This article is adapted from Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad.
By the time the fourth season of The Wire rolled around, it had already become a cocktail party cliché to say that the show operated like “a Dickens novel.” In many ways, this was totally apt, considering the show’s serialized nature, its liberal political conscience, and its sprawling canvas. But David Simon found his literary reference point centuries earlier—centuries, even, before Shakespeare. The Wire, he said, was essentially a Greek tragedy.
“The ancients valued tragedy, not merely for what it told them about the world but for what it told them about themselves,” he said. “Almost the entire diaspora of American television and film manages to eschew that genuine catharsis, which is what tragedy is explicitly intended to channel. We don’t tolerate tragedy. We mock it. We undervalue it. We go for the laughs, the sex, the violence. We exult the individual over his fate, time and time and time again.”
In his Baltimore version of Olympus, the roles of gods were played by the unthinking forces of modern capitalism. And any mortal with the hubris to stand up for reform of any kind was, in classical style, ineluctably, implacably, pushed back down, if not violently rubbed out altogether.
“That was just us stealing from a much more ancient tradition that’s been so ignored, it felt utterly fresh and utterly improbable,” he said. “Nobody had encountered it as a consistent theme in American drama because it’s not the kind of drama that brings the most eyeballs.” It was possible in this time and place because, in the new pay cable model, eyeballs were no longer the most important thing.
Yet The Wire was also inescapably modern; its characters operated based on real, idiosyncratic psychologies, refusing to be pushed around like figures on a board. Sometimes they surprised even their creators. One passionate argument in the writers’ room was about a major moment in Season 1’s next-to-last episode, “Cleaning Up”: the execution of the young drug slinger Wallace by the tougher, only slightly older thug Bodie Broadus. Just before shooting his friend, Bodie hesitates, gun shaking. Ed Burns, the co-creator of the series, raised an objection: The Bodie we had seen to that point, he argued, was the very incarnation of a street monster, a young person so damaged and inured to violence by the culture of the drug game that he would never hesitate to pull the trigger, even on a friend.
“It didn’t go with the character. Bodie was a borderline psychopath almost. I was like, ‘We’re leading the audience down this path, and now this guy is backing off?’ That’s fucked up. That’s bullshit,” he said, remembering his feelings on the scene.
In future seasons, though, Broadus would emerge as the drug game’s answer to the rogue detective Jimmy McNulty: a soldier who tries to make his own way and ends up ground down by the system. His death would be unexpectedly poignant. All of that, Burns granted, was set up by his unexpected moment of humanity in Season 1.
“What it did was it allowed for a wonderful dynamic that went on for four seasons. It brought out a lot of comedy that psychopaths don’t have,” he said. “It was a learning curve for me. Originally I just didn’t like it because you don’t pull punches like that with the audience. Now, when I think about it, I think, ‘This is cool. This is something that allowed for another dimension.’ It worked. It worked fine.”
Such debates were only one aspect of what became, as The Wire’s scope grew to encompass more and more of Baltimore, an intimate, complicated, ever-evolving dance between the demands of reality and of fiction. And if that creative tension was a constant theme in the writers’ room, it was also an everyday reality for the actors who brought the show’s characters to life.
Whether it was born of institutional transparency or overwhelmed disorganization, the Baltimore Police Department extended an open-door policy to The Wire’s actors, many of whom were brought down for educational ride-alongs. Even for those who regarded themselves as reasonably savvy about urban realities, it was a shocking experience.
“I’d grown up in housing projects, but it wasn’t blocks of boarded-up houses and naked babies in the arms of 25-pound heroin addicts,” said Seth Gilliam, who played Sgt. Ellis Carver. He and Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc) were assigned to a ride-along with a notoriously gung-ho narcotics officer who went by the nickname Super Boy. On one ride they found themselves crouching in the back seat during a firefight. “I’m thinking, ‘My head isn’t covered! My head isn’t covered! Am I going to feel the bullet when it hits me?’” he remembered.
Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk Moreland, and John Doman, the formidable Major Bill Rawls, and Dominic West (McNulty) were in another group. “We went to shootings and stabbings. There was a guy with a knife still in him. Another guy who got shot, and the cop was still trying to take him downtown for questioning,” Doman said. “All of us were like, ‘This is unbelievable.’”
