23 Fascinating Facts About The Wire

Paul Schiraldi, HBO
Paul Schiraldi, HBO

It took a slow-but-steady climb for The Wire to emerge as a cultural phenomenon, but the show that challenged every cops-and-robbers television trope has permeated just about every corner of our culture. On the tenth anniversary of the series' finale, here are 23 facts that might have eluded even the most dedicated Wire diehards. (Warning: spoilers abound.)

1. BARACK OBAMA LOVES IT, AND EVEN HAS A FAVORITE CHARACTER.

On more than one occasion, Barack Obama has cited The Wire as one of his favorite TV shows. Interestingly, during the 2008 presidential election, the show's greatness was one of the few things that both John McCain and Obama could agree on, with McCain mentioning it alongside Seinfeld as a personal favorite. And Obama’s favorite character? It’s pretty much everyone’s favorite character: the gay, drug dealer-robbing, criminal code-having, Robin Hooding stick-up boy Omar. “That’s not an endorsement. He’s not my favorite person, but he’s a fascinating character,” Obama told the Las Vegas Sun, adding that he’s “the toughest, baddest guy on the show.”

2. CREATOR DAVID SIMON RECEIVED A MACARTHUR GENIUS GRANT FOR HIS WORK.

The prestigious MacArthur Fellowship is awarded annually to between 20 and 40 United States residents who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." Over the years, the MacArthur Foundation has cast a wide net with its $500,000 prize, awarding it to the likes of linguists, historians, scientists, poets, mathematicians, journalists, and countless other skilled specialists. However, Simon is one of only two screenwriters to have been awarded the prize (two-time Oscar winner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala received one in 1984) and is the only person to have won the award primarily for work on a scripted television series.

3. THE WRITERS ROOM HAD SOME MAJOR TALENT.

The Wire had several writers whose work extended well beyond the television world. George Pelecanos, one of America’s most successful and well-respected crime fiction writers, wrote eight episodes of The Wire and served as a producer on season three. Richard Price, who has writing credits on five episodes, was already an accomplished writer before getting hired for the show, having written several novels and screenplays, including the critically-acclaimed 1992 crime novel Clockers, as well as the script for Spike Lee’s 1995 film adaptation of his book. Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone writer Dennis Lehane wrote three epsiodes.

4. MANY CRITICS CONSIDER IT THE BEST TV SHOW EVER.

Paul Schiraldi, HBO

When it comes to pop culture, the word “best” is tossed around so often that it’s hard to take it seriously. But The Wire is one of just a handful of shows you could make a serious case for as "the best show ever.” Entertainment Weekly, Slate, HitFix, and Complex have all, at varying times, named it the best drama ever to appear on the small screen, while almost every other major outlet of note has listed it among the best shows ever; it's part of an elite group that includes Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, M*A*S*H, and I Love Lucy.

5. YET THE SHOW NEVER—NOT ONCE—TOOK HOME AN EMMY.

Yep. That’s right. Two and a Half Men won nine Emmy Awards while The Wire, arguably the greatest work ever to grace the small screen, has not-a-one. In fact the show was nominated just twice, both times for its writing: once for the penultimate season three episode “Middle Ground,” which features the infamous Omar-Brother Mouzone-Stringer Bell face-off, and the season five series finale “–30–.”

6. ITS RATINGS RANGED FROM AVERAGE TO AWFUL.

Considering the quality and scope of the show, it was inevitable that The Wire would go down in the pantheon of all-time great TV shows. But the ratings during the show’s five-season run weren’t necessarily indicative of its quality or legacy. The audience topped out at about 4 million viewers, and hovered below the 1 million mark for much of the final season. Compare that to the more than 10 million people who tuned in for Breaking Bad's finale or the approximately 12 million viewers who watched the final episode of The Sopranos. These days, in an even more stratified media landscape, Game of Thrones handed 30.6 million viewers across all platforms for its seventh season finale.

7. THE SHOW HAS ITS ROOTS IN A MOSTLY-FORGOTTEN HBO MINISERIES.

The only time David Simon was actually able to nab an Emmy was for the critically-acclaimed-but-now-mostly-forgotten miniseries The Corner, which won awards for Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or a Movie (plus an Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special win for Charles S. Dutton). Based on a nonfiction book co-written by Simon and The Wire writer-producer Ed Burns, The Corner—which depicted life in poverty-stricken and drug-filled West Baltimore—overlapped thematically with The Wire and also shared a bevy of cast members, including Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon), and Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels).

