The Accidental Success Story
David Simon, producer of The Wire, is not impressed with himself
By Stu Miller -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/8/2005 8:00:00 PM
It is an inspiring professional progression: A journalist becomes a writer, then a producer, on a broadcast-network series, then executive producer of a cable miniseries, then executive producer of a cable series. And with each project earning critical raves, it appears to be a dream career.
Not so, demurs the man in question, David Simon, creator of HBO's acclaimed series The Wire, one of television's grittiest and most complex dramas, which deals with everything from the follies of the drug war to the plight of the working class—all in the guise of a cop show. “This is not a career ascendant,” Simon says. “I think I've pretty well marginalized myself.”
Finally, A Renewal
Simon's gloomy assessment seems a little over the top, particularly since he just got what he wanted: A renewal. But even that is a dark story. The fact is, while HBO execs profess to love The Wire, the network took from December, when the third season ended, until last month, to approve a fourth season. The Wire will go back into production soon but won't air until sometime 2006. (The next installment will concentrate on the difficulty of inner-city public schools.)
Still, his pessimism reflects both his belief that his uncompromising vision leaves few options on television and the fact that he views himself not as a producer but as someone who has been producing.
Indeed, his is an accidental career. Born in Washington, Simon graduated from the University of Maryland and became a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He thought so little about television that he nearly gave away the television rights to his first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, for an extra $5,000 advance. When Barry Levinson transformed Homicide into an NBC drama, Simon at first thought the show merely “a funny little stepchild.”
The Fontana factor
Simon was invited by Tom Fontana to write some scripts and was eventually offered jobs by both Homicide and NYPD Blue. He chose Homicide because Fontana said that, while he would pay less, he would teach him more. “He really kept that promise,” Simon says.
Simon went from writing in his first season to set and local casting in his second season to working in the edit suites in his third (“with Tom undoing everything afterwards”), all the way to eventually shepherding an episode through in its entirety.
And when Simon, along with former police detective Ed Burns, co-wrote another Baltimore-based book, called The Corner, he found that he actually wanted to return to the small screen. “I took the first job as a lark, thinking, when I was done, I'd go do another book, but by then I'd gotten hold of the crack pipe of television,” he says.
Simon knew that only premium cable would dare do a miniseries like The Corner, which looked so frankly at drug addiction.
HBO was more nervous about leaving a relative novice in charge. “They said, 'You'll write the script, but you don't know jack-shit about producing,'” he recalls.
They teamed him with veteran film producer Bob Colesberry, an arranged marriage that yielded true bliss. “I didn't trust Bob at first. But Bob didn't try to grab hold of the project, and neither did I. We did it together.”
HBO executives, nervous about the rookie's getting six pages shot a day, asked for major—but seemingly arbitrary—last-minute cuts. “I knew enough to know this was horseshit,” Simon recalls. Confronting them—“I threw one of my patented tantrums”—he realized he was ready to take the helm.
Nina Noble, whom Simon hired as producer for The Corner and who is also executive producer of The Wire, says Simon commanded more respect on-set than another first-time boss might have, because he had spent a year on the streets researching the book. The show featured Charles Dutton as director and unknown actors like Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters, who would team up with Simon again in The Wire. The Corner won Emmys for best miniseries and best writing, and Simon felt ready for creative control over a full series. On The Wire, Simon grew even more confident as a producer, Noble says. She says he sets high standards “and requires everybody to be as thoughtful as he is in terms of details. But his passion is contagious.”
HBO Entertainment President Carolyn Strauss praises Simon for “really rolling up his sleeves” and pushing hard, and being “very mindful of where he is fiscally.” What is more impressive, Noble adds, is that Simon can write big, without holding himself back, but then “compartmentalize” and become a pragmatic producer, willing to make tough decisions.
“It's the 'Fontana way' meeting up with the 'Colesberry way,'” Simon says, “Tom's being the great sin is spending money that isn't yours, and Bob's was that you have only one chance to make this beautiful.”
Noble says that melding of paths is quintessential Simon, as he is still a reporter who likes to absorb and evaluate all sides. “He doesn't hire only people who agree with him—he thinks a huge amount of creativity comes from discussion and debates,” Noble says.
A challenging year
This past year has been Simon's most challenging one as a producer. First, Colesberry died at age 57, from complications following surgery. Noble says she and Simon had “more confrontations” without the third part of their triangle to balance things out, but they learned in the third season how to pick up the slack. Simon says they had to do more re-shoots, because they'd find mistakes after the fact that Colesberry would have fixed on the spot. (Simon says the biggest issue was personal: “It was emotionally debilitating. I just missed him.”)
“Bob's death forced David to shoulder many of those producing duties,” Strauss says. “I was really worried, but he rose to the occasion.”
Simon had to rise to the occasion again after the season when HBO seemed ready to cancel the series. Strauss says it wasn't the lack of ratings, necessarily—“it's a high-prestige show for us”—but that, with gang leader Avon Barksdale heading to jail and his deputy Stringer Bell killed, “they'd tied up so much of the story so well, we wondered if we should go on.”
So Simon wrote a memo, detailing the stories for the fourth and, to some extent, a fifth season, which won over Strauss and HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht. Yet while Simon, who has also been developing a possible miniseries about the Iraq war for HBO, maintains that he knows he can produce television, he says, “I still don't think of myself as a producer by trade.” In the long run, he wouldn't be surprised to find himself writing nonfiction books again.
But if he does, watch out. That will take him right back to TV.
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