The iconic HBO crime series The Wire is one of those shows that even a decade-plus after its release, people are still talking about. Everyone from professors at Ivy League universities, television critics, and diehard fans continue to dissect every little detail from David Simon's masterpiece set in the city of Baltimore. One aspect of the show that continues to be just as fascinating as anything else is how it all came together; all those tidbits of background information and behind-the-scenes facts about the formation and production of one of the greatest shows of all time.
From the beginning to the very end of the examination of the inner working of Charm City's drug epidemic, the docks, misguided police department, failed school system, and unethical media outlets, here are some of the most interesting things to know about what happened under the pen and behind the camera of The Wire.
The Wire Was Loosely Based On The Experiences Of Co-Writer Ed Burns' Career In Law Enforcement
It's no secret that David Simon pulled from his long career with the Baltimore Sun newspaper for the general feel and atmosphere of the show, but a lot of the specifics and behaviors of certain characters and situations come from the memory bank of former Baltimore homicide detective-turned-writer Ed Burns.
During an interview with Salon conducted shortly after the series premiered in 2002, David Simon explained that a lot of what is seen in the first season was based on his writing partner's career, stating:
He did a lot of these protracted investigations, often of more than a year's time, into violent drug traffickers. It was largely based on his experiences and his frustrations in the department.
But as Simon and Burns took on the task of putting together the series, they began to read about things like Enron and the Catholic Church Sex Scandal, creating a sense of the anger towards institutions, with Simon adding:
It became more of a treatise about institutions and individuals than a straight cop show.
David Simon Had An Ingenious Way Of Convincing HBO To Produce A Cop Show
Before The Wire came around, you didn't go to HBO to watch cop shows, you went to big networks for that type of programming. Sure, there were crime-based series on HBO like Oz and The Sopranos, but a traditional cop show wasn't the channel's bread and butter so to speak. And David Simon knew this.
In a sprawling 2006 Entertainment Weekly profile on The Wire and its creator, former HBO Entertainment president Carolyn Strauss remembered her first meeting with David Simon in 2000, where he pitched the idea of beating the major networks at their own game, stating:
David made the very compelling argument that the most challenging and subversive thing that we could do was go right into the networks' backyard.
Former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley Wasn't The Biggest Fan Of The Series
You know you are doing something right when you get in trouble for it, and that was the case for David Simon who received an angry phone call from then-mayor of Baltimore Martin O'Malley, who tried everything in his power to make the show include some of the good things he had done about the city or find somewhere else to shoot.
During that phone call, which David Simon turned into a piece in Baltimore Magazine (via DavidSimon.com), the former mayor started off by saying that the city wanted out of The Wire business before going on a long spiel about including more positive aspects of the city, aspects which Simon surmised were brought up only to bolster the mayor's image.
In the Entertainment Weekly piece mentioned above, Hannah Byron, then-director of Baltimore's film and television division understood what the show meant for the city but wished The Wire would do more, stating:
But would he prefer that some of the other, more beautiful aspects of the city be portrayed? Yes.
John C. Reilly Was Almost Cast In The Lead Role Of Jimmy McNulty
Without a doubt, The Wire featured one of the most talented (and largest) casts on any television series before or since. The list of characters is led by none other than Dominic West who was such a capable actor in his portrayal of Jimmy McNulty that I didn't know he was English and not from Baltimore until after the fact.
I talked to him for maybe five minutes, and I said, 'Hey, listen, can I call you back? I'm in a corn maze with my kid.' And he said, 'Yeah, yeah. Call me back.' In the time between when he called me and when I called him back, he stopped taking calls.
But then an audition tape from Dominic West came in, and the rest is history.
Wendell Pierce’s Anger Towards A Cab Driver Helped Him Get The Role Of Bunk Moreland
In that same GQ profile on the cast, David Simon revealed that one of the auditions that stood out the most was that of Wendell Pierce who later went on to portray Bunk Moreland in all five seasons. On the day of the audition, Pierce had a bad experience with a cab driver and was red-hot with anger when he started reading lines, which Simon described as:
He was harried, like a bear who'd hit the hornet's nest. He had to focus on the scene, and he was apologizing for what he thought was a bad read, but it had that air of Baltimore—put-upon workaday Baltimore—homicide detective. As soon as he came in and read, it was like, 'That's our Bunk.'
