''The Wire'''s newsman talks about ending the critically acclaimed drama

By Ken Tucker
Updated January 18, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST
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As an actor, Clark Johnson radiates the sort of serene authority that makes you want to spend screen time with him — he can make dialogue sound like a sinuously improvised jazz riff. We first noticed this quality in his cool-cat, porkpie-hatted police detective Meldrick Lewis for seven seasons on NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street. Now, in a central role in the new, final season of HBO’s The Wire, Johnson morphs into Gus Haynes, the genially cynical city editor of The Baltimore Sun.

Gus is the kind of guy who strides through the newsroom with a gaggle of subeditors waddling in his wake. He declares boisterously, ”You know what a healthy newsroom is? It’s a magical place where people argue about everything all the time!”

It’s a typically great Wire moment because its wisdom applies to any workplace. So, was the Wire set a magical place? ”You bet your ass,” says the 53-year-old Johnson. ”It didn’t matter if it was me, [star] Dominic West, or one of the kids playing street dealers, if you had an opinion about your line or a plot point, David [Simon, the creator] made it clear it was your job, your duty, to argue, yell, scream, whatever. I did my share. And you could do that knowing that you weren’t going to be fired or considered a malcontent — just the opposite: As long as you were passionate about your work, The Wire was a place that loved you. I learned a lot from that.”

Johnson is being modest. After all, he directed one of the finest TV movies ever made, 2001’s Boycott, about the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And Johnson not only performs on The Wire. He directed the series’ first episode in 2002, a few others, and its very last. ”I’m a series killer,” he laughs. ”I did the same thing with The Shield. ” (Johnson directed the FX cop show’s finale, to air later this year.)

Given that Simon and story editor Bill Zorzi are both veteran Sun employees, Johnson must have felt extra pressure to get his character right. ”Hell, no,” he says, laughing. ”Just the opposite. I felt great confidence that those guys weren’t going to screw up [the newspaper-world veracity]. Plus, they had all their rock-star Sun buddies from the old days in to do cameos. It’s like some Nobel nuclear physicist shows up in a room and no one but the other nuclear physicists know who he is. We’d do a scene and then David would say, ‘Do you know who that was with you in that scene? That was Schmenge Magillicutty!’ or something like that, and we’d all go, ‘Who?’ We just knew we were in the presence of legends and heroes of David Simon’s and Bill Zorzi’s.”

But once the Sun‘s management saw how seriously The Wire was researching the place, Johnson says it made some nervous. ”Oh, hell yeah, they had qualms. Qualms and palpitations! But how could they not let us use their newsroom for research? That’s what all this s— is about these days, isn’t it? Being ‘open to new media,’ being ‘multiplatform,’ [trying to] get kids to read newspapers because they saw a newsroom on TV?” He laughs. ”The Sun couldn’t pass that opportunity up, no sirree.”

Here’s hoping the media angle also builds The Wire‘s audience; as for bigger ratings and the lack of awards, however, he is tartly sanguine. ”Listen, I’d rather have the stuff that you guys and the critics write about the show than some f—in’ People’s Choice Award,” says Johnson. ”And it’s not like we only get some effete audience that wants to be depressed watching. I know from all kinds of folks coming up to me, and the rest of the cast and HBO knows, that people who do the same kind of work you see on the show, and I’m talkin’ ’bout both sides of the law, watch and really love The Wire. And not just for its truth — people always are surprised at how funny the show is, too. Make sure you put that in there — it’s not all [hypodermic] needles and tears: It’s a funny show, too!”

The activism that drives Johnson’s directing

Johnson’s most personal directing projects — beyond The Wire, that is — reflect his upbringing in Philadelphia: His parents were involved in progressive politics, specifically the ’60s New Left institution, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Boycott (2001) ”That movie has had an interesting afterlife; it keeps getting shown to civil rights groups around the country. It’s a movie that’s always being rediscovered.”
The Shield (2002-2008) ”I always felt that [creator] Shawn Ryan was doing something courageous in showing how the L.A. police operate, whether in a bad or good light. Glad to have been a part of that.”
AND COMING SOON… Chinese Wall (in preproduction) ”It deals with Nigeria’s oil politics. I’m trying to use the thriller genre to get at issues of race and greed and exploitation.”

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