By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007
It was early still -- about 10 p.m. on Friday -- and somewhere in Columbia, David Simon was giving a tour of the sights: There, he said, pointing, was the Baltimore mayor's office. Over there? The city's Western District police headquarters, and there, that little closet of a room, "that can be the visiting room at Jessup." Pause. "Or the jail. Depends. We just redecorate."
As he stood on a platform, taking in his world, it was hard to ignore the irony: For the past two years, a good chunk of "The Wire," the HBO show that critics have praised for the grittiness of its inner-city vérité, has been filmed in an anonymous soundstage in the burbs -- a soundstage that reportedly will be turned into a massive Wegmans Food Market.
After five seasons, and this final episode, they would be done.
"It's time," said Clarke Peters, who plays Detective Lester Freamon, "to pull the plug on 'The Wire.' "
It is the actor's lot to say goodbye again and again, to bond with cast and crew, only to be sent scattering after the wrap. But this, everyone insisted, would be a particularly sorrowful parting: This morning, they buried one of their own, the daughter of a crew member who died of breast cancer. Tonight, they were putting "The Wire" to rest.
"I was a wreck," said Deirdre Lovejoy, who plays Assistant State's Attorney Rhonda Pearlman on the show. "But there was a funeral and that put everything in perspective." She looked around the room at everyone guzzling champagne, slapping backs and engulfing each other in hearty bear hugs. " This is a happy death."
Simon, who once covered cops for the Baltimore Sun, always knew that "The Wire" would end at exactly this point. From the beginning when the show debuted in 2002, he saw it as a visual novel, with each season a distinct chapter exploring an aspect of inner-city life: The first season examined the drug trade; the second focused on Baltimore's longshoremen; the third grappled with politics and the notion of reform; the fourth dug into education and the lives of the city's children. This season, which begins airing Jan. 6, explores the media, featuring a morally challenged reporter played by Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed the indie film "The Station Agent."
"The Wire" has always struggled in the ratings; last season it averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode. But it's always enjoyed the admiration of critics, who praised it as being the "most authentic epic ever on television." Notwithstanding the giant soundstage, a good 50 percent of the show was shot on location in Baltimore, with real-life characters frequently sprinkled in with the fictional ones. Like former drug kingpin Melvin Williams, whom co-producer and writer Ed Burns, an ex-Baltimore cop, once arrested in a big takedown. Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, who did time as a teenager for killing a 16-year-old girl, made her acting debut last season, playing an assassin. Even Robert Ehrlich, when he was Maryland governor, made a cameo -- as a state trooper in the governor's office last season.
Over the years, Simon has carved out a cottage industry from covering Baltimore's drug and crime issues, from "Homicide," to the HBO miniseries "The Corner," based on his book by the same name, to "The Wire." But despite the show's depiction of Baltimore as decaying and dysfunctional, the city has benefited greatly from its presence, from its showcasing of B-more music to the tens of millions in revenue it has brought to the city. In many ways, "The Wire" is a long, convoluted love letter to Baltimore-- from a conflicted but resolutely committed lover.
But even the greatest love affairs come to an end.
Said Wendell Pierce, who plays Detective William "Bunk" Moreland: "He told us from day one, 'It's a novel.' He had the novel in his head, and he wouldn't share with us."
It wasn't until last year that Simon told his cast that this season would be the last.
"If you get five years out of a TV show," Pierce said with a shrug, "that's pretty successful. I'm proud of it. . . . We showed the possibility of television used as an art.
"There are people who come up to me and say, 'I hate the show.' I accept that. They're still engaged. If at the end of an hour of watching 'The Wire,' if you don't feel bad, you should."
This sensibility of art as mission statement pervades the conversations of everyone here -- writers, actors, producers, casting directors, crew. Here, they don't talk about TV, they talk about "television." There is a sense of them being the earnest outsiders, messengers shining a klieg light on society's ills. Whether you like it or not.
