The HBO series The Wire was controversial, gritty, and harrowing in its portrayal of drug crimes and gang violence in West Baltimore. While what happened on screen was fascinating, the behind the scenes stories and the impact the show had on politics and culture is just as interesting.
The Creators Knew Their Stuff
The Wire gets much of its realism from the co-creators of the show, David Simon and Ed Burns. David Simon was so knowledgeable about the Baltimore drug trafficking world from his twelve years of working for the Baltimore Sun. Simon also co-wrote The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood with Ed burns, and wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets about the city’s drug and gang problems.
Ed Burns was similarly knowledgeable. Burns worked as a Baltimore police detective for the Homicide and Narcotics divisions, and as a public school teacher before working as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun.
David Simon Begged to Keep The Wire on the Air
Despite critical success, The Wire didn’t achieve the same kinds of ratings as The Sopranos, and it was a constant battle for creator David Simon to keep the show on the air for six seasons.
He told Entertainment Weekly, “The Wire was canceled after season three, and The Wire was nearly canceled again—I had to grovel and beg and plead—after season four.” Despite that struggle, Simon did credit HBO will giving him creative freedom, saying the network was, “very liberal in terms of allowing the people involved in the production of these shows to find their own vision and try to execute.
Omar Was Based on a Real Person
The Robin Hood-esque character of Omar Little was sometimes criticized for being the kind of television anti-hero who could never exist in real life, but the character, known for hauntingly whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” while stalking the streets, was based on real life Baltimore area robber and hitman, Donnie Andrews.
Like Omar, Andrews was a stickup artist who robbed drug dealers but never involved women and children. After taking on a contract killing for drug kingpin Warren Boardley to support his heroin addiction, Andrews was filled with guilt and surrendered himself to police. Creator David Simon, was a co-author on a book partially about Andrews called The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Omar wasn’t the only character with roots in reality.
And So Was Bubbles
Like Oman Little, Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins was based on a real-life police informant known as “Possum” whose true identity has never been made public at the request of his family. Like Bubbles, Possum was a key witness in several cases. He was known for having an incredible memory for faces and a vast knowledge of the streets of Baltimore and their inhabitants.
Show creator David Simon met with Possum twice before the informant died of AIDS-related complications, and ended up turning an article he was writing about him into an obituary. The real-life inspiration for The Wire didn’t end with Bubbles.
A Tale of Two Jay Landsmans
The burly detective sergeant Jay Landsman that viewers know from The Wire was inspired by the real-life Jay Landsman, who may have been smaller in stature, but was just as big of a personality as the character. The real Landsman was a homicide detective who David Simon first met while researching his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. That book went on to inspire an NBC television series.
The character Jay Landsman wasn’t the only Jay Landsman to appear on The Wire. The real-life Landsman eventually became a regular cast member playing the role of Major Dennis Mello in seasons three through five. The inspiration didn’t end there.
The Inspiration Behind Wee-Bey Brice
Roland “Wee-Bey” Brice, portrayed by actor Hassan Johnson, was the gang Barksdale Organization’s most trusted soldier on the show. He’s based on someone Ed Burns, the producer, writer, and co-creator of The Wire, was a former police detective and writer for the Baltimore Sun.
Among the high-end drug traffickers that Burns studied in the 1980s was a heroin dealer named Thomas H. Taylor whose partner, Vernon Collins, was known as Bey-Brother. He was known as a narcotics hitman who was feared throughout Baltim e, and was one of the most notorious contract killers in the 1970s. Bey-Brother was arrested like Wee-Bey, and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison.
The Cast Is Made up of Baltimoreans
To add to the realism of The Wire, David Simon plucked many of the cast members from Baltimore. Jay Landsman, who plays Dennis Mello and not the character based on him, is a retired Baltimore homicide detective.
Landsman wasn’t the only cast member to call Baltimore home before the show. Melvin Williams, a former heroin trafficker and the inspiration behind Avon Barksdale, began appearing on The Wire during the show’s third season as The Deacon. Baltimorean actress, author, and rapper Felicia “Snoop” Pearson appears as a character of the same name on The Wire. Pearson also wrote a memoir called Grace After Midnight detailing her troubled childhood and her prison time for second degree murder.
