'The Wire' cast and creators look back on the series on its 20th anniversary

The Wire creator David Simon, along with cast members Dominic West, Wendell Pierce, Andre Royo, Jim True-Frost, Clarke Peters, Lance Reddick, and Executive Producer Nina Noble, talk with Yahoo's Ethan Alter about the series' origin and its lasting influence. They also share memories of how audiences reacted to their characters and offer up fond memories of working with Michael K. Willliams.

Video transcript

- Pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early.

- Unless they some smart ass pawns.

ETHAN ALTER: When you first created "The Wire" 20 years ago, were you consciously looking to move away from what kinds of police procedurals are on the air? Were you consciously reacting to what people are watching?

DAVID SIMON: Yeah. There's a document out there, a show bible, that somebody leaked. Some agent got hold of it and they threw it up on the internet about five, six, seven, maybe a decade ago. It had a cover letter on it that said, look, this is what the networks do. They catch the bad guy. The point HBO, which was very good at counterprogramming network fare with things like "The Sopranos" or "Sex and the City," and I made the argument to them that you should now go to the meat and potatoes of network TV, the cop show, and you should undo it.

You should invert it so that it's not, are they going to catch the bad guy? It's, who's a bad guy? Why do you think so? Who's a good guy? Why do you think so? What is the purpose here? What's happening and whether or not the policies of drug prohibition, mass arrests, zero tolerance policing, whether any of this makes sense? And you want to leave the viewer questioning the entire premise.


- Mother-[BLEEP].

ETHAN ALTER: I have [INAUDIBLE] talking about the amazing scene in season one, the [BLEEP] scene, as everyone knows. It's a classic moment. Tell me a little bit about that. Is that when you knew the show was going to be a different kind of show when you had to play that scene together?

WENDELL PIERCE: I knew it was a different kind of show even from the script. It was beautifully written and all. And David described that scene to us saying, hey, they're going to be on me about the language, so I figure we're going to do this and it's just going to go all out. He described the whole scene to us and said, you're only going to use [BLEEP]. I'm like, wow.

And then it's really playing off of Dominic, which was great. And we had fun with it. And then once it aired, I thought, well, I knew that scene would be iconic. I knew that scene-- that everyone would remember that scene. It wasn't until after the show ended that I realized how iconic the show would be.

DOMINIC WEST: I felt it was quite a departure from the spirit of the show. And David did this occasionally, where it was highly naturalistic and then suddenly this quite stagey, quite artificial scene came up. And I thought, I don't know if the audience are going to buy this, and they did. And I think we acted it well, but David, he could get quite artificial, quite operatic.

ETHAN ALTER: Were you happy to be part of a show that was changing the narrative and really being more serious about what was happening in police stations?

CLARKE PETERS: Oh, yeah. Well, it wasn't just the police stations, but it was the whole city, not being in America. It was the whole experience was an education for me. Running around with the police as well for the first time despite the fact that I have people in law enforcement in my family. Rolling with those guys was not something I'd like to just do for fun on the weekend. It was really an eye opener. I was rolling with good cops and bad cops.

I couldn't let the bad cops know that I thought that they were bad but-- because they were just showing off. But yeah. Yeah, it's a trip. It was a real trip.

ETHAN ALTER: Well, Lance, that point, I mean, your character midway through the show, in the course of the show, actually leaves the police force rather than compromise his ethics. We've seen now in real life cops aren't always willing to do that. There's a code of silence and the thin blue line surrounding that. How do you feel about the way police were portrayed on the show and versus what we're seeing now in real life [INAUDIBLE]?

LANCE REDDICK: I think it was the first time that television had tried to portray the police in such a completely realistic way. I mean, I've had-- especially when the show was on-- several times cops would come up to me and say, man, that shit was too real. Or even scenes in [INAUDIBLE] where they said, man, I was lieutenant and that same stuff happened.

ETHAN ALTER: And Jim, for you, your character left policing to go into schools. And now, obviously, we're sort of looking at police presence in schools in light of what incidents like in Texas. Did that storyline give you any perspective into what's happening now in the real world?