Far from most of their homes and families in New York, Los Angeles, or London, the cast spent a lot of time hanging out together. At least two social groups developed. The first centered on the townhouse that Clarke Peters, who played Lester Freamon, had bought after Season 1. Peters was an erudite, 50-year-old native New Yorker. He had left the United States as a teenager for Paris, where there were still the remnants of a great black American expat community. Within weeks of arriving, he’d met James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and the blues pianist Memphis Slim, among others. When the musical Hair had come to France, he’d worked as one of the production’s costume designers and eventually joined the cast. He’d settled in London, acting mostly in the theater, but he had history with David Simon, having played the avuncular junkie Fat Curt in Simon’s first HBO series, The Corner.
In Baltimore, Peters’ house became a kind of groovy bohemian salon for an older set of cast and crew members that included Doman, Jim True-Frost (who played Roland Pryzbylewski), and others. Several ended up renting rooms in the house. Peters, a strict vegetarian, would cook elaborate group meals. There was a piano and impromptu jam sessions fueled by red wine and pot smoke. For those seized by the after-hours impulse to watercolor, there were canvases on easels set up in the basement. Among its habitués, the house was called “the Academy.”
Meanwhile, a rowdier scene existed among the younger cast members—untethered, far from home, and often in need of blowing off steam. This social group was centered on the Block, the stretch of downtown East Baltimore Street populated by a cluster of side-by-side strip clubs (and, in semi-peaceful détente across the street, BPD’s downtown headquarters). The cast of The Wire became legendary visitors to the Block, with a core group including West, Gilliam, Lombardozzi, Pierce, Andre Royo (Bubbles), J.D. Williams (Bodie), and Sonja Sohn (Kima)—holding her own among the boys in one of many on- and off-screen parallels.
“We finished shooting at like 1 o’clock and, you know, normal places close at 2, so we’d go down to the Block, just to feel the energy,” said Royo. “The owners of the clubs would come out; the girls would come out. It was like we were heroes. The local heroes.” At a cast and crew softball game, Royo hired a limousine and a team of strippers to act as cheerleaders.
West, predictably, attracted his share of female attention, professional and otherwise. “A man could live off his leftovers,” Pierce would say. All were champion drinkers, and things had a way of getting out of hand. Gilliam took especially poorly to being approached while enjoying himself off duty.
“He could be an angry drunk in a minute,” Royo said. “If somebody would be like, ‘Oh, you those guys from The Wire,’ Seth would be like, ‘I don’t know what happened to manners, but we were talking.’ And these were guys who weren’t used to being talked to like that. Who had already humbled themselves to come over.” Yelling and pushing would often ensue, though usually not more, thanks to omnipresent bouncers. “Sonja would always have her eye on one of the bouncers and could give him a look. She’s a sexy little chick, so they’d make sure she was comfortable.”
Gilliam and Lombardozzi, the show’s onscreen Bert and Ernie, shared a large apartment in Fell’s Point. They hosted epic evenings of beer and video games, including Madden Football tournaments pitting “Good Guys vs. Bad Guys,” cops against the drug dealers. The games would run until 5 or 6 a.m., when half the players would have to depart for an 8 a.m. call. (Peters, the refined bohemian, articulated the cast’s generation gap after hearing Lombardozzi brag about a particular Madden move he’d pulled off the night before: “He’s going, ‘Yeah, man, what you do is push x, x, y, x, y, y ...’ I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck? This is how they spend their free time?’”)
The pent-up energy that fueled all this revelry had a darker side. For many of the actors, particularly those working long night shoots on grim streets, production was both physically and spiritually exhausting. Royo found it especially difficult to play the sharp-eyed junkie, Bubbles. Royo’s father had owned a Harlem clothing store, and he had taken special pride in his appearance, showing up for school in wing tips and double-breasted suits. He knew that the sight of him in filthy junkie gear caused his parents particular heartache—not just on sartorial grounds but because it was the type of role black actors were all too accustomed to finding as their only options. At his audition, in front of Simon and producers Clark Johnson, and Robert Colesberry, Royo voiced his concerns that Bubbles not be just another clichéd black junkie. “They just looked at me and were like, ‘Oh, you don’t know how we get down.’”
Still, Bubbles may have been more than a cliché, but it was a difficult character to play day after day. “My character’s head space was not a pleasant one,” Royo said. “I’d look at Idris? Nothing but bitches outside his trailer. Dom West? Nothing but bitches. Sonja? Dudes and bitches. Me? I’d have junkies out there. They fell in love with Bubbles. I’d go into my trailer and clean my shit off and come out and they’d look at me like, ‘You’re not one of us. Fuck you.’ And then when I had the Bubbles garb back on, it’d be, ‘Hey! What’s up? Welcome back!’ That’s a head trip, man. That shit eats at you.”
