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The Oral History of "The Wire" on WAMC

Characters Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale in a scene from "The Wire"
HBO
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HBO
Characters Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale in a scene from "The Wire"

2022 marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of “The Wire,” the five-season HBO masterpiece that is now considered one of television’s great achievements. In its time, however, the show faced yearly cancellation threats and low viewership, and was virtually ignored during awards season.

In the years since, David Simon’s magnum opus has gained generations of fans who debate, to this day, favorite characters, episodes, and seasons in what is described as a Russian novel applied to the Baltimore streets, police, politicians and drug dealers.

The anniversary has spawned a new round of critical appreciations, an eight-part podcast from HBO, and this project.

Over the years, many of the people who worked on the program have recounted their experiences during WAMC interviews. What follows is an oral history of the program as heard on WAMC.

Jonathan Abrams, author of “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire”

I think that was a big part in why ‘The Wire’ initially struggled when it was on. Chris Bauer, who played Frank Sobotka, has a quote in the book that ‘You can't watch ‘The Wire’ and make a casserole at the same time’ ‘The Wire’ requires that you paid attention to it and didn't get up out your seat. And I can only imagine being one of the first to actually watch that show when it aired on HBO. And in the pilot, you're introduced to so many characters, you can't really figure out what's going on. The dialect is like nothing you've ever heard on television before. And then it's off for a week, it's not like you can just stream it and go to the next episode, you don't see it for a whole ‘nother week. And then you have to —it's on your own to pick up where you left off. So that' as a lot. So that's why it didn't really gain popularity until you were able to stream it all at once.

Show creator David Simon

I'm not sure that anybody can make a credible argument to a 14-year-old kid coming up in places in South Chicago or North Philadelphia or West Baltimore that it's an irrational decision to go down on the corner and raise up as a lookout or run a ground stash for some older drug dealer, when that's the only industry you've ever known in your neighborhood who's ever been hiring. The factories are all closed, the jobs that used to be an evident transport to American society. You know, for people who had a high school degree, or maybe not even that, they don't exist anymore. Now the job is at a computer screen somewhere far away from you. And it requires a level of training that wasn't ever credible as an outcome within the public education system that you knew. And there's this one factory still hiring, and it's up on the corner, and it hired your older brother and hired your cousin and hired your father.

The level of hopelessness is such that I'm not sure you can argue with that kid. The kids that we saw in West Baltimore when we did ‘The Corner’ and we followed them for a year, they were being rigorously trained for the one factory that was still open. Never mind mental health, poverty, the fact that there were these two Americas and in one of them there are viable alternatives to find your way through and become connected economically, socio-economically to the society, and then the other one there isn't. And I live in a city that is rigorously divided between those two Americas. Ao the people in the one America, you try to police into the face of that you might as well be policing Soweto or Gaza —I mean you're up against the entire neighborhood because everybody looks upon—it's like trying to police Birmingham in 1960 and saying, ‘Guys you can't work in the steel mills. Steel mills are illegal, don't make steel.’ You know, it sounds insane. But to tell a kid in Baltimore in 2005 or 2015 don't go down to the corner, don't make that money. We have some other place, some other plan for you. Yeah. What other place? What other the plan? Really? We can't even figure out a summer jobs program. So, on some level, the drug trade as an industry proved itself to be rational even as it destroyed human beings, even as it destroyed neighborhoods. It proved to be rational on a day-to-day basis and on an economic basis. And we have to upend that. And that's kind of epic. That would be epic.

Musician Steven Earle played recovering drug addict Walon

Really a lot of it has to do with how much the show means to people. I mean, David Simon is a really good friend of mine, I'm really proud of him and really, you know, happy for him that because he's a guy making art for the right reasons in a medium where you don't have to to be successful. In fact, he would probably be more successful if he would bring my character on ‘Treme’ back as a vampire, he would probably have better ratings, but he has more integrity than that. So, I'm dead on that show and I'm dead. I'm gonna stay dead. So, it's an amazing—a lot of people think it's just the best show that's ever been on television. You'd be amazed how many people believe that how many people say it and it's all over the world. So, I learned a lot from doing it. And you know what, it's brought a few people that my music that never listened to before. So, it's hard to complain about it.