8. DAVID SIMON HAD AN IDEA FOR THE WIRE'S SIXTH SEASON.

HBO

Considering the ratings hole The Wire fell into during season five, David Simon surely knew that, like fighting the drug war, holding out hope for a sixth season would have been an exercise in futility. But had The Wire been given a sixth season, Simon thought the exploding Latino population in Southeast Baltimore would have been the subject. According to Simon, the topic would have been directly in The Wire’s wheelhouse, since “immigration is this incredibly potent source of friction and ideology, and maybe always has been in American life.” But the time it would have taken for Simon’s team to research immigration, combined with the low ratings, more or less buried the idea.

9. SIMON IS STILL PREPARED TO MAKE ANOTHER SEASON, UNDER ONE CONDITION.

By the time The Wire had enough critical clout and rabid fandom to legitimately justify another season, David Simon was hard at work on another project, the post-Katrina New Orleans drama Treme, which kicked off in 2010. However, when former Attorney General Eric Holder, yet another powerful fan of the show, gently joked in 2011 that he’d like to see another season, he received a not-so-joking response from Simon, who retorted “we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanizing drug prohibition.” Unfortunately, it didn't work out.

10. DOMINIC WEST NEVER THOUGHT THE SHOW WOULD LAST.

In fact, that's one of the main reasons why Dominic West—who starred as Jimmy McNulty—took the show. According to West, a Brit, he landed the role by doing his best Robert De Niro impression, but was reluctant to take the job since it meant signing a five-year contract to live in Baltimore. His agent eased his fears by telling him “don't worry, it'll only last one season."

11. THEY BUSTED OUT BIG-GUN MUSICIANS TO RECORD THE THEME SONG FOR ALL BUT ONE SEASON.

“Way Down in the Hole” was written by Tom Waits for his 1987 album Franks Wild Years, but serious fans of The Wire know it equally well as a song performed by The Blind Boys of Alabama, Waits, The Neville Brothers, and Steve Earle, who all did their own versions for seasons one, two, three, and five, respectively. For season four, however, the theme was sung by DoMaJe, a group of teenagers from Baltimore, in keeping with the year’s themes of adolescence and education.

12. ONLY ONE COP FIRES HIS OR HER WEAPON DURING THE ENTIRE SERIES.

It might be hard to believe, but on a cop-and-criminals show that ended up totaling 60 hours over five seasons, only a single police officer fired his weapon: Roland Pryzbylewski, better known as Prez. By turns the most and least sympathetic character on the show, the officer-turned-teacher fired his weapon a total of three times, accidentally shooting a round at a wall and returning fire at The Towers in the first season episode “The Detail,” then mistakenly firing a fatal and career-ending shot at a fellow officer in the season three episode "Slapstick."

13. DAVID SIMON AND ED BURNS HAVE COLLECTIVELY HELD ALMOST EVERY JOB PORTRAYED ON THE SHOW.

Probably one of the main reasons why The Wire rarely struck an inauthentic note was that producers David Simon and Ed Burns didn't have to fake their knowledge of the worlds they were exploring. Before breaking out with his book-turned-TV-show Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, Simon was a longtime crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun, which gave him an intimate knowledge of not only crime and institutional dysfunction in America's inner-cities, but also the troubles facing the newspaper industry. Burns, on the other hand, served as both a police detective and public school teacher in Baltimore before working on The Wire.

14. DAVID SIMON HAD TO LITERALLY BEG TO HAVE THE SHOW KEPT ON THE AIR.

Simon, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, said thatThe Wire was canceled after season three, and The Wire was nearly canceled again—I had to grovel and beg and plead—after season four.” Despite the difficult journey getting five seasons of The Wire made, Simon praises HBO for allowing him to finish his story without too much interference, stating that the network was “very liberal in terms of allowing the people involved in the production of these shows to find their own vision and try to execute.”

15. OMAR IS BASED ON A REAL PERSON.

HBO

The Robin Hood-esque Omar may seem too perfect a TV antihero to have sprung up from real life, but like so many characters from the show, he’s partially drawn from a real-life Baltimore inspiration: a former drug dealer stickup boy named Donnie Andrews. After surrendering himself to detective-turned-producer Ed Burns for taking on a contract killing to support a heroin addiction, Andrews served time in prison and eventually became an anti-gang mentor to younger prisoners. After working with him to research their book The Corner, Simon and Burns eventually lobbied for his release from a life sentence, which he was granted in 2005 following 22 years served. Andrews continued his activism until his death, from a heart condition, in 2012. Although there are many similarities between the two, Andrews, unlike Omar, was not gay. That aspect of Omar's character was borrowed from Billy Outlaw, another stickup artist inspiration.

