “And so David was called down, and this began us constantly having to talk our way into places when we couldn’t fly under the radar,” said Noble.
Asked if there were any long-lasting repercussions from this, Simon sighed, “The Governor had so much animus towards us, he shut down the state tax credit, which shut down the film industry in Maryland.”
Are we part of the problem?
As mentioned before, Sonja Sohn very nearly quit the series in the first season. It turns out, she was by no means the only person to nearly walk away from what is now considered the paramount achievement in American television.
Seth Gilliam played Ellis Carver, who spent almost the entire series partnered with Domenick Lombardozzi’s Thomas “Herc” Haulk. As Gilliam told it, “We started spending a lot of time with 2nd Unit, shooting spiderwebs and stuff. At some point, I was like, ‘Is there even film in those cameras?!? What is this, some Steinbrenner shit, where you sign some guys and then sit ’em on the bench?'”
Thus, Gilliam and Lombardozzi called Simon to tell him that they were being wasted, and threatened to quit: “We said, ‘We’re gonna walk!’ We’re not gonna walk, we don’t have any shoes! But we’re pissed!”
Simon listened to them, finally responding, “You’re right. You’re sitting on houses, feeling like you’re not being used properly. Just like your character.”
“Exactly,” the men yelled.
“I called my agent,” Gilliam said. “Eventually we realized what he was saying. Domenick was really impressed by that. I was not.” But Lombardozzi was able to finally convince Gilliam to be patient and trust that their frustration would pay off.
Meanwhile, Season 4, which shifts the show’s focus onto an inner city high school, is generally considered the masterpiece season. But it was this season that nearly drove Wendell Pierce to quit the show.
At the wrap party for the season, Pierce was approached by Charmaine McPhee, the young actress who portrayed Laetitia (whom viewers might remember as the character who cuts Chiquan’s face in episode three). McPhee told Pierce that she would be attending Brown University on scholarship. “I remember thinking, ‘You’re going to Brown? On scholarship? Why aren’t we telling your story?!?'” he said during the panel.
Pierce was troubled that the show had decided to focus on the troubled youth of the inner city, instead of telling the story of someone who was achieving something impressive. “And then I thought: Are we part of the problem?”
Struggling with this, Pierce spoke with a few of his co-stars, learning that they had shared his concern at various points throughout the series. They suggested he revisit the material and examine it from every perspective. So Pierce sat down and rewatched the entire season, “and I realized that we were saying something essential, something that doesn’t get discussed.”
Sohn added, “It’s like when Stringer Bell dies. Stringer was the hope of the Barksdales, so I thought, when he died, that meant we were saying that there’s no hope, and I took offense to that. But then I realized that it was about the greater question: Why is there no hope for a huge section of humanity? You look at the stories this show is telling, it’s awakening a lot of Americans to a reality that’s happening all over this country. And there’s no greater honor than to work on something that changes how we live.”
But I never said it’s about something it wasn’t
“When the show was first airing,” Sepinwall asked during the panel, “how often were you recognized and approached about the show?”
“Never,” the cast responded.
“Now,” Sepinwall continued, “how often are you recognized and approached about the show?”
“Every day,” the cast laughed.
“It’s terrible,” continued Jim True-Frost, who played Pryzbylewski. “It just keeps going, people keep discovering it. And everyone feels like they’re the one who understands it the most, which I think speaks to the specificity of it.”
“I can be in the middle of a bazaar,” said John Doman, who played William Rawls in the series, “and someone will come up and start talking to me in a language I don’t know, but I’ll recognize ‘The Wire’! ‘The Wire’!’ every time.”
Speaking of Doman: Just before the panel ended, an audience member asked about a scene in Season 3 where we see Rawls in a gay bar. Doman explained that “No one said the gay bar was happening, until one day I get to set and the AD ran up with a huge grin on his face, and asked if I’d seen the new script yet. (Series co-creator) Ed Burns is sitting nearby and hears this, jumps up. He tells me, ‘This is what we’re thinking of doing.’ So the scene happens. I get the next script, and it’s not mentioned at all. I get the next script, and it’s still not menitoned. Finally, I go up to David and tell him, ‘David, I don’t know what the plan is for my character and the gay bar thing, but I am up for anything. ANYTHING.’ David looks at me for a while, then turned around and walked away. And it was never mentioned ever again in the show.”
As the panel wound towards its end, an audience member asked David Simon about how he had been asked many times what he felt the show was about. Simon gave many different answers, some of which conflicted with others: “If we had ‘The Sopranos” numbers, I could have been more enigmatic and said ‘This show is about what you think it’s about,’ but we were constantly struggling so I was constantly having to go out and sell this show, and that meant saying it was about a lot of things. But I never said it was about something it wasn’t.”
Despite the ratings struggles, the subject of another season was broached — and quickly dismissed by Simon. “A story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The ending had to be the ending. Some days, I would see Andre come out of his trailer, or the detectives and the street characters working, and I would think, ‘Finally, there’s a show about this America, this whole universe that doesn’t merit discussion in many peoples’ minds.’ So often, even if they get close to this, it gets turned into grist for melodrama. The great thing about long-form storytelling is that if you can survive, you get to a point where you can discuss something and argue something, make people pay attention and see iceberg beneath the water.
“We did that. Another season would just be sustaining the franchise. We can just do something else. We’ll build a barn and make something else.”