David wrote the part for me and it required zero acting, which is the reason I had, you know, only a small amount of trepidation about doing it. And it didn't require any acting at all. Harley, the character on ‘Treme,’ was similar but actually required more acting even though Harley was a musician, I got to sing. I got to sing my own songs. But I was really playing the person that was sort of fundamentally different than I am. Walon's a redneck recovering addict; that requires no acting.

He's a huge music fan. And he used a song of mine in a miniseries called ‘The Corner’ that he did for HBO. And then when he was writing the first episodes of ‘The Wire,’ he called my manager and said, I'm writing this character that I think might be good for Steve. And he tracked me down and I read for it in a recording studio in Nashville. And they filmed it and I read it. And I got the part. And I mean, it was written for me, he was just hoping—I had to really suck probably not to get it. Next thing I knew I was on a plane to Baltimore. And I was in the show off and on for the five years and a lot in the fifth year. And I was making—it was weird, I had just moved to New York when we started filming the fifth season, I was making ‘Washington Square Serenade’ so I'd make that record; I'd like work a day on the record and then I'd have a day where they have to shoot. So, I’d just take the train from New York down to Baltimore the night before. As soon as like I would work in the studio till the last train, 7 or 8 or something, take the train to Baltimore get up and do the early shoot, and I'd be back in the studio, they'd work on something else while I was gone. And I'd be back in the studio usually by dinnertime.

David Simon

We've been witness to a lot of police violence that is absolutely without question an affront to Black lives. I don't think there was anything in my head that suggested it wasn't happening. Even when I was a police reporter. The difference between now and then, is simply this and you know, I realize we're doing radio, I'm holding up my smartphone with the camera in it. As a police reporter, I probably covered 100 police shootings. I haven't taken a careful count, but I would guess that probably 70-75 of them, 70 of them, at least, I had no question about they were—we live in a heavily armed society. There's a lot of guns on the street, there's a lot of violence. It's kind of hard to ask anybody to police anywhere in an American city, you know, with this level of gun saturation, and do so unarmed or do so in a circumstance where you're never going to use your weapon, although many police go their whole careers without using their weapon. You know, there are certain posts where it's gonna happen. It's gonna happen to somebody at some moment. So, I guess I'm saying I covered a lot of honorable police shootings. They were not any less tragic than many dishonorable ones. People died; people were wounded. But I covered a lot of police shootings that were legitimate. And then I covered, I would say, maybe 25% of them. I have no, I had no idea. I don't know what happened because—it was what a police could write in his report, and what a guy might claim, but it was basically one guy's word against another and there was no other evidentiary logic with which you could judge it. And one of those guys knows how to write a police report. He knows how to testify in front of a grand jury and one of them doesn't and one of them might have no criminal history and one of them might have an extensive criminal history. So even if there were a couple of witnesses, if they were from the milieu of the drug corner or wherever the shooting happened, and they had criminal histories, the credibility was such that a prosecutor could knock it down. So, there were a lot of shootings, where as a reporter I have no consistency between the narrative that the police are telling me and the guy shot, or the witnesses. So often the guy shot is dead, he can't tell me anything. And that case would fly. And you would always be left with, you know, wondering, what was legit. And then there were 5% of the cases where there were a lot of witnesses, and the police really did something wrong. And in those cases, there were controversies and I covered some of those. But what's happened with the cell phone is that a lot of the cases that were in that 25% bracket, of we don't know, now, suddenly there's first generation evidence from just regular folk pointing their cameras and for police, that's a whole new world. And they're having a hard time adapting to the fact that sometimes the lies and the disconnects and the falsity that that used to protect them in the case of a bad shooting is no longer there or is now confronted by an alternative reality.