16. BUBBLES IS BASED ON A REAL PERSON, TOO.

Bubbles was based on another real-life Baltimorean who went by the moniker “Possum” (his real name remains unknown to the public). A heroin addict who had a drug sentence dropped in exchange for turning over criminals at $50 to $100 a head, Possum had a photographic memory and, like Bubbles, used hats to mark potential criminal targets to surveilling police. According to retired detective Ed Parker, Possum "worked for everybody—FBI, DEA, city narcotics, homicide." Simon chronicled Possum’s double life in a 1992 article for The Baltimore Sun, which doubled as an obituary; Possum died from AIDS shortly after being interviewed.

17. ONE OF BALTIMORE'S MOST INFAMOUS DRUG KINGPINS HAS A ROLE IN THE SHOW.

Thought to be one of the inspirations for Avon Barksdale, Melvin Williams trafficked heroin in Baltimore throughout the 1970s and 1980s to the tune of, according to the man himself, "a couple hundred million” dollars. Williams was arrested in 1985 following a wiretap investigation led by Ed Burns. Shortly after, while working for The Sun, Simon wrote a series of articles on Williams titled “Easy Money: Anatomy of a Drug Empire.” Williams served time in jail off and on until 2003, and played the role of West Side string-puller The Deacon in seasons three and four.

18. MANY OF THE ACTORS ARE BALTIMOREANS THROUGH AND THROUGH.

Cast members plucked from Baltimore included Jay Landsman (who, in a particularly confusing twist of fate, ended up playing Dennis Mello instead of the character Jay Landsman who was, as you might have guessed, based on the real-life Jay Landsman) and the aforementioned Melvin Williams. Another notorious Wire character to have been a lifelong Baltimorean was Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, who played an eponymous and murderous member of Marlo Stanfield’s crew, in a portrayal Stephen King called "perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series." Like Williams, Pearson has had a troubled relationship with the law, having spent time in prison for second-degree murder at age 14, and then again after getting picked up in a sweeping Baltimore drug bust in 2011.

19. THERE WAS ALMOST A SPINOFF CENTERED AROUND BALTIMORE POLITICS.

HBO

According to Simon, after the politically-charged third season of The Wire, he hatched a plan to create a spinoff series, The Hall, that would follow the rise of Tommy Carcetti and get even more real about the dirty business of Baltimore politics. Simon even went so far as to write a script and start putting a writing team together, but HBO told him no on the grounds that "we only want one show that nobody is watching in Baltimore, not two!"

20. ACTORS WORKING ON THE SHOW SAW BALTIMORE'S DANGEROUS SIDE.

The book Difficult Men, which chronicles the rise of modern television, details one role research ride-along that ended with Seth Gilliam (Ellis Carver) and Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc) ducking gunfire in the backseat of a police car. On another, Wendell Pierce (Bunk Moreland) reported seeing “a guy with a knife still in him” as well as a cop trying to take a man who’d been shot downtown for questioning instead of to a hospital.

21. DAVID SIMON CITES A SURPRISING SOURCE AS THE SHOW'S BIGGEST INFLUENCE.

“Dickensian” is a word that’s often tossed around to describe the serial fiction of The Wire, but David Simon goes back—way, way back—when citing the biggest influence on his show. In an interview with Slate, Simon noted “the guys we were stealing from in The Wire are the Greeks. In our heads we're writing a Greek tragedy, but instead of the gods being petulant and jealous Olympians hurling lightning bolts down at our protagonists, it's the Postmodern institutions that are the gods.”

22. PARODIES HAVE SPRUNG UP EVERYWHERE, BUT MOSTLY AFTER THE SHOW ENDED.

Because it took a few years for The Wire to seep into the national consciousness, it wasn’t exactly rife for parody during its 2002 to 2008 run. But many send-ups have hit the Web since, including Funny or Die’s The Wire: The Musical, which popped up in 2012 and featured several members of the show’s cast, a Saturday Night Live Brooklynized version of the show that took aim at the rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood of Bushwick, and a “Key and Peele” parody about, well, pants-pooping.

23. BARS ON THE WIRE ARE FULL OF SURPRISES.

In the season five episode “Took,” actor Richard Belzer is seen arguing his bar tab, presumably in a cameo of his Homicide: Life on the Street and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit character Detective John Munch. (To further complicate the Landsman situation, Munch was also partially based on the real-life Jay Landsman.) Another bar surprise comes when Commissioner William Rawls pops up in a gay bar in season three. Interestingly, Rawls' suggested homosexuality never comes up again throughout the rest of the series.

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.