The Wire is arguably the greatest television show of all-time. And by argue I mean if you argue it’s not, I’ll probably never speak to you again. It’s frequently been referred to as a television novel in the mold of a story by Dickens more than just a regular TV show, and part of that is due to the utter realism exhibited within the confines of your television screen. Of course there’s a good reason it feels so real, and that’s largely due to the fact that the people who inspired many of the characters are littered throughout the series both on screen and off.
Most famously is a real life policeman named Jay Landsman, and if you’re a fan of the show and that name sounds familiar it’s because there’s a portly, vulgar detective named Jay Landsman on the show. What you may not have realized is that his real life namesake was actually a regular on the show. You may recognize him primarily as the confidant of the character Bunny Colvin during season three, the mustached policeman named Dennis Mello.
As another interesting side note, the real Landsman was also the inspiration for the character of John Munch, portrayed by Richard Belzer first in Homicide: Life on the Street and then Law and Order: SVU. Hell, as a nod to this, Belzer/Munch makes a cameo in a season five episode of The Wire.
Another case of The Wire imitating real life is with the casting of a man named Melvin Williams, who portrays a church deacon first introduced in season three. Why was he introduced so late, when creator David Simon had known the man for years? Probably because he wasn’t released from prison until 2003. See, Williams was one of the inspirations for the character of Avon Barksdale, the kingpin of the Barksdale drug syndicate. Williams was a notorious gangster in Baltimore who Simon got to know by writing a series of articles about him while working as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.
Yet another case of the inspiration for a character is perhaps the most hard to believe, simply because the character himself is the most larger-than-life character on the show. I’m talking of course about Omar Little, the gay, shotgun toting, duster wearing, Robin Hood of the ghetto played by Michael K. Williams. Believe it or not, he’s based on a real guy named Donnie Andrews, who just passed away a little more than a year ago at the age of 58. The real Andrews appears late in the series when Omar goes to prison, and his character is an inmate who helps protect him from the people trying to collect the bounty on his head.
Andrews was caught when the guilt over a murder he had committed led to his turning himself in to a Baltimore detective named Ed Burns. If the name Ed Burns sounds familiar, and you’re not thinking about the guy who wrote The Brothers McMullen, that’s because this Ed Burns would later become David Simon’s creative partner on The Wire.
Oh, and Detective Jimmy McNulty? Yeah, he was based in large part on Burns himself. Because hey, as Lester Freamon says, all the pieces matter.