I mean, I think if you if you look at ‘The Wire,’ the impulse towards brutality and towards non-accountability on the part of police department is embedded in the piece. I mean, I don't think you have to go two and a half episodes before one of the police officers resorts to an unnecessary brutality and blinds a kid, blinds a kid in one eye in the projects, and his lieutenant explains to him how to lie about it to the internal investigators so that it won't go further than the grand jury. That happened, I think, in episode three of a 60-episode show, and we revisited the idea of brutality. You know, when one police beat up a schoolteacher in a car, one other guy broke the fingers of a of a 12-year-old after he stole a car, we routinely returned to the idea of the drug war being this moral disconnect for some officers. But what we didn't have was the idea of being confronted by the fact that your lies might now be—that the things that you do to protect officers who've overreached or who've made mistakes, or who have been willfully abusive, your ability to damage control that stuff is now much more vulnerable because of this technology. We would certainly show that because the smartphone with its camera has been a revolution.

Wendell Pierce played homicide detective Bunk Moreland

Bunk, first of all, was based on a real man. So, I have a relationship with the real Bunk. Oscar Requer, retired police detective in Baltimore. I consider him family. I think of Darryl Massey and other sergeants in the homicide who I studied with in preparation for the role and thought of them in the recent, you know, uprising that was happening in Baltimore especially. The first thing people had to think of was all those issues that we brought up in ‘The Wire’ over those seven years that we worked on, in the five seasons that we produced, were the same issues that were coming to a head this summer. And I thought of those specifically Black protectors on the police force, who became policemen because the crime and the violence in that neighborhood reduced by only 1% was not reflective of the good people in the neighborhood. And that's why they became police officers.That was developed in the script when Bunk Moreland had a relationship with Omar. You know, this homicidal burglar of the drug dens and he said listen, no more bodies. I don't want any more bodies. The community also puts that challenge to the police officers if you became a policeman because you feel as though this neighborhood is of great value, don't allow the few to ruin the relationship because of their behavior within your ranks as police officers. And that's what the community was saying back to the police officers this summer in real life. So that form of art reflecting on all of those things, shows you how powerful and influential and profound culture is. And it's not just a piece of entertainment, it's something of great substance, and importance. And that dialogue, once you create a character, is something that you always go back to because it's the humanity that we all share, that we reflect on, when we consider all the issues that we bring up in a piece of art that we created. And so, the character of Bunk that I created, I constantly reflect on because I think of the men that helped me create it, like Sergeant Darryl Massey, and the original Bunk, Oscar Requer, because they root me in the reality of those issues that are so profoundly important to act on today, especially in Baltimore.

Jim True-Frost played police officer-turned-math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski, “Prez”

It was very dramatic. And it was a great couple of scenes there where me and a couple of the other cops go to a housing project and raise hell trying to say that we're in charge, and we're going to take things in hand. And things go terribly, terribly wrong. And my gun goes off and my gun—I'm trying to put everything in the passive voice—and my gun makes contact with somebody else's face. My character, you know, appeared right then to be a real piece of work, I pistol whip a young kid in the face, and I take some shots up in the air randomly and recklessly. So, it was really interesting. Yeah, it was, as you said, it was it was very confidence instilling, you know, just to know that, wow, it's a cool, complicated, messy part. And could be really interesting. But it was also a total mystery. I mean, we didn't get the scripts until we were about ready to shoot each episode. So, I had no idea what the arc of the character was going to be. And, you know, from the looks of those first couple episodes, for all I knew, my character's problem was he was a total loose cannon and he had a drinking problem and who knows what, but those turned out to be not such a big part of the whole picture. It was more than the character was kind of frustrated and lost in the system, which was a big theme of the show. Sort of the individual who may have good intentions, but gets sort of mired in institutional apathy and unchanging ways of doing things even when things are going terribly wrong. So, in a way, that's what came to ring true much later in the series too when my character became a school teacher. Those themes were very much there again for Prez where he's the little guy who, at that point, is a little bit more on the ball and is a little bit more in control, but is still nonetheless a guy who's completely at a loss for what to do in the face of this monstrous bureaucracy of the school district and city politics that just aren't getting the job done and he's up close witnessing these kids in the schools who are just being left behind.