Andre Royo Was Offered Heroin
Andre Royo, who portrayed the heroin addicted police informant Bubbles in the show, was actually offered heroin from a real drug dealer during an on-location shoot for The Wire’s first season. His story proves the actor was doing some authentic work on the show, and that he definitely looked the part of an addict.
Royo was approached by a drug dealer who told him, “Yo, you need this man. You look like you need a hit.” Royo says he laughed after the incident and felt emotional. “I was like, ‘Wow, he thinks I’m a junkie for real.’ I felt validated.”
The Show’s Roots: A Forgotten Mini-Series
While The Wire was always cheated out of an Emmy award, Simon did nab four Emmy nominations and won Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Writing, and Outstanding Directing for the critically-acclaimed by mostly forgotten 2000 mini-series called The Corner, which was based on the nonfiction book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood written by Ed Burns and David Simon.
The Corner was about drug- and poverty-stricken West Baltimore, but it didn’t just overlap thematically with The Wire. The miniseries and The Wire also shared a number of cast members, including Lance Reddick (Lt. Cedric Daniels), and Clarke Peters (Detective Lester Freamon).
The Show Had Surprisingly Low Ratings
Despite many positive reviews from major television critics who called it one of the best contemporary dramas of all time, The Wire received surprisingly poor Nielson ratings. David Simon attributed the low ratings to the complexity of the plot, heavy use of slang, a predominately black cast, and a poor time slot.
After the close of the third season, The Wire was facing cancelation for struggling to maintain ratings. Simon wondered if the expectations for HBO shows and ratings had changed after The Sopranos. However, the show lasted two more seasons, ending after 60 episodes and five seasons. Despite the low ratings, The Wire did have a number of important fans.
President Obama Was a Huge Fan
Apparently, President Barack Obama loved The Wire just as much as we did. The 44th president has cited The Wire as one of his favorite television shows several times. President Obama even had a favorite character: Omar Little, the gay drug dealing stick-up man with a Robin Hood-esque moral code. He told the Las Vegas Sun, “That’s not an endorsement. He’s not my favorite person, but he’s a fascinating character.”
The Wire was also one of the few things President Obama and John McCain could agree on. McCain also listed The Wire as one of his favorite television shows, alongside Seinfeld.
Attorney General Eric Holder Made a Plea to the Creators
President Obama and John McCain weren’t the only political figures who loved The Wire. The 82nd Attorney General Eric Holder appeared at a drug policy event in 2011 alongside three actors from the series and creators Ed Burns and David Simon. After the fifth and final season, Holder said, “I want to speak directly to Burns and Mr. Simon: Do another season of The Wire. I have a lot of power Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon.”
David Simon responded to Holder’s plea through journalists, saying, “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 de-humanizing drug prohibition.” But not every politician loves the show.
Martin O’Malley Hates The Wire
According to David Simon, the character of Tommy Carcetti, a young white Baltimore mayor who struggles to maintain his morals as he takes on the governor’s office, was partially based on Marin O’Malley. However, Martin O’Malley wasn’t flattered by the comparison.
O’Malley campaigned on the idea that he turned the city of Baltimore and then the state around, so it’s no surprise he takes issue with The Wire. “I would take issue with whether or not I’m the inspiration for The Wire. I’m the antidote to The Wire,” he told MSNBC in 2009. David Simon and O’Malley ended up meeting on an Amtrak train and taking a selfie together, though O’Malley stands by his view of the show.
The Intro Song Reflected Themes in the Show
The Wire’s theme song “Way Down in the Hole” was written by Tom Waits, but performances of the song for the opening credits of the show were done by The Blind Boys of Alabama (season one), Tom Waits (season two), The Neville Brothers (season three), and Steve Earle (season five). The show used big name musicians in all but one season.
In the fourth season of the show, the theme song was sung by DoMaJe, a group of Baltimore teenagers. The change in theme song was meant to highlight the fourth season’s themes of adolescence in the inner city and education.
Michael B. Jordan Didn’t Need to Prepare for the Show
Michael B. Jordan plays 16-year-old drug dealer Wallace, who worked for the Barksdale Organization in the low-rise project known as “The Pit.” Unfortunately, Jordan didn’t need to do a lot of preparation for the role.
“I live in an area where there are lots of drug dealers and I know some people who may or may not sell drugs,” the actor said. He found out his character was going to die a week before it was filmed, and it was considered one of the show’s bleakest moments. David Simon said he saw Wallace’s story as an illustration of the adage, “a 16-year-old drug dealer is still 16.”
