Even though we’re inundated with more and more television shows each day thanks to the increase in original programming — stemming from streaming portals like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon — there are a handful of shows that suggest that the so-called “Golden Age” of television is actually in our rear view mirror.
In particular, The Wire was an honest, enlightening and often jarring account of the rat race occurring between the police and the pushers in and around Baltimore, Maryland.
Even as it celebrates its 15-year anniversary this week, the themes encompassed in the show are as relevant as ever before — especially relating to issues involving the decriminalization of drugs, judicial failures, fake news, Black Lives Matter and privacy.
Although certain plot lines may have eroded from a person’s memory since the show ended in 2008, the characters that David Simon created over the course of five seasons are entities that even father time can’t strip of their richness.
Despite a multitude of masterclass performances by actors like Dominic West (McNulty), Sonja Sohn (Greggs), Idris Elba (Stringer Bell), Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale), Wendell Pierce (Bunk) and Andre Royo (Bubbles) — who famously had heroin given to him by a man who thought he was a real junkie — the standout example most people point to is Michael K. Williams’s portrayal of moral stickup man, Omar Little, who despite touting a sawed-off shotgun under a long trench coat never veered close to becoming a stock character.
President Barack Obama not only named The Wire as his top series in 2012, but also Omar as his favorite character, stating, “It’s got to be Omar, right? I mean, that guy is unbelievable, right? I mean, what a combination. And that was one of the best shows of all time.”
Many of the characters inhabiting The Wire universe were composite sketches of real people that David Simon covered while working on the City Desk at the Baltimore Sun.
While some people like one-time Presidential hopeful, Martin O’Malley, hated that Simon used him as an archetype for Mayor Tommy Carcetti, other Baltimore residents weren’t as bashful and actually wore the homage proudly.
That’s exactly what transpired with Donnie Andrews — the real inspiration for Omar Little.
Donnie was born Larry Donnell Andrews in 1954. One of his earliest and most violent memories was when he was 10 years old and he watched a man bludgeoned to death for .15 cents in the West Baltimore project where he lived with his abusive mother.
“I made up my mind that I would never be a victim, I would never be the prey, I’d be the hunter,” Andrews said of the incident. “If you going to be mean you gotta be the baddest motherfucker on the street.”
In a 2009 interview, he told The Independent, “The word ‘future’ wasn’t even in my vocabulary, because I didn’t know if I’d be alive or dead tomorrow. They had a bet in my neighborhood that I wouldn’t reach 21.”
Although the neighborhood was plagued by gang warfare, Andrews quickly learned that having a “lone wolf” mentality made him less likely to be caught for criminal acts.
“When I was coming up, one of the biggest drug dealers in the city would always tell me a real man stands alone,” he said. “I felt better working by myself. I only had a couple of friends who I was comfortable hustling with. They’d have to know anything I was going to do just by a look; when you’re robbing people, it’s gotta be perfect.”
But despite the ethos, Andrews would be busted for the first time at 16 years old on a path toward 18 more arrests for various misdemeanors and felonies.
Eventually, he decided to focus on a criminal endeavor which became a trademark for Omar Little’s character in The Wire.
“I might get two or three hundred dollars robbing a bar, but from a drug dealer I could get two or three hundred thousand,” he said. I told Fran [his wife] about a time I went to rob a stash house and they wouldn’t open the door. I yelled: ‘If I’ve gotta come in there, something bad’s gonna happen.’ The window opened and they threw the drugs out.
Not surprisingly, when David Simon was mining Baltimore for real events, he ended up using that very scenario in the show — something he referred to with The New Yorker as, “stealing life.”
In one of the most exhilarating moments in the series, Omar is forced to flee an ambush gone wrong — after Chris, Snoop and Michael get the drop on him — by jumping out of a fourth story window.
For keen-eyed viewers, Donnie Andrews is also in the scene with Michael K. Williams and plays one of his allies who is ultimately gunned down.
Although some thought this latch ditch acrobatics was a step away from realism for the series, Andrews was not only adamant that this actually happened to him, but that he had actually jumped from a higher floor.
“That really happened to me,” Andrews said, “but I had to jump out of the sixth floor. It was either lead poisoning or take my chances, so I took my chances. I did it without thinking. If I’d thought about it, I might have taken the lead poisoning.”
In the 1980s, a heroin addiction began clouding Andrews’ judgement. He soon graduated from robbery to murder-for-hire at the request of drug kingpin, Warren Boardley, who would also enlist Reggie Gross, a former heavyweight boxer who once fought Mike Tyson, as another would-be assassin.
The price: $5,000 USD and two ounces of heroin.