Brian Anthony Wilson played homicide detective Vernon Holley

I was just a local hire guy. Came in, I read for like three roles at first and then I was lucky to get Holley and I thought it was just a one and done. And I ended up being in five seasons of it, all five seasons, by the grace of God. I mean, the weird thing is I probably would have been in probably—I was in 19 episodes—I probably would've been in about 30 or more, but because of the way TV series shoot, they only give you a couple of weeks’ notice. And a lot of times I was committed to theater projects, and they would just write me off, they would call me and say hey, are you available? If not, they write you out. And then they give your lines to somebody else and figure out something else. But yeah, because of my theater schedule, I was knocked out of over half of the episodes, I would think. But yeah, I've been very lucky to work as much as I do. And very fortunate, I'm usually working on two or three projects at once. Because I mean, I seek those out. And a lot of times work begets work, but it is tough. You know, for Black actors, firstly, especially of a certain age, you know, past middle age, and certainly not a leading man type, like I say, I'm the big linebacker kind of build type, but I've you know, luckily knock on wood have been working, professionally—I mean for as a living—since ‘96 when I did my first film, ‘The Postman’ with Kevin Costner. So, I've been lucky, but it is temp work. You know, you're always looking for that next gig and always looking for that next job, which is a little scary.

Benjamin Busch played Police Officer Anthony Colicchio

I think some of my best acting actually was in Iraq, simply because of the fact that I was very frustrated. I mean, it was an incredibly difficult situation every day. And I did have a position that came with certain expectations. You know, my Marines expected me to be invulnerable. And so, I had to believe that I was, and the Iraqis themselves, were also looking for vulnerability, they were looking for, at the same time, for strength, for confidence. And in the face of these things, I created an invulnerable persona. You kind of cloak yourself in a certain belief in your own immortality, you create your own myth. And that's what an actor does. An actor has to move into a character and inhabit them all the way in enough that their emotions are reflected in their eyes. You play someone that you half are and half can't be. And I think I did that a lot in Iraq, because I was a public performer to an extent. And I think you carry your experiences back and forth. I think that when I came back from my first tour in Iraq, the first audition I had was for Officer Anthony Colicchio on ‘The Wire’ on HBO. And he was a very frustrated police officer but at the same time he was someone who had an uncompromising sense of justice. That's why he was frustrated. He was seeing things black and white in Baltimore, which is a city of gray, the police are cheating, the criminals are cheating, and he couldn't stand any of it. It was coming from a war which had been entirely gray, which as a Marine, you hope is a noble mission. And that was compromised very early. So, I think all these experiences feed into your performances and your performances feed back into your life. You begin to gather all this, like I talked about emotional resonance and also memory and begin to build who you really are. And I feed off of all of that, I think. I think there's some truth in in Tony Colicchio for me.

Clarke Peters played homicide detective Lester Freamon

When I left America, we were in the throes—we were coming to the end of the Civil Rights Movement. And we were going into the Vietnam War debacle on whether it was good or bad. You know? I think that I was on the right side of both of those arguments, and I see that history has shown me that I was. Now, you know, 50 years later, I see that some of those issues are still being debated and argued and questioned, and there not just being questioned by Americans and myself, but it's also the way that the rest of the world is viewing America, its involvement in Afghanistan, its possible involvement in going into Eastern Europe. It's the same arena as, politically, as I saw myself view Vietnam. I'm looking at now the civil rights movement that we were working on in the late 60s, in the mid-60s, is now still a point of contention for some parties. And the outside world, Europe, looks at that as well and says, ‘What's happening over there? Who are you?’ I have to say that living outside of America, America has the best idea. We have the best idea of how a society should be. And if only we would live up to it, it would be great. Believe me, the rest of the world loves the idea of America, they really do. And if we can get there, we will have a beautiful, utopian existence, I'm sure.

