“They were all singing ‘Down in the Hole’ together in the elevator, so I think they’re raring to go,” joked moderator Alan Sepinwall, and he wasn’t kidding. As the cast members and producers of The Wire made their way to the Paley Center’s stage for this special PaleyFest 2014 reunion and panel, each person seemed as jazzed to be there as the audience. Many of these former co-stars hadn’t seen each other in years, and for us superfans who’ve now seen the HBO series three or four times, the sight of so much love in the room was slightly disorienting: Wait, did Marlo Stanfield just give Omar a bro-hug? What is D’Angelo Barksdale whispering to Sgt. Ellis Carver that was so funny? Why is Deputy Commissioner Rawls not screaming profanity and tearing everybody present a new one?!?
To see showrunner David Simon, producer Nina Kostroff-Noble and the eight Wire actors on stage (as well as the three cast members sitting in the audience who also chimed in) affectionately reminisce and dissect what was continually referred to throughout the night as “the greatest series in television history” was a dream come true. It was also a chance for the folks responsible for this groundbreaking show to reveal a few favorite anecdotes, behind-the-scene tidbits and some answers to longstanding questions. Here are 10 things we learned after going way, way down in the hole with these Wire all-stars.
1. Seth Gilliam does a mean “Herc” impersonation.
The actor who played Sgt. Ellis Carver admits that, during the show’s second season — when the focus shifted from the housing projects to Baltimore’s docks — that he and actor Domenick Lombardozzi, who played his partner-in-crimefighting Det. “Herc’ Hauk, were getting tired of doing virtually nothing. They were going to threaten to leave the show if Simon didn’t start using them more. When Simon recalled pointing out that the actors might be feeling exactly what they’re characters were feeling and that this might be intentional, Gilliam then went into a dead-on impersonation of Herc’s outer-borough bark: “I wish they’d trust us more…if this don’t turn into something, I’m gonna fuck knock David Simon out!” The audience roared.
2. Michael Kenneth Williams thought he was out after Season One.
The actor who played what’s arguably The Wire‘s biggest fan-favorite character — the whistling nightmare of Bodymore’s drug-thug community, Omar Little — was so excited to be part of the show that he moved to Baltimore after the first season ended. Then the scripts started coming in for Season Two and he was confused that the cops-vs.-dealers storyline had been pushed to the side — meaning Omar was off the show. “How come when we make your show hot, then you gotta give it to the white people?!?” he said he asked Simon at the time. Once the laughter died down, Simon calmly joked, “Michael, that’s the way it works.” The producer said he then explained that Omar would be back and that this was all part of the long game the show was playing. “At the moment, I got it,” Williams said. “I was a small part of a bigger picture.”
3. Wendell Pierce did not have a problem with profanity.
It was inevitable that the single most memorable scene from The Wire‘s first season — an investigation in which the only dialogue consists of the f-word — would be the topic of conversation at one point during the evening. Sure enough, Sepinwall brought it up when talking to Wendell Pierce, the actor who played Bunk and made up one half of the sequence’s obscenity-spewing duo. Pierce talked about how he viewed it as an caching exercise, and the scene is probably the one thing he’s done that, as performer, he’s most proud of. So how hard was it to film this now-legendary exchange? Pierce took a long beat before answering, “Fucking easy.”
4. Sonja Sohn and Wendell Pierce didn’t have high hopes originally.
Recalling the first time she saw The Wire‘s pilot, the actress who played Det. “Kima” Greggs said she and her co-stars were more than a little discouraged over the first episode’s deliberate pacing and lack of fireworks. She talked about watching the episode with Pierce and Andre Royo (Bubbles) in a conference room, the three of them giddy with excitement. An hour later, after the lights went up, the three of them were more than a little worried for their job security. “I dunno, it’s kinda slow…” she remembers saying, suddenly worried that she’d be back in the unemployment line. Pierce claims to have had a more visceral reaction: “I got my agent on the phone and said ‘Call Law and Order right now, tell them I should be available very soon…'”
5. Carolyn Strauss saved Kima’s life
Sohn said she was chatting with Melanie Nicholls-King, who played Kima’s girlfriend Cheryl, about their parts one day when the latter said she’d originally auditioned for Sohn’s part. Then Nicholls-King dropped a bomb: “But that’s okay, because Kima ends up dying in episode five, so…” Sohn had no idea that her character was destined to meet an early demise, at which point Simon revealed that the plan had been to kill Kima off originally. “Carolyn Strauss saved her,” he said, referring to HBO’s president of the entertainment division. She’d grown to love the character and after watching the rough cut for the episode in which Kima’s fate would be decided, she told Simon it made more sense to let her live. “I think her exact comment was ‘Do you want to have a show?'” Simon joked.
