Omar From 'The Wire' Was Based On A Real-Life Stick-Up Artist

Baltimore-based crime drama The Wire came to an end 10 years ago, and even now it's easy to recall its excellent dialogue, revealing themes and complex characters.

Some people loved Jimmy 'McNutty' McNulty. Others were fans of his partner Bunk, while for many people the show's best character was Stringer Bell, played by a then relatively unknown Idris Elba.

However, one of the most enduring characters n the five-season long HBO series is the much-loved Omar Little, who was based on a real-life 'stick-up' man.

Former US president Barak Obama's favourite character, Little was a notorious stick-up man, known for robbing drug dealers and selling their drugs back to them at an inflated price.

Played by Michael K. Williams, he drew in viewers with his complex character, intelligence, moral code and carefully planned heists, and featured in each season of the show.

Little was based on Donnie Andrews, who spent 18 years behind bars for murder before returning to Baltimore, in Maryland, to do outreach work.

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

Andrews said in a Vice interview in 2009 that he knew exactly when he 'became' a stick up man. The child of an abusive mother, he explained how he was sent to do laundry at 2am with his younger brother, when he saw a group of men beat up a man over a measly 15 cents (11p).

After telling the man's attackers that the money he had was from his mother, he was left alone. Nonetheless, witnessing the brutal murder, he said, determined that he would never be a 'victim', setting him on the solitary path of the stick-up man.

"If you going to be mean, you gotta be the baddest motherfucker on the street," he told the magazine.

Andrews career as an outsider on the streets of Baltimore would seemingly culminate with his life sentence in 1987 for the murders of Zachary Roach and Rodney 'Touche' Young - which he carried out to support his heroin addiction after meeting drug dealer Warren Boardley.

Omar in 'The Wire'. Credit: HBO
Omar in 'The Wire'. Credit: HBO

However, after being introduced to Ed Burns (who co-created The Wire with David Simon) he agreed to wear a listening device, helping to bring down the drug kingpins who had employed him to carry out the murders (along with another man).

Despite this, he did lengthy jail time, but overcame heroin addiction. While behind bars, he was introduced to a fellow addict named Fran Boyd (who would inspire another of Simon and Burns' characters in the 1997 book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood) and the two later married.

Once out of prison, Andrews began to counsel drug addicts, both inside prisons and out, as well as helping police with information to bring down drug gangs.

Upon Williams' death in 2012, David Simon commented: "On paper, he's a murderer. We've constructed a criminal justice system that doesn't allow for the idea of redemption, and Donnie puts a lie to that."

The Wire was described as a 'novel' for TV, and many argue that it never had a central character except for Baltimore itself. This was in part because Simon and Burns had created it with the intention of casting light upon the problems in their city, problems they felt were institutional.

While later seasons focused on the media and education system, the judiciary, police and importantly punishment system were always central to the show.

Credit: HBO
Credit: HBO

Though at the time it was anything but a ratings smash (its figures were in the tens of thousands rather than millions) it picked up a cult following and became a DVD hit, particularly in the UK, launching the careers of actors such as Idris Elba and Dominic West, who portrayed McNulty. It was also an early platform for Michael B. Jordan, star of Creed and Black Panther.

With former police reporter and author Simon having spent his career covering drug dealers and police in Baltimore, The Wire spawned TV's 'golden age', setting a new standard for quality and bringing to end a perception among actors that appearing in television was a 'step down.'

Featured Image Credit: HBO/Shutterstock

Ronan O'Shea

Ronan J O'Shea is a freelance journalist from London who has written for titles including LADbible, Headspace, The Independent, National Geographic Traveller and New York Post. Contact him at [email protected]

Next Up

arrow-down arrow-left arrow-right arrow-up camera clock close comment cursor email facebook-messenger facebook Instagram link new-window phone play share snapchat submit twitter vine whatsapp logoInline safari-pinned-tab Created by potrace 1.11, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2013