I’m in a Panic: The Wire Really is Over

 

 

 

I woke up in a panic this morning.

 

You know all that hype last spring about the end of HBO’s The Wire?

 

It was real.

 

It’s over.

 

The characters are gone.

 

Omar, Rawls, Bunk, Rhonda, Valchek, Beadie, Jimmy, Carver, Herc, Kima, Daniels, Freamon, Prop Joe, Marlo, Stringer Bell, Butchie, Brother Mouzone, Avon, Cutty, Levy, Bubbs, Snoop, D’Angelo, Tommy, Mayor Royce, Clay Davis, Frank Sobotka, The Greek, Namond, Michael, Randy, Prez, Bunny Colvin, Duquan.

 

Gone.

 

This is horrible.

 

Where do characters go? 
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Supporting Actors? Character Actors? How About Just Actors?

I collect supporting actors, character actors. I revere them. I “cast” them. I watch feature films just to see their ten minutes of brilliance.  Part of this comes from my Dad.  

Like anyone who has even remotely participated in our family’s gene pool, he at one point got the acting bug. Unfortunately,  his screen career was limited to about 15 seconds as an extra in the 1949 film “Bad Boy,” when – sentenced along with Audie Murphy to a juvenile delinquency facility — he can be seen on camera rising up in anger and threatening the judge. (By the way, he was great!)

As I grew up, each re-run of “Bad Boy” would be an opportunity for a real family celebration. We would gather around the television, wait for the scene, watch his brief grimace, and cheer. And that is when I started watching these actors. 

 

 

I don’t know why I feel funny using the term “character actor.”  It has always  seemed  to demean the brilliance I would see in their performances, suggesting limitations rather than versatility. I know that some people use the term as high praise. I finally settled on “actor.”   

My favorite recent example – out of hundreds — is the absolutely brilliant Ned Eisenberg. In the first fifteen minutes of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Eisenberg – playing one of the Port  Authority police officers heading toward the towers – arrives on the scene and simply looks up.  But his reaction, so full of complexity and bewilderment and fear, and lasting no more than a brief moment, haunts the rest of the film.  His character knows that he has been instantly thrust into the worst day of his life. And we know this because of one subtle, nuanced and masterfully delivered glance.  

 

But I am a huge fan of these masters of their craft and wanted to share some absolutely random names. They could just as easily be followed by hundreds of others. Some occasionally made their way into starring roles, but their greatest moments were often glances, smirks, grimaces, or blank stares into the distance.

Thelma Ritter, Edward Arnold, Dabbs Greer, Robert Loggia, Ruby Dee, Andrew Robinson, Ward Bond, Robert Walker, Morris Ankrum, Charley Grapewin, Alfre Woodard, Ned Eisenberg, Paul Meurisse, Jane Withers, John Doman, Amanda Randolph, Margaret Dumont, Miriam Colon, Guy Kibbee, Barnard Hughes, Harry Dean Stanton, William Daniels, Bruno Kirby, H.B. Warner.       

Who would you include? Full-blown, leading-role movie stars are ineligible.

The End of “The Wire:” Say it Ain’t So.

Three episodes into the first season of The Wire, I had a sinking feeling. Someday this story will simply stop. Someday these characters will be frozen in time. The dead ones will stay dead and the survivors will live forever in a tableau of their last moment on screen.

It’s over on Sunday.

That I even had these feelings is testimony to the exquisite skill of David Simon, Ed Burns, and all the others responsible for The Wire. I had given up on episodic television, with its conventions and predictability and paper-thin characters. Yet after only a few episodes, the elaborately crafted character and story development that would become The Wire’s trademark had me obsessed with learning every possible thing about these characters. I needed to know what would happen to them. And most of all, given the fully realized living-nightmare that was Simon’s Baltimore, I had to know how and when they would die. Death hung like a oppressive shadow over The Wire, always a possibility in even the simplest, most mundane moments. And when it came, it felt like a shot to the head, fired from behind with no warning.

David Simon generously gaveth and mercilessly “tooketh”  away characters. In fact, so many carefully drawn characters passed through so many story lines that no obit for the show could do it justice. But there are a few things about how it was crafted that will always be there to be treasured and savored.

Gratuitous things did not happen in Simon-land. Sex, violence, blood, nudity, atrocious language and everything else that NYPD Blue used to use with such a self-concious, heavy-hand had to earn their way onto The Wire. They only made it when they advanced the story or moved a character forward. I’ll never forget when one of the show’s creators, during the audio commentary offered in the DVD collection, saw an especially white-hot sex scene and remarked something like: “Wow, that was great wasn’t it. We should do more sex.” But they quickly concluded that the sex would only happen if and when the story or the character needed it to happen. Same with violence. When it came, it was the culmination of careful narrative preparation. But it was never, ever predictable.

Enough story lines were constantly dangling that every episode was an adventure in seeing which would be picked up and which would never be heard from again. One attractive young woman came on the scene for a couple of episodes, captivated the audience with beautifully written lines, created a heart-breaking character, and simply disappeared. She wasn’t killed. She was the victim of the kind of dramatic fatality that only happens in brilliant scripts — death by compelling narrative.

Which leads to my last point: No show was ever cast with such care and skill. In fact, as I face the show’s demise, I have been having the strangest thought: What is going to happen to this once-in-a-lifetime ensemble? How can stage, television, and film absorb them all at once? And what about all the quirky, weird characters, masterfully portrayed by actors who, stated charitably, did not exactly have conventional faces? I have a fantasy of casting agents all over the world keeping a special “Wire” book, with headshots and resumes of a slew of the best actors working today.

Ill leave you with the almost unbelievable gift that this Wire fan got two days ago on the #6 subway in Manhattan. I walked onto the crowded train and saw only one empty seat. And in an instant, as I sat down, I looked up to find that I was sitting next to one of my favorite characters, played by an actor of such power that I literally started to shake as I complimented him. He was gracious, I looked like a fool, and then he was gone.

So I can think of no better tribute to The Wire’s endless parade of masters of the craft of acting than to share his picture with you and designate the incomparable John Doman, Deputy Commissioner William Rawls, as my stand-in for the best cast ever assembled for a television drama.

Rawls — you arrogant, backstabbing, selfish, hateful, self-hating creep — I don’t know how we’ll live without you.