JIM TRUE-FROST: Everything that's happening now in the real world-- I mean in my life and whatever-- is illuminated by things that happened in "The Wire." The script is so pertinent and so well-observed that it has all kinds of reflections and comments about society's ills, which just every bit the same now as they were then.

I'd have to say when my character went into the schools, I was taking a trip into what essentially was my lens on Baltimore to begin with because my wife was a teacher in Baltimore schools in a tough, under-resourced school. So I had really heard a lot of those stories before my character took that turn. And I certainly heard from her and from teachers who would stop me on the street that they really appreciated the spotlight that they put on that situation.

- Omar coming

- Omar coming.

- Come on.

- Get out of here.

- Hurry up, man.

ETHAN ALTER: Great to see everyone back together again. There's obviously one person who isn't and that's Michael K. Williams. What's one of your favorite memories of working with him on "The Wire?"

JAMIE HECTOR: Well, many. It's very difficult to pick one because every time you get around Mike, you know he's going to be something, right? Because he's so engaging, so kind, so giving. But I share this story all the time. My first day on set, I saw him walking to his trailer. And because he's from Brooklyn-- I'm from Brooklyn as a matter of fact-- I lived around the corner from him at one point.

I saw him and I was like, Mike. What's up, man? My name is Jamie. I'm on the show. I just started. And he just looked at me, character you playing? I was like, I told him. And he just took a drag of his [INAUDIBLE], like, no arguing about the wardrobe, man. And that was it.


JAMIE HECTOR: [INAUDIBLE] subtext is came here to do a job.

ANDRE ROYO: That's it. Yup. No one's bigger than the team, man.

JAMIE HECTOR: No one's bigger than the team. Wow. And I looked at him and he just walked away. And it was-- I didn't know if I was talking to Michael K. Williams or Omar Little.

ANDRE ROYO: I knew Mike from back before "The Wire." I'm from the Bronx, so we didn't really [BLEEP] with each other like that. Brooklyn dude, whatever. But artist to artist, we have respect for each other. And he was just a great guy. And we were always-- me and him were always just excited because David Simon told us-- like in the beginning after the pilot-- you guys are sub-storyline.

Like, it's cops and robbers. McNulty trying to catch Barksdale, and you guys are outside of this storyline with your own arc. I don't know if you're going to make it. So we were just like-- every time we got to the new season, we were like, you coming back? Me too! OK, [INAUDIBLE]. Like, we was excited to keep coming back. And he was just such a fearless and present actor and artist. He was so excited to be there. He was so excited to do the work, be a part of the work, and get it right.

He understood the responsibility of what type of character he was playing, how that might be perceived, and how he wanted to translate and narrate within David Simon's story what pride and what humility and empathy you should feel whether you agree or not with this character. And I think everybody on the show, that's what they were doing with their characters.

Everybody has an idea of a cop or a drug dealer or a drug addict, but we're trying to get three layers so that you can get a better sense of a full, complete human being within each character. And he loved that. He loved it and he embraced it. And he made every time special on set.

ETHAN ALTER: We've seen other HBO shows come back, "Deadwood." "The Sopranos" recently informed of a prequel movie, sequel movies. Do you see "The Wire" coming back? Would you two be willing to bring it back in any form?

NINA NOBLE: I think we've moved on. Kind of moved on. I mean, I'm glad-- I'm glad "The Wire" is still part of the conversation, but we have other things to say or other ways to say things.

ETHAN ALTER: Would you consider handing it over to anyone else or is it really--


ETHAN ALTER: --take it personal.


DAVID SIMON: No. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And this one was planned and it got to its ending and thank god. And there's other universes to build and there's other ways to tell a story.

CLARKE PETERS: There's a whole generation of officers and police who have probably come up on "The Wire" who want to do the job that they saw us do. And there's also a whole bunch of criminals that are out there who learn from it as well. So yeah. It's an ongoing drama. It's a nonstop drama.

I have to say that there was always that debate on what was a better show, "The Sopranos" or "The Wire," and hands down "The Wire." I'm sorry. If you felt like "The Sopranos" was the number one thing-- and I don't care whether you "Sopranos" fans or not, the real deal is the real deal. You can sit back and follow one man's life or you can look at a whole city where you live and you figure out which is the better story to be told.


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