Michael B. Jordan (Wallace) Now
Michael B. Jordan definitely didn’t need to return to his rough childhood neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey after The Wire. The actor went on to have a successful career. He played the quarterback Vince Howard in Friday Night Lights, Alex in Parenthood, and Nate Warren in The Assistants.
Jordan has also had a number of film roles, including Oscar Grant in the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station, Victor Stone in Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four, Mikey in That Awkward Moment, and Erik Killmonger in Black Panther which is currently filming. He currently lives in Los Angeles, California.
There Was Almost a Spin-Off
According to David Simon, there was almost a spin-off of The Wire. After the politically charged third season of the show, he got to work on a spin-off series called The Hall that would further explore the rise of Tommy Carcetti and corruption in Baltimore politics. We can’t imagine what Martin O’Malley would’ve thought of The Hall.
Simon even put a writing team together, but unfortunately, HBO wasn’t crazy about the idea. According to Simon, they rejected the idea for the political spin-off on the grounds that they, “only wanted one show that nobody is watching about Baltimore, not two!”
Influence on the City of Baltimore
While some credit the controversial HBO series with drawing attention to major drug problems and corrupt politics in the “other” Baltimore, some politicians and residents take issue with the show. Martin O’Malley has a long-standing beef with The Wire, and residents often say the show fails to depict the world-class museums, universities, and medical research institutes, or the tree-lined residential communities of the historic city.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the show presented an incomplete picture of the city: “The show’s popularity was based on showing all that was wrong in Baltimore.” Dirty Jobs host and Baltimore native Mike Rowe has also said the show is bad for the city.
Anwan Glover Dealt with Real Life Violence
Anwan Glover, a musician in BackYard Band who played Slim Charles of the Barksdale Organization on the show, found himself dealing with real life violence after shooting The Wire. The then 41-year-old actor was stabbed at a Washington, D.C. nightclub by two men he didn’t know. He later wrote on his Instagram, “My flesh may be stabbed, but my spirit is unbreakable.”
Glover’s brother died in a gang shooting in 2007, and Glover was reportedly shot at thirteen times while growing up in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. His son was also wounded in 2011 in a shooting at a party. Glover wasn’t the only one to experience a brush with violence.
Jamie Hector Had a Harrowing Baby Shower
Jamie Hector played the ruthless drug kingpin Marlo Stansfield on The Wire, but the real-life scene of violence that occurred at a baby shower for his wife in Brooklyn, New York rivals some of the most harrowing scenes on the show.
The actor was celebrating at the baby shower when gunmen unloaded approximately 50 bullets outside the party. They then tried to kill wounded men at the hospital later. Hector wasn’t the target of the shooting and has distanced himself from the incident. “The shooting did not take place at my home, nor did it involve me, my wife, nor any of the invited guests,” he said.
Felica “Snoop” Pearson’s Rocky Journey
Before she was on The Wire, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson was born to a mother addicted to crack and was a foster child before turning to low-level drug dealing. At age 15 she went to prison for shooting a rival drug dealer. Her real story rivals the character she plays on the show, a tomboy gang assassin who was called “perhaps the most terrifying villain to ever appear in a television series,” by Stephen King.
Unfortunately, Pearson couldn’t find acting work after the show ended in 2008, and returned to dealing drugs in Baltimore. She was arrested again in 2011 in connection with a heroin ring but received a suspended sentence. Since her release, Pearson has returned to acting to turn her life around again.
Sonja Sohn (Kima Greggs) Now
The character Kima Greggs, a Baltimore police detective who is a lesbian and struggles with alcohol issues and infidelity, was supposed to be killed off in the first season of The Wire, but her story became one of the most compelling of the season.
After the show ended in 2008, Sonja Sohn who played Greggs went on to have a recurring role in The Originals and Luke Cage as well as appearing in independent films. The show had a profound impact on Sohn, who took a break from acting in 2009 to concentrate on social issues and found the Baltimore-based reWIRED for Change, an outreach program for at-risk youth.
Andre Royo (Bubbles Cousins) Now
Andre Royo has taken on a number of roles since The Wire ended. He guest starred in the Starz series Party Down, then guest starred in the Fox series Fringe. Royo had a number of other television roles including appearances in Prime Suspect, Key & Peele, Happyish, Hand of God, and Bob’s Burgers before appearing in Marvel’s Agent Carter series portraying Spider Raymond who runs the nightclub La Martinique.