The Actress Behind The Cutthroat Character, Snoop, Took Inspiration From Her Own Life
Felicia "Snoop" Pearson will go down as one of the most ruthless and relentless characters on The Wire for her cold yet oddly calm demeanor throughout the show's final three seasons. Snoop was such a sinister character that Stephen King of all people wrote about her in an Entertainment Weekly column, writing:
[Snoop] is perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series.
The character, however, was inspired by and named for the actress who brought the character to life. In a Baltimore Sun profile on Felicia Pearson, it was revealed that, like the character she played on TV, the actress grew up on the streets of Baltimore and was at one point sent to prison for second-degree murder after she shot and killed another teenager during a fight. After completing her sentenced, Pearson had a chance encounter with Michael K. Williams who invited her to the set of The Wire where she impressed the producers and was written into the show for a minor role before the character was expanded.
Even Michael K. Williams Was Confused When Season 2 Introduced The Docks
In hindsight, The Wire was always about more than just the drug-trade in Baltimore, and instead about how each and every aspect of life in Charm City is connected. But jumping from Season 1 with the focus on the Barksdale Organization and police task force investigating the heroin trade to the docks and union workers in Season 2 was a major jump.
Fans of the series weren't the only ones surprised by the new environment and cast of characters introduced in the second season of The Wire, as Michael K. Williams, who portrayed Omar Little, was initially confused and a little upset about the shift. During a 2014 reunion (via Vulture), Williams recalled:
The whole first season I came on as a recurring character and the character started to grow. So I fell in love with the cast, I fell in love with the writing, I fell in love with the city, so what do you do? You move to Baltimore. So I was ready for second season, like OK, where’s this storyline going? And I got introduced to the mind of David Simon—he took it to the docks. I got real bitter. I was an angry black man. And I approached David, in my ignorance, you know—how come when we made the show hot, and you want to give it to the white people?
The Season 4 School Subplot Was Inspired By The Flawed Baltimore School System
You could make an argument that Season 4 of The Wire is the show at its best, and that has a lot to do with co-writer Ed Burns history in the Baltimore public school system, which was a major focal point of the series' penultimate season. After leaving the Baltimore Police Department after 20 years, Burns spent the next seven as a teacher in the inner city.
At the time of the Season 4 premiere, Ed Burns sat down with NPR to discuss the flawed school system in the city of Baltimore as well as other public school districts in large metropolitan areas with sub-standard inner city schools.
Ed Burns explained that the season took place in a middle school opposed to a high school to better illustrate how children are being put through a "testing ground for the street" at that age, stating:
This is the tragedy of their school experience. They spend time in class warring with the teacher. They're suspended. They go to time-out rooms, and then they hit the streets, and within five years, a lot of them are victims of murders or are committing murders.
David Simon Had The Best Response When The U.S. Attorney General Begged For A Sixth Season
Just about everyone wanted more of The Wire following the conclusion of the fifth season in March 2008, Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General under the Obama Administration, who jokingly begged David Simon and Ed Burns to make another season when speaking at a drug policy event in 2011. In an article from Wire (via The Atlantic), it was reported that Holder joked when he said that he had a lot of power.
Well, not one to miss out on a lot of fun and call out government officials who push terrible domestic policy, David Simon gave one of the best responses:
The Attorney-General's kind remarks are noted and appreciated. I've spoken to Ed Burns, and we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanizing drug prohibition.
Tom McCarthy, Who Played An Unethical Journalist In Season 5, Went On To Direct One Of The Best Journalism Movies In Years
And this last little tidbit of behind-the-scenes facts has not as much to do with The Wire as it does with one of the most detestable characters introduced during the show's five-season run. No, it's not one of the many drug dealers, crooked cops, or corrupt politicians. No, it's Scott Templeton, the unethical and arrogant Baltimore Sun reporter that was portrayed by Tom McCarthy.
Throughout the entire fifth season, Scott Templeton is shown to be untrustworthy, unlikable, and prone to just make stuff up whenever he's trying to bring depth to a flat story. What's funny about this is that nearly a decade after shining light on the dark side of journalism, McCarthy wrote and directed one of the best newspaper movies in years with the 2015 release of Spotlight.
I like to tell myself that Tom McCarthy was so disgusted by the character he portrayed in the final episodes of David Simon's masterpiece that he took that resentment and wrote a spectacular movie that shows just why the country needs the newspaper in the first place.
Those are just 10 of the fascinating things that happened behind-the-scenes of the HBO classic The Wire. Did you learn something about the show, the actors, or David Simon's feelings on U.S. domestic policy? Let us know in the comments below.