6. A little thing like geography would not keep McNulty and Stringer from saying hello.
Before the cast and producers came out for the panel, the Paley played a special video message from one of the show’s stars: Dominic West, a.k.a. the show’s resident “good police” protagonist McNulty. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there tonight, as several people on the panel owe me money,” he cracked. Then he recounted how Simon once told him that “10 years from now, you’ll be sitting in a bar and will tell someone, ‘I was once on a show called The Wire.‘ And they’ll say, ‘I think you’ve had too much to drink, it’s time to go home.’ That happens to me on a monthly basis now.” Later in the evening , the moderator said there was another special video message for the crowd — at which point Idris Elba’s face filled the large screen behind the panel. “I miss all of you, my Wire family,” he said, telling everyone how people still bring up Stringer Bell every time he goes in for an audition and how the character was such a gift. He then told everybody that he had to go “because like Stringer, I don’t like phones…and I think the Feds are coming.”
7. Wendell Pierce hangs out with the real-life Bunk.
When asked if criminal mastermind and thwarted business mogul Stringer Bell was based on anybody, Simon mentioned Lamont “Chin” Farmer, a Baltimore resident who ran with a criminal crowd, as being the primary inspiration behind Stringer. It was Farmer’s ability to keep a low profile and diversify his interests, the showrunner claimed, that helped him craft Idris Elba’s part. Pierce then talked about the real-life Bunk, a homicide detective named Rick Requer, who the actor met once before filming started. “He gave me a look,” Pierce said, screwing up his face, “then I didn’t see him for another five years.” After hearing that Bunk was retiring, the actor showed up at his going-away party — at which point Requer said “You made me a hero!” and gave Pierce a hug. “We’re supposed to go see a Saints game in a month,” Pierce said.
8. Stringer almost bore a strong resemblance to Major “Bunny” Colvin
After Simon mentioned that actor Robert Wisdom, who played the architect behind the failed sociology experiment “Hamsterdam” in Season Three, was in the audience, one of the Paley’s staff members passed a microphone to the baritone-voiced star. Wisdom then proceeded to say that, before he’d got the part of “Bunny” Colvin, he’d gone up for Stringer Bell. “Actors have a thing where, if they don’t get a part they want, they don’t watch the show,” he said, as the actors onstage cracked up. But he ended up watching it after word of mouth among his peers started to spread during the first season, and later came on to help usher one of the more tragic storylines of the show.
9. Everyone loves Season Four. Everyone.
When asked what they’re favorite scenes were from the show, a few of the cast members hemmed and hawed before reluctantly picking out a few choice tidbits, such as Przbylewski helping his former team mates to find an at-risk kid or a sequence involving a young actor having to deal with a dead relative. But virtually everyone to a person mentioned that Season Four, in which Simon and co. took on our nation’s education system, as a perfect example of what The Wire did best when it was firing on all pistons. “I knew then that we were telling stories that needed to be told…those kids touched me so much,” Pierce said.
10. No, The Wire is not coming back — and never will.
During the end of the Q&A session near the end, Sepinwall wondered if, as a writer, Simon was ever tempted to bring back the show and see what happened to these characters. “A story has a beginning, a middle and an end,” Simon replied. “And we gave it an end.” He then said that he knew he’d have to bring back all the fans’ favorite characters, and that it would just end up being little more than beating a dead horse. “So, what, we reveal that Omar really didn’t die? We bring back Bubbles, and then he relapses and gets high again, and gets clean again? It would be little more than sustaining the franchise at that point. And sustaining the franchise is the great disease of American television.”