Jonathan Abrams

Early on, Uta Briesewitz, the cinematographer, came to Bob Colesberry, who was kind of the eyes of the show and said that the show shouldn't lose any visual elegance when it goes from, say, inside the police station to the streets. So, they kind of kept that same template. I think, probably in the pilot, it was a little bit different. But as it carried on, it kind of kept the sophistication between the two. And what they were trying to show was that the methods that the drug sellers were using was often just as sophisticated as the methods the police were using in trying to capture them. Literary titans like George Pelecanos and Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, that was a real joy, because these guys are some of the best crime novelists around. And, honestly, it's so surprising to me that they were able to get any type of work done, because you just have all these guys who, when you write a book, it's really isolating, and you're by yourself, you're just you and your editor. But you bring all these guys together. And you all think that you're the best novelist. Meanwhile, David Simon and Ed Burns are kind of overseeing the whole ship, and they really put their egos aside to be able to make great television. And for me, Season Four is just so instrumental, I just consider it the best season of television in history, just as far as it shows such a huge problem and really humanizes it. At the beginning of the season, we see these four boys who are bright eyed and seemingly have a lot of potential and through their character arcs, we see just almost the lights turn out and the forces that are against them and how they really don't even have a chance to get going in life.

Jim True-Frost

I wouldn't say it surprised me because, I mean, it surprised me somewhat during the life of the show, while we're still in production, it just seemed to get more and more of a fire behind it and a real acclaim for the great writing. And the pertinence of the social issues and the quality of the show, which was just very episodic, or very serialized, just a long form, kind of a long novel on TV, which wasn't the first show like that, but it may have sort of really cracked the form or set the bar for that kind of television. So yeah, we saw then that it was really catching fire and people were really responding to it and it was so exciting to be a part of it. And yeah, I mean, I do I continue to hear from people all the time either renting the show or watching it online or whatever. And I bump into people on the street and say, "Hey, I just started the show" or, "I'm just through the first season" and things like that. So, it obviously it's got legs. We shot our five seasons, but the audience is still growing.

Jonathan Abrams

I think those feelings still remain. I think that's a blessing and a curse with the show in that ‘The Wire’ accomplished what few television shows can it educated and entertained. So, you're gonna have a good segment of people who just watched ‘The Wire’ as pure entertainment and maybe the larger messages of the show flew over them. I remember when I watched it in real time, I was saying that, hey, I've never seen a character like Stringer or Omar. And I think that's what first led me into the show. But if you watch it deeper, and if you watch it multiple times, you enjoy the aspects of the message that it's trying to get across, and that these institutions often fail to reform themselves and the individuals are the ones who often get caught up in it.

David Simon

I mean, the one thing that is probably been my predominant theme for about a decade, certainly in ‘The Wire,’ is to try to assert against the drug war, drug prohibition, as being an incredible disaster for the country and for American cities in particular. So, I tend to try to get near young impressionable minds and urge them to have nothing to do with the drug war. I think if I get that one done, I've done a little something. The drug war has always been, I think, a means of social control. And it's always been targeted against fear of the other. If you go back to its origins, I mean, if you go back all the way to the turn of the century, and into the late 19th century, the first moments of drug fear of what became the basis of policing of dangerous drugs, has to do with the fear of the yellow horde on the West Coast, the opium dens of the dreaded Chinese, it's always been linked to some fear of the immigrant other or the racial other. And if you look at the history of drug prohibition, it's never come from an organic logic that says, by treating this as a criminal dynamic rather than a health problem, we can achieve anything. They've never sold that with any credible empiricism because it never does. It never fixes anything. It just makes for a lot of people in a lot of prisons. And at this point we never lost our mind quite as we did in the 1990s, but we did lose our minds and we filled prison after prison after prison with nonviolent offenders.

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A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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