Empire fans might also recognize Andre Royo from his role as the defense attorney Thirsty Rawlings, Lucious’s sharp, unethical lawyer with a questionable past.
Aidan Gillen (Tommy Carcetti) Now
Aidan Gillen was known as Tommy Carcetti, the Baltimore mayor turned Maryland governor who struggled with his morality as he rose to power. Gillen appeared in The Dark Night Rises as CIA Agent Bill Wison in 2012, but the Irish actor is now known for a different HBO series role.
Aidan went on to star as Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in the HBO series Game of Thrones. In 2009, Gillen won an Irish Film and Television Award for his role on The Wire, which he dedicated to his then-wife and children. As of 2015, Gillen is separated from his wife, Olivia O’Flanagan.
Idris Elba (Stinger Bell) Now
The Wire was a breakout role for Idris Elba, who was known for playing druglord Singer Bell on the show and has since become a household name. After wrapping on The Wire, the English actor signed on to the popular six-part BBC series Luther.
After Luther, Idris Elba appeared in a number of notable roles. He portrayed Nelson Mandela in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and portrayed Captain Janek in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. He also starred in the film Beasts of No Nation, as a voice actor in Zootopia and Finding Dory, and in Star Trek Beyond. He was also ranked second in People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive in 2013.
Jamie Hector (Marlo Stanfield) Now
Jamie Hector was known for his portrayal of drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield in The Wire, but the actor is now playing a very different character as Detective Jerry Edgar in the series Bosch. He also appeared in the film Night Catches Us with Kerry Washington.
In addition to his acting work, Jamie Hector is involved in activism. He founded Moving Mountains in 2007. Moving Mountains is a non-profit theater organization that provides youth with drama, dance, vocal, and film classes. He also helped raise money for survivors of the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels) Now
Lance Reddick has also maintained the success he achieved as Lt. Cedrick Daniels on The Wire. The actor quickly moved on to another television project playing Matthew Abbadon, an employee of Charles Widmore, in the fourth and fifth seasons of Lost, and played Phillip Broyles in Fringe.
Recently, Reddick has appeared alongside Jamie Hector in Bosch, and in the 2013 thriller White House Down. He stars and co-produces the YouTube series DR0NE. Reddick was one of the cast members of The Wire who was born in Baltimore, though he moved to Boston in the 1980s and enrolled in the Yale School of Drama in 1991.
Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar Little) Now
Michael Kenneth Williams was known for his chilling portrayal of Omar Little in The Wire, but he also moved on to another HBO series—Boardwalk Empire—to play Albert “Chalky” White. Williams also received critical praise for his role as Jack Gee, the husband of Bessie Smith, in the HBO biopic Bessie.
Williams’s additional roles include Robert in 12 Years a Slave, Jack Lewis in Robo Cop, and Hawkins in Ghostbusters. During the filming of The Wire, Williams struggled with a cocaine addiction he attributes to the “dark energy” he was channeling to play Omar Little. His career flourished after his recovery.
Wendell Pierce (Detective Bunk Moreland) Now
Shortly after his role as Detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire ended, Wendell Pierce signed on to another HBO series, Treme, as the trombonist Antoine Batiste. He also became the host of the nationally syndicated Peabody Award-winning radio program Jazz at the Lincoln Center in 2009.
He currently stars on the CBS sitcom The Odd Couple, but in addition to acting, he’s a serious businessman. Pierce founded the non-profit Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp. to build solar and geothermal homes for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina and responded to Michelle Obama’s initiative to bring more produce to food deserts by starting a chain of grocery stores, Sterling Farms, in the ninth ward of New Orleans.
Seth Gilliam (Ellis Carver) Now
American actor Seth Gilliam was best known for his portrayal of police officer Ellis Carver on The Wire, and he’s continued to have an active career. After the show ended, he had a number of guest roles including parts on The Good Wife, Nurse Jackie, Damages, and CSI: Miami.
He landed a major recurring role as Dr. Alan Deaton in the MTV series Teen Wolf in 2011, and a starring role as Gabriel Strokes in the AMC series The Walking Dead. Along with Chad Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., Seth Gilliam is the third The Wire alum to join The Walking Dead.