At the time, the Boardley gang violently ruled the Lexington Terrace-Poe Homes public housing projects and viewed Zachary Roach and Rodney “Touche” Young as rivals.
After Gross had already killed one man, he and Andrews used MAC-11 machine pistols to kill Roach and Young in what became known as the “Gold Street murders.”
“Once Reggie’s Uzi went off, [Zach] jumped up and it was a spontaneous reaction on my part,” Andrews remembered. “I just fired and, as he ran up the street, he tripped and fell. I went to give him the coup de grâce and he looked up at me. I looked him in the eye and, before he died, he asked me: ‘Why?’ It was like I was frozen in time. I thought: why? This guy looks just like me. He could have been my brother, my son, my father. And why for drugs? Because somebody shot Warren in the foot? Why? It stuck with me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’m trying to figure out why to this day.”
In David Simon’s own reporting on the murder he noted, “Donnie looked at Reggie, listened to the tremor in his voice, and knew at that moment that there was nothing else to say, that thing was going to happen.”
The murder investigation was spearheaded by then Baltimore Dective, Ed Burns, who would later go on to be credited as co-creator of The Wire.
There were rumblings about who was involved and why it happened. But no one was coming forward and there was no physical evidence to tie Andrews to the slayings.
Burns saw morality underneath Andrews’s tough facade. He knew he was capable of violence, but not like this. So he leaned on him.
“Ed followed me to the parking lot and said, ‘I can give you a second chance at life'” Andrews remembered.
This involved Andrews copping to the double murder — while also agreeing to wearing a recording device to unlock crucial information about the Baltimore drug trade.
In exchange, he believed he would receive a 10-year prison sentence instead of two consecutive life terms and one concurrent life sentence like his co-conspirator, Reggie Gross, received.
“Everyone else in his position has been ‘I will cooperate for less time,'” remembered prosecutor, Charles Scheeler. “Donnie was ‘I will cooperate because I want to repent.'”
Despite Andrews cooperation with every facet of the agreement, the district attorney reneged on providing a lesser sentence and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Resigned to a fate that he would never again see the light of day, Andrews reasoned he would first get clean, then find God and repent, and ultimately steer those around him toward a path of righteousness when they got out out of prison.
David Simon’s precursor to The Wire was his 2000 HBO mini-series, The Corner, which was based on the book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, that he co-authored with Ed Burns.
One of the female protagonists of the series, Francine “Fran” Boyd, was based on a real person of the same name that Simon had encountered while working at the Baltimore Sun.
Riddled by addiction for most of her life, in a contemporary context, David Simon was struggling to find a voice who could get through to the real Fran after heroin usage had reduced her to a withering, 90-pound version of her former self.
“Ed had the idea of putting Donnie and Fran together via a phone call,” Simon remembered. “He had no idea he was playing Cupid.”
This wasn’t a cold call for Simon or Burns. Each had respectively turned to Andrews in the years following his incarceration to shed light on various facets of Baltimore crime so they could each do their respective jobs as detective and reporter all the more effectively.
Andrews himself had already spent years providing outreach work with his fellow inmates. Burns believed not only this — but also his own rough and tumble existence in Baltimore — would resonate with Boyd.
“She’s smart, and I knew she could get herself straight,” Andrews said years later, “so I kept pushing and then I got hooked on her.”
According to The New York Times, “Starting in 1998, Ms. Boyd, Mr. Simon and Mr. Burns began lobbying for Mr. Andrews and in subsequent years attended his parole hearings. Even Charles P. Scheeler, the lead federal prosecutor who won Mr. Andrews’s conviction, eventually championed his release after watching his transformation in prison.”
“Donnie is a complete anomaly: he’s a convicted murderer who turned himself into a decent human being,” Scheeler said.
Andrews served 17 years in prison and was released in 2005. His first job outside of prison was becoming an official consultant on The Wire.
Two years later, he and Boyd married. David Simon served as Andrews’s best man.
As an actor, Andrews made his first appearance on the show helping Omar tape magazines to his chest in order to avoid being stabbed while in prison. One can only assume that Andrews had seen something similar while he was inside.
In addition to an advisory role on the show, Andrews also continued his gang outreach and founded a nonprofit organization called “Why Murder?” which reflected the last words of the man who he had killed.
In 2012, Donnie Andrews passed away after complications stemming from a heart procedure.
Upon his passing, Davis Simon reflected, stating, “On paper, he’s a murderer. We’ve constructed a criminal justice system that doesn’t allow for the idea of redemption, and Donnie puts a lie to that.”
- Featured/Main Image: HBO