It was sweltering on the set of the cop shop: No cooling fans allowed during filming. Too noisy. Which meant that between takes, the makeup artists rushed in to dab at the sweat on the faces of Pierce and Dominic West, the British actor who plays Detective James "Jimmy" McNulty.
Behind a stack of file cabinets was the video village, where Simon and his crew hunkered down over TV monitors, listening intently to the action on headsets. Actor-filmmaker Clark Johnson sat in the director's chair. He directed the pilot; it seemed only fitting, Simon said, that Johnson direct the coda, too.
Johnson, honey-colored, genial, goateed, stared into the monitor. "Tighter, tighter, mo' tighter," he called out, jumping up to confer with his cast, in this instance McCarthy and West, who were filming a confrontational scene. They would film this scene over and over, from every angle, wide, medium and "mo' tighter."
At 9 p.m., it was time for "lunch," which was held in a giant tent outside the warehouse. Surrounding it were massive trailers: wardrobe trailers, caterers' trailers, even bathroom trailers marked "Desi" and "Lucy." A woman from wardrobe, bald and heavily tattooed, greeted everyone with a big smile, while weathered crew dudes hung back for a smoke. Folks were queuing up in the food line, grabbing trays and loading their plates with lobster tails, steak and baked eggplant before heading into the tent.
Notwithstanding the cameras, the makeup artists and the high-rent grub, this was your standard office party. On the walls of the tent, a gag reel was projected, a litany of you-had-to-be-there jokes: close-ups of actors munching on chips, belching, cursing, a montage of "The Wire's" extravagant use of the F-word. Actors wandered in with their families, while Andre Royo, who played Bubbles, ran around, dressed like a newspaper peddler, handing out copies of a fake newspaper, "The Wire," with a giant headline: "HBO SERIES WRAPS PRODUCTION: Fifth season concludes in Baltimore; Emmy voters will be given one last shot to get it right."
After lunch, it was back to work, and as the clock edged past midnight, folks started getting giddy. The final episode was an hour and a half, as opposed to the normal hour-long length, but the production schedule dictated that shooting be confined to 11 days. Simon, juggling another HBO miniseries, admitted that he's been consistently late with turning in scripts. ("Really, really, really late," said Royo, with a laugh.) The night before, they filmed until close to 3 a.m. They would be even later this night.
So all kinds of silliness ensued. Actor Reg E. Cathay showed up to watch, his curly 'fro completely shaved bare. Johnson, not to be outdone, came back after break with all the peach fuzz on his head shaved, too. No way he, he said, was he going to be upstaged. A crew member worked the set sporting a three-foot Afro wig.
"Did that [expletive] just mock my performance?" Pierce joked to one of his cast buddies. "I know I'm not as good as you, but damn, you don't have to rub it in."
At 3:10 a.m., it was time for some goodbyes. Everyone applauded after Sonja Sohn, who plays Shakima Greggs, wrapped up her final scene. Her teenage daughter ran to her, shoving a bouquet into her crying mother's arms.
"Ain't no need to hold the tears back," said Sohn, her voice shaking. ". . . It's not going to be like this again. It can't be."
At 4:40 a.m., the assistant director called out, "It's a wrap, it's a wrap. We're done. Forever."
Everyone stood around clapping and clapping, wiping away tears. It's hard to say goodbye to five years of friendship and steady employment. Pierce is going to act in a New Orleans production of "Waiting for Godot." Royo is heading with his wife and daughter to Los Angeles, to run their new restaurant and act in theater. Peters and West are going to ride horseback across country to raise money for AIDS awareness.
Pierce, a native of New Orleans, thanked everyone for standing by him after Hurricane Katrina. A wardrobe worker, who first met Simon when he was an inner-city preteen haunting the set of "The Corner," sobbed, hands covering his face.
Simon held his plastic champagne cup aloft. "It's 4:40," he said, "and I am at a complete loss. I'm out of words.
"I am very spoiled by this cast and crew. . . . To all of us and for this last night . . . L'chaim."