By the third season, he said, “I was drinking. I was depressed. I’d look at scripts like, ‘What am I doing today? Getting high or pushing that fucking cart?’”
He was not alone. In the isolated hothouse of Baltimore, immersed in the world of the streets, the cast of The Wire showed a bizarre tendency to mirror its onscreen characters in ways that took a toll on its members’ outside lives: Lance Reddick, who played the ramrod-straight Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, tormented by McNulty’s lack of discipline, had a similarly testy relationship with West, who would fool around and try to make Reddick crack up during his camera takes. Gilliam and Lombardozzi, much like Herc and Carver, would spend the bulk of Seasons 2 and 3 exiled to the periphery of the action, stewing on stakeout in second-unit production and eventually lobbying to be released from their contracts.
Michael K. Williams, whose Omar was far and away the series’ most popular figure (a GQ writer quipped that asking viewers their favorite character was “like asking their favorite member of Adele”), was so carried away by sudden fame that he spent nearly all his newfound money on jeans, sneakers, and partying. At the very height of his popularity, Williams found himself evicted from the Brooklyn public housing project he’d grown up in, for nonpayment. He and Royo were only two of many Wire veterans who said they sought help for substance abuse once the experience was over. This is not to mention those non-actor cast members brought from the real Baltimore into the fake one—among them Little Melvin Williams, the inspiration for Avon Barksdale, out of prison on parole and cast as a wise, battle-scarred deacon.
To be an actor on a series like The Wire was to live in a permanent state of anxiety, one’s mortality (and unemployment) forever lurking around the next plot twist. On another show, death might just be the beginning of a long, fruitful run of ghost and dream sequences. But most actors in this Golden Age of TV understood that one of the period’s signature tropes—that, as in life, anybody could check out at any time—had significant implications for their job security.
The situation turned actors into forensic critics, deep-reading every set of new pages for the slightest hint of impending doom. “Every time you read the script, you’re looking for a hint: If too much of your story is being told, ‘Oh shit, they’re building it up. I’m gonna go,’” said Andre Royo. He and Michael K. Williams decided between themselves that one of their two characters, either Omar or Bubbles, was bound to buy it before the series ended. (Williams won that grim competition.) After a few seasons, Royo even developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome. He went to Simon and asked whether keeping Bubbles alive wasn’t a disservice to the story’s realism, given the usual life span of a junkie snitch.
“David looked at me and was like, ‘Shut the fuck up,’” he said. “‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know there has to be some hope or people aren’t going to get out of bed in the morning.’”
The Wire actors’ anxieties may have been compounded by the fact that communication with actors wasn’t always one of Simon’s showrunning skills. “David had a problem about telling people how they were gonna die. He’d never just say, ‘Look, you’re gonna die.’ There was always this weird energy,” said Royo. Larry Gilliard Jr., who played D’Angelo Barksdale had been infuriated by how he learned about his early departure in Season 2: Simon had run into him on set and said, “You’re going to love the stuff I wrote for you this episode.” “Great!” said Gilliard. “I mean, it’s probably your last episode ...,” said Simon.
The lesson went apparently unlearned by the end of Season 3. By all accounts, the producers honestly meant to sit down and talk with Idris Elba about the timing and manner of Stringer Bell’s death. Instead, that meeting never happened and he learned about it by reading the script—and subsequently hitting the roof. Making things worse was the script direction that had Omar standing over Bell’s body and peeing on it, apparently a real Baltimore gang tradition. Elba headed to set and started telling fellow actors he wouldn’t shoot the scene, enlisting some in his cause.
“He was pissed, man. And I got it, because, in effect, we were firing him,” said George Pelecanos, the crime novelist who wrote the episode. “David and I went to his trailer and tried to talk him down. We said, ‘This is the end of the character. We can’t keep his story going; it’s not logical. And this is exactly the way he would probably go out.’” Elba fixated on the urination. Omar wouldn’t be peeing on him, Simon and Pelecanos said; he’d be peeing on a fictional character. “Not on my character,” Elba told them.
Simon and Pelecanos could have invoked a favorite David Chase line when faced with similar protests: “Whoever said it was your character?” Instead, they cajoled and apologized until Elba relented. The death scene was shot at an empty Baltimore warehouse and wrapped at 4 a.m. On his way down a dark street to his car, Pelecanos heard pounding footsteps behind him and turned, cringing. It was Elba. “I just want to shake your hand,” he told the writer. “It’s just business.”
This article is adapted from Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad.