Kary:

This is the crime story podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told. Today’s podcast is a conversation with David Simon. 

This Podcast is the second part of a 4 part interview. In Part 2, we discuss David’s work as a Crime Reporter for the Baltimore Sun, his writing the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and his transition to writing for Television.

And so with all that said, here is my interview with David Simon.

Kary: Did you become a cop reporter, a police reporter immediately?

David Simon:

Yeah, that was the entry level place they put you. They gave you two weeks on the obit desk to see if you could be accurate with people calling in obits on family members and after that … they did some other stuff with me to stretch me a little bit. The federal court reporter went on vacation for three weeks and I covered federal court settling. Okay. The court is good, they send him to the court room, there’s a written record. If he’s inaccurate it’s going to show. So they did a few things here and there, but basically where I landed was my off days were Tuesday, Wednesday, I worked every weekend day for two years. I worked Saturdays and Sundays. I had off Tuesdays and Wednesdays and I worked four to two. Four to one, four to two and every night of those two years. And that was 19 … I think I had 350 bylines in 1984. Some sick amount. And by the way none of those clips … maybe four of those clips are worth talking about. The other 346 were dreck, yeah, just drek.

David Simon:

But there was one clip where I showed them a little something. I remember what happened was they started this little feature called City Life, where they wanted to get writing in the paper that wasn’t in the paper otherwise. And so they started this little thing and they said everyone has to come up with a City Life idea. Something that’s about the Baltimore essence of Baltimore and the city desk would start this and you could come up with the idea but you had to execute it. So separate from this, two things happened, one of which was I took the phone book and I looked up the names of famous people in the Baltimore phone book like Sherlock Holmes. There’s a Sherlock Holmes in the 1400 block of Dukeland Street. So I called him and I said, you know, “Mr. Holmes, how did you get the name?” And on we went. Anyway, it was a very charming piece about the phone book. I talked to Miles Davis who was a white guy, Charles Village. I talked to Edward G. Robinson, he had the middle initial and everything.

David Simon:

It was a lot of fun and it ran, it was one of the first … and Rebecca Corbett, who was my … she’d been my night editor and then when she became city editor I started getting some daytime gigs and then when she became projects editor I went to work for her projects team. And now she’s at the New York Times, she’s one of the top editors there. She did the Weinstein coverage and she was always top flight. But I remember she read that piece and she read another piece where they sent me to the last days of the wholesale fish market when it was in downtown Baltimore in this whole wreck of a building. They were going to move it out to a modern warehouse in Jessup and this old building that had a lot of charm, no air conditioning and smelled like 100 years of fish was about to become something else.

David Simon:

I wrote that for the front of the paper and I’ll never forget it, she came over to me and she goes, almost with a tilt of her head she goes, “You can write.” Like there was no expectation that you were … you were going to get a reporter maybe who was going to be accurate, you were going to teach them to be accurate, but the Baltimore Sun way was not exactly to hire great writers. It used to be said that the Baltimore Sun read like accountants wrote it, that was what the Evening Sun used to say. So I started to get a decent reputation for it and then I got a reputation for being fast, because they put me on rewrite two, three nights a week, so I was … their rewrite is, as Russell Baker said famously, he was a rewrite man at the Baltimore Sun at the beginning of his career, he said, “It’s the skill of writing an endless stream of cliches at flank speed.”

Kary:

For those who are uninitiated, what is the rewrite job?

David Simon:

Four to one and 12 to nine there were two people on the desk who breaking news reporters would be standing in a phone booth. And whilst some reporters can call in a story famously, “Here’s my lead.” Call it in paragraph by paragraph while standing on their feet next to a four alarm fire or next to a train wreck, a lot of people were just calling in facts and saying, “I’ll go find the battalion chief, I think he broke his leg.” “Which leg?” “I don’t know, I’ll find out.” So it all comes in as fact and then you have 20 minutes to write 15 inches on a four alarm fire. So that’s the rewrite desk. So you had to be clean, accurate and fast.

David Simon:

It sounds like most newspapermen would be that, but no, it’s actually like the fastest guys, they actually used to pay a differential, a 5% differential, a union rate if you were doing rewrite because it was supposed to be a higher skill level. But you’re also newsroom bound and you don’t cover … you don’t get a reputation for … you’re basically part of the machinery that gets the paper out. But for years I had re-write shifts and it made me cleaner and faster and I got a reputation for being sort of elementally functional. And it meant I had a lot … even when … because I was turning out to be a good reporter and Rebecca was trying to free me up for daytime shifts, I would have three daytime shifts to do my regular reporting and cover city stuff or cover … at the time I was doing a lot of police work, but then Sunday and Monday nights I would be late rewrite because those were Dave Ettlin’s … the regular rewrite man had to have two nights off, so I would be the late rewrite on two nights.

David Simon:

It was a badge of … to me, to a young guy, to a guy in his mid 20s it was a badge of honor. I’m the fastest, cleanest gunslinger here. I remember another moment of great pride was there was an Amtrak crash. Oh God. There was an Amtrak crash.

Kary:

That was-

David Simon:

That was, I know, it was-

Kary:

We planned that.

David Simon:

Yeah, that was pretty funny. There was an Amtrak crash north of Baltimore in January ’87. I think eight or nine people killed, I don’t remember the number but I was called in early, I was four to one rewrite. No, I was 12 to nine rewrite, but they called me in at 10 in the morning or 11 in the morning. “Get in here, we’ve had a big thing happen.” And I got there and they called Ettlin too, Ettlin was the night editor then. Was he night editor? Yeah, he was night editor and they said, “Get in here early.” And Ettlin was the veteran rewrite man, he was one of the guys who broke me in and they said to him … I watched it happen. It happened like in pantomime while I was stuck on the phone taking dictation from reporters out at the crash site.

David Simon:

So I’ve got the phone cradled and I’m typing with both hands and I was already writing the lead story for the first edition and this would have been late afternoon, maybe early evening and I watched John O’Donnell, the national night editor call Ettlin over and I watched them point to me and pinpoint. And what he was saying was, “Dave, you should be on the lead, put Simon on the sidebar.” I mean David was the veteran guy and, “You should write it. Even though you’re the night editor you should step in” and they were saying, “I’m sure he’s doing fine, but you’ll do better and you’ll be …” They were saying to the veteran guy, pull it out of his hands and give him the sidebar. And then I watched while still rewriting, I’m down in the body so I probably had 10, 12 graphs written and I’m on the phone so I can’t really talk to anybody, but I watched … I’m  taking notes and I’m telling somebody else to call Middle River Fire and Rescue, see if there’s any bodies in the water. It happened on a bridge outside of Chevy Chase, Maryland or near a bridge. And I’m yelling and David leans over my shoulder and he scrolls to the top and he reads the lead and then he scrolls down and then I watched him walk over to OD and he got close enough to OD that I could hear it because he just yelled, he goes, “He got it, I got the sidebar.” He read my lead and he read my first eight graphs and he was like, “The kid’s got it.” And I was 26 years old, Ettlin was probably 50 something and it was this moment of, “I can fucking do this, pal. Get out of my way, I am a newspaperman.”

David Simon:

That was one of the best moments of … and it only happened, it wasn’t a moment that was heralded, but it was me and Ettlin. I knew what Ettlin did, Ettlin basically said, “I’ll take the sidebar, you got it.” And it was his prerogative. He’d been there since 1966. If David Ettlin wanted the lead byline on that, he was taking it. So that was … I became a newspaper man in the viscera of how the newspaper got out every day. And from there, slowly, Rebecca weaned me away from the desk and started encouraging me to do project work and more stories.

Kary:

And how did the police beat fit into that?

David Simon:

Well for two years they put me on night cops and not a lot happens sometimes on night cops. Sometimes you work, you end up calling every police precinct in Baltimore and Baltimore County. You end up calling all the state police barracks in Maryland. You end up calling the Coast Guard, you end up calling Ocean City, you end up calling Annapolis, Annapolis Municipal. You end up calling P. G. Montgomery. Anything going on tonight? Anything going on tonight? You end up calling them three times a shift. I know these numbers now. 301-269-3101 is Annapolis barracks of the state police. I mean I know these numbers now.

David Simon:

565 … they may not be this anymore because it’s been 30 years, but what they were when I was calling them every night, 565-6105 Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, in case they had an environmental spill in Baltimore river. I mean the Baltimore numbers are easy, I’m trying to think of one that’s obscure. 298-3101, Maryland state police security barracks. You call them so much and this was before speed dial. When it first started it was frigging dial phones, but you just called them so much that they were … years from now I could not be able to remember my kids names when I’m going senile, but I’ll be able to remember how to make a fucking police round using the 1984 numbers for the Baltimore law enforcement. So it’s a shift that most people want to get off of.

The one thing that I did do is whenever it was a slow night, sometimes you get lazy, sometimes you sit there playing scrabble with Ettlin on a slow night, but sometimes I’d go over to the homicide unit and sometimes those guys were bored. Nothing’s going on and they’re watching a movie on TV. So one of them, Roger Nolan used to bring in a VCR once the VCR started happening later in the ’80s and they were going to watch movies all night on midnight shift. So you’d go over there and you watch Paths of Glory with Roger Nolan and the squad and you bullshit. And it stood me in good stead to make friends and get out of the newsroom and talk to desk sergeants and every now and then it helped, you know? Every now and then some guy would give you a home number or he’d tell you where he went drinking so you’d reach him at the bar when you needed him. And I started collecting names and numbers and sources. So that was the beginning of get out of the newsroom and meet people.

Kary:

And how did the opportunity to spend a year in a homicide squad materialize?

David Simon:

Well Christmas of ’85, like I said I took a bottle, I took a bottle of Johnnie Walker up to the homicide unit, because all year long you were calling and saying, “Have you got anything tonight? You’ve got one over on Durham Street? Okay.” And you get the facts and write a brief up. Or if something really big happened, “We’ve got a triple shooting.” “Oh shit.” You’re asking them … it’s in a house, you’re asking them to come out from working a crime scene and spend five minutes with you giving you the facts so you make your deadline. So you’re always sort of beholden to them. And if they thought you were an asshole they could fuck you up. “I’m not coming out of the house until after 11: 30 and you’re going to miss your home final.” So you try to be friendly.

David Simon:

And at Christmas I said I’d bring them a bottle, I’ll bring the guys at work a bottle and it was Nolan’s shift, Bill Lansey  who died a short time later, a good guy, Bill Lanzey, Donald Kincaid. I’m trying to remember who was up there. Nothing really happened. I went up on Christmas Eve and they had one small cutting. The guy didn’t die so they basically turned it over to the district. They went out on it but they came back pretty quickly. Mostly they sat around bullshitting and so I wrote a City Life about Christmas Eve in the homicide unit. It read so sweetly, it read just like the Kafka-esque notion of goodwill to all men and gee I hope the phone doesn’t ring. I hope that cutting over on-

Kary:

He doesn’t bleed out.

David Simon:

Yeah, he doesn’t bleed out. Right. It read very well. It read so well in fact that at that point in ’85 the Baltimore Sun was still an honorific paper, meaning we used Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. and Miss. Everybody had an honorific. It makes it very hard to write narrative when everybody has an honorific. It’s so distancing, so they were all “Detective.” Detective this says to detective that. I wrote it in the present tense. “Nolan says.” “Kincaid laughs.” I wrote it like it was a narrative and it read so well that it sailed … I watched, it sailed past the night editor, Peter Meredith at the time and it sailed past the copy desk and nobody noticed that it was a violation of the Sun’s style. It ran in the paper without honorifics.

David Simon:

And the next day Meredith came up to me furious. He was so pissed. And I tried to say to him, “Isn’t that a tell that we should abandon this? If you want really good writing what the fuck are we doing being honorific? We’re not the New York Times, but we could have great writing, we could be the Herald-Tribune.” And I had an argument with him over it, but I basically put one over. Anyway, that night, a quote that I didn’t use in the paper, Bill Lansey at about four in the morning finishing off the last of my bottle said to me, “Man, if somebody came up here and just stood in the middle of the fucking room for a year they’d have a motherfucking book.” And I remembered that.

David Simon:

It was Christmas of ’85. I thought about it, I kept brooding on it, then in ’87 we had a strike over medical. We were one of the most profitable papers. We were as profitable as we’d ever been, we later found out. They were pleading poverty and they were trying to cut our medical and we went on strike for about a week and I came back really irritated, so it would have been fall of ’87. It was fucking … I didn’t want to get … it was a good full-time newspaper job, but I felt like loyalty, institutional loyalty, I felt nothing but loyalty to this paper that hired me out of college and you need to cut my medical when we know you’re now the only paper in town? You’ve vanquished the Hearst paper two years earlier and you’ve got a monopoly and the paper is fat with ads. What the fuck you people?

David Simon:

So I’m feeling like I could use some time to do one of my own projects. And by this time I’d had a series of … I’d had a five part series, I’d done … I wasn’t just doing react stuff, I was now doing enterprise reporting for Rebecca. I wrote up that book proposal, that one I talked about … and I got myself an agent and he sent it around and it was a little bit of a bidding war and it was enough for me to live on for a year, at my salary maybe a year and a half and finish a book. And incredibly they let me into the homicide unit for a year. Something I don’t think-

Kary:

And you did that as a freelancer? You weren’t affiliated with any news organiza-

David Simon:

Oh I had to say to the Sun, they wouldn’t let me in if I’d been affiliated. They were saying, “You can’t talk to your newspaper while you’re … if you’re traveling with our detectives on pending cases you have to be …”

Kary:

I see.

David Simon:

So I was on leave and the guild contract allows you to be on leave for cause for a year once you’ve put in a number of years. I’d put in four year at that point, I had a book contract and they were letting me into the homicide unit, so they let me have a year and then I needed three months more to finish the first draft and then I needed to work on a second and third draft and I asked for six months more. I was out probably a year and nine months total. Then the book came out and then we were off and running. I remember thinking I’m going to act on what I’ve been brooding about with Bill Lansey to get out of this newsroom for a year because I’m pissed at the people I’m working for. They have no business cutting our medical like that. I was a strike captain. Strike captain doesn’t mean much, it means I was in charge of one little crew at one of the gates making sure we were always picketing. I’m always a good union guy, any union. So that was it.

Kary:

What were some of the lasting impressions and kind of gestalt impressions and moments from that year in the homicide unit?

David Simon:

I do remember human beings getting used to anything. I do remember that dynamic which was to say … listen, I’d seen some bodies, I’d been a police reporter for four years, I’d gone to a lot of crime scenes, it’s different to spend three hours in a kitchen with a body, especially one that’s been mutilated. Or then to go to the morgue and see one disassembled by a pathologist. It really becomes meat in a way that maybe only morticians and pathologists and homicide detectives and, I don’t know, maybe fire and rescue people understand. But human beings get used to anything, so I can tell you everything about the first body that I spent four hours with at a crime scene. Kenny Vines, drug dealer, Walbrook Junction, killed in his living room, bullet in the eye. I can tell you about the bullet hole, I can tell you about the wink of the one eye missing, one eye staring out. I can tell you about the fucking note he had on his refrigerator. I remember everything about that crime scene.

David Simon:

I can’t tell you shit about the 120th body that I stood … it’s like you get used to everything, which is something about humanity that … it’s like all of the crime fiction and all of the detective shit on TV, it immediately … by February and March and it was immediately playing false to me as I knew it would intellectually, but I really felt it. All that shit where the detective comes up and they care about the victim and they pick up the sheet and they look down at the young girl who’s been killed or whatever and they care. They’re vexed by the affront. It’s their job. And they look down and they say, “Shit, what am I not seeing?” The moment they stare down at that body and they’re overwhelmed emotionally, then they’re no good for their job. They’re not going to be that. If you want the detective to really care about his victim, you don’t want the guy to be… You’re not really asking for a detective. You’re asking for a fucking… You’re asking for some validation of humanity in the wrong place. So all of the conceit that has been applied by by society, what I was seeing was the assembly line of urban violence.

David Simon:

Is it kind of the same assembly line, and all the guys who were working on it to get the cars put together as fast as they could and not botch up too many of the cars, because they were solving 70%, 65% of the murders and that was good. By the way, they wish they could fall itself 65%, 70% nowadays. So I was, that’s what I was watching was this mass…

David Simon:

I was like on a Detroit assembly line of murder investigation. That leads to incredibly tough and dark and funny humor as you might imagine. It also leads to stress, great wit, great anger, great talent on the part of the guys who can put together eight, nine clearances a year. It shakes out the bad detectives. It means that like in a unit of 36 guys, there’s maybe 12 or 15 that are worth a shit and they carry the rest of the guys. Like in one squad there’ll be … If you’re sergeant’s good, he’s good. Maybe he’s got one or two guys he can rely on. And the rest of them, they’re trying to filter that police work to those two guys. Task those guys, “Hey talk to this guy and ask him this.” Or. “Bring this guy to me and I’ll talk to him.”

Kary:

How long did it take for you to develop your sense of or your appreciation of police craftsmanship… of police work.

David Simon:

I was still developing it a year and a half later when I was watching this case go to court or not go to court. I was still learning. I mean, you never stopped learning, but I will tell you that everything I wrote down that I thought was important in January when the first got to the unit and I filled note pads. None of that shit was important. What I wasn’t seeing right away became evident to me as I watched these…

David Simon:

I started realizing, everyone said to me, Ed Burns was not in the unit then… the guy who I later worked on  The Wire with and a colleague of mine in television and he was at… He was assigned to an FBI investigation, a wire tap case. So he was out of the unit that year. But I said, “Ed, who should I go with?” And he said, “Go with Donald Worden.” “Whose shift you on?” I said, “I’m on the D’Addario shift.” He said, “Make sure you follow Worden.” Then I say, “Worden, huh?” He goes, “Worden.”

David Simon:

Worden is this polar bear looking six foot four white guy, gap toothed, high school education, Navy vet, came out, worked his way up in Northwest district, Ops…. Probably got to robbery and like… Came on in ’62. He’s like an old timer and he looked… not smart. He looked like a guy from fucking Hampden, which is what he was, which was like white working class. He was like a goddamn gap tooth, polar bear.

David Simon:

And he was always a little bit abusive of me. Like he’d say,  “Simon, Simon from the Sun, motherfucker.” I didn’t know enough to be intimidated by him. I thought he was a little bit of an asshole. And by the time I got to May I realized, Worden’s carrying half this fucking shift. He’s that good. He’s that good. The joke was if you got him into a house in the Northwest district, it was solved because he knew everybody up there but … And he couldn’t write a lick.

David Simon:

They would put him with a guy who could write the reports because he was like, he… I mean if he had to, he’d sit there and write a “24” you know what I mean? I’m not saying he was illiterate, but he would rather eat his gun than type a report. He wasn’t typing no prosecution reports. For that, they put them with other guys.

David Simon:

But he ran his squad. He was a part of McLarney’s squad and he was as much, the conscience of that squad as McLarney. And by the time I got to-

Kary:

And when you see the conscience, you mean the craftsman, like he cared about… good police.

David Simon:

Yeah. Like… “I’m going to look over my shoulder at Dave Brown’s file” and he’d call Dave Brown a motherfucker because he hasn’t picked up this witness, which anybody would at this point. Or because he hasn’t seen that this caliber was also on another robbery on another 24 from the same night. Another 24 hour report.

David Simon:

I mean a lot of it was instinctive but it wasn’t like magical. It was common sense instinctive. But also Donald, he wasn’t a verbal guy. There’s a lot of different ways to interrogate a guy and if you’ve been a reporter, there’s a lot of good ways to interview people. One of which is… keep talking. If you think it’s going to be a belligerent interview, keep talking. So that he can’t say, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

David Simon:

Just fill the room with bullshit until you say something and the guy smiles and then maybe you let him say something. But that’s one thing. The other thing to do, if you think the guy’s not going to throw you out or you think the guy’s more of a supplicant as as a subject, is shut up. Don’t say anything and he’ll fill the silences just because he’s uncomfortable.

David Simon:

Donald would look at you with those fucking sad eyes and, just look at you. Some 16 year old black kid who’s about… trying not to give it up. He looked at you like, he was like, he’s somehow your old sad uncle and he’d just look at you like, and the kids lying and he’d just let the kid lie and lie and lie and lie. Donald would just… and finally the kid say some shit and implicate. If not himself, it’d be the guy in the next interrogation room.

David Simon:

And we watched him do it one time and McLarney passed me a note while it happened and said, “Wouldn’t you hate to have Donald as your father?” Because he had that, he had that ability to suck a room into silence. Ed knew that. Ed knew everything about who was good and who was not. There were other guys who as was famously said, who couldn’t track a bleeding elephant through snow, through fresh snow.

David Simon:

I mean there were some guys who shouldn’t have been in the unit. And the guys in their squad would carry them. It’s like that’s what you do. You carry the weak… It’s like a platoon at war. You carry the weak guys, you try to help them with their cases. Sometimes they have to sink or swim. You can’t help a guy forever, but as long as he’s in your squad, you get to try to help him solve the murders.

David Simon:

But then there were guys who were just so… Kevin Davis was great. Donald Worden was great. Harry Edgerton was good. Trying to think of who else I really admired in that unit. And then there were some guys who were like professional. A solvable case wouldn’t get away from them, but they weren’t going to bring in a tough drug murderer. They weren’t going to work at like a dog with a bone.

Kary:

Right.

David Simon:

Garvey was great that way. Garvey would not let a case go if he could possibly solve it.

Commercial break for crimestory.com.

Kary:

So you wrote the book in ’88, I mean, you reported the book in ’88-

David Simon:

I reported in ’88, came out in 91 yeah.

Kary:

So you worked on it for the first nine months of ’89?

David Simon:

No, first three months. I went back in March of ’89, and then I had to go out again. I realized that my first pass was not as good as it needed to be.

Kary:

I see.

David Simon:

So then after six months back in the paper, I had to ask. So I said, I got to go out and I got to work on this draft to get-

Kary:

I see. I See. So that’s why I didn’t come out till ’91?

David Simon:

Yeah.

Kary:

Got it.

David Simon:

No, I worked hard on the draft. Plus you got to remember all the cases were being adjudicated and I couldn’t be as free about… One of the things I had to promise the police department was that in pending cases, they could adjust the manuscript or take stuff out and I didn’t want them to take stuff out. And they made no changes to the manuscript. But-

Kary:

But you had to wait for the cases to be-

David Simon:

Right. I needed those cases. And the average murder case takes a year to get to court after they charge. So send some of these, they didn’t charge until December. So all the while I had other reporting I was going to court with the cases and watching them go through the system, the ones that were solved anyway. And there were some that were solved and they arrested people in ’89 for ’88 even ’90.

Kary:

And it came out in ’91, tell me the story of how it ended up in Barry Levinson’s hands.

I had an agent who was a schmuck, a book agent. And he thought he could sell it on his own in Hollywood. He was out of DC and my book editor, who was not a schmuck, John Sterling was a very bright guy. He was the head of head of Houghton Mifflin at the time. He said, “This is not for a book, it’s not for literary guy. You need somebody out there in LA to be selling this.”

David Simon:

So he’s supposed to split it with one of the big agencies and so he went to CAA. CAA sends it to a bunch of feature directors, not Barry Levinson, for feature and no real nibbles on that. I’ll spare you the, the Billy Friedkin. His hilarious cold call to the re-write desk. But other than that failed attempt to interest anybody. It wasn’t selling. And so finally I said, “Have you sent it to Barry Levinson. He’s from Baltimore?” My big idea. So they did. And Gail Mutrux, who was I guess an associate producers in Baltimore Pictures working with Barry, she read the book and lo and behold at the time Barry was trying to make a television show for NBC. They wanted him to make a show for them. He tried to interest them and I think he’ll confirm this. He was trying to interest them in a show an hour show based on Diner, based on his movie Diner, a coming of age show.

David Simon:

And they weren’t biting on that. So then this book on the year in the life of a homicide unit came in and they went, yeah, okay, we’ll do a cop show, so Barry Levinson. And then, so I got this call and then sold them the book and they said to me, “Do you want to write the pilot?” And I said, “Oh God, no. Get somebody who knows what they’re doing. I’ve never even written a school skit.” So they got Paul Attanasio and he wrote a pilot and then they got Tom to run the show, Tom Fantana to run the show, and they were off and running.

David Simon:

And I said to them, I said, “Once you get it up and running, I’ll take a shot. Show me a couple of scripts as a template.” And so they did. And I wrote an episode. Tom gave me no beat sheet, but he said, “Just give me a case that goes from the murder to death row.” That’s what he said. And I thought to myself, as soon as he said, I thought, well that’s 12 and a half years in Maryland. That’s 12 and a half years. And it’s not one episode.

David Simon:

So I thought, okay, what we’re saying there is that it’s a felony murder case and they threatened to charge the death penalty, whether they do or not is immaterial because all we’re going to do is go to the point of arrest. But I called Dave Mills from my time at the Diamondback. David Mills was an African-American writer who became one of my friends from us editing the college paper at the same time.

David Simon:

He was the guy who when Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere were on TV on Wednesday and Thursday nights, when we were editing the Diamondback, he would have to stop putting out his pages to go watch these fucking shows. And I would yell at him, “Come on Dave, you just… Finish your fucking headlines and move the arts page.” He’d be like, “No, no, no, no, no. I want to … Just wait till the next commercial.” He would literally stop his page production because these shows so fascinating.

David Simon:

So when they gave me the chance to write the script, I called David, I said, “Do you want to do this with me because you actually watch this shit?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, I want to do this.” Because he was like, “Tom Fontana? St Elsewhere!” And I was like, “Yeah, I know I know. They told me he did St Elsewhere. He would regale me with stories about what a great show St Elsewhere was. I was like, “Whatever. I’ll take off work for a week. We can get this done in week, can’t we?”

David Simon:

So we wrote a script and we turned it in and it had the usual first-timers mistakes. But by the time we took Tom’s notes, half of it, even half of the shooting script was us. Half of it was Jimmy Yosimura and Tom writing behind us. And once they were able to get Robin Williams to play the victims husband as a guest shot, they had to write a bunch of scenes for him.

David Simon:

And so a lot of our scenes about the three kids that did the murder died on the vine there. But the cops stuff all stayed intact and how they solved the case and the point of the piece and who was the shooter was still… The detectives guessing wrong about who the shooter was stayed intact.

David Simon:

I saw the final shooting script and I thought well we failed. Half of it isn’t us, somebody else. Because as a newspaperman, if somebody writes half your story, you fucked up. What I didn’t realize, what I would only realize years later once I went on staff is that it’s really hard to write television from outside the show runners perspective. And also it’s like if you get half a script. I mean-

Kary:

It’s like hitting .500 in baseball.

David Simon:

It’s like hitting 500 in baseball. When George Pelecanos wrote his first script from me and he probably got a little more than half, and he was furious. He was ready to go Greek on my ass. And the truth was, I got a live one here. This one can write. But from his point of view, he’s trying to write his way in from the outside. I know the Baltimore Homicide Unit like the back of my hand. You’re a really good crime writer. You’re really good writing scenes with people. You know how to write for television even on this first pass, but I’m still taking a pass over your script because it’s got to be…

David Simon:

They all got to feel like it’s one of a kind. It’s got to have everybody’s input in it. Script one, script five and script 11 they all have to sound like it’s part of the same story in the same tone. And now George and I are writing The Deuce together and we’re all like, you take seven, I’ll take eight, you take nine. And we’re writing to the same tone because we’ve now… we’re inside the bubble. 

Kary:

So you and Mills thought you’d failed.

David Simon:

Yeah, we failed because they have this… I would say 40… It’s a lot of big scenes with Robin Williams pontificating about the meaning of life we’re not ours. everything else was pretty much ours. But that was 40% of the script. I mean, you get Robin Williams, you get him in the script

Kary:

And that was the kickoff of the second season of the show. Correct?

David Simon:

What happened was when we first wrote it, we wrote it for the first season. It was like supposed to be the last script of the first season. NBC read the script and said this is too dark. We don’t want to do this. This is too dark a story. And they asked him to come up with something else and they did. They held the script.

David Simon:

And Mark Johnson, Barry’s producing partner at the time went and talked to Robin Williams about doing television. This is the era where movie stars didn’t do television. It was like, there was a Chinese curtain there that you didn’t walk through. But he had had a couple movies in a row, Good Morning, Vietnam and stuff for Barry. And they prevailed upon him to read the script and he said, “Yeah, I’ll play the husband.”

David Simon:

So once they got Robin Williams, then NBC, they had a four episode order for the second season. Four episodes was what they gave Tom… Warren Littlefield. And once they had Robin Williams wanting to play that part, then they’re, “Oh yeah, the script’s fine.” So it actually, they used it a year late and it led off and pulled like a 30 share. Probably the best number Homicide ever pulled. Not because of our script, but because of Robin Williams obviously.

Kary:

And you ended up winning an Emmy for that?

David Simon:

No, no Emmy. WGA award. WGA writing award for episodic drama… First script and listen, were  there chunks of Yosh and Fontana in there? Yeah. I mean, let me say we all won it together. But David and I got to go up there. David immediately told the Washington Post I’m going… He had a great job in the style section of Washington Post, he was much beloved, he’d been a Pulitzer nominated for some of his cultural coverage of sort of African American issues.

David Simon:

He told Len Downie, “I’m gone. I got to take my shot now.” And Len Downie tried to say, “Well, just go on, leave. We love you. You don’t have to quit the paper and David…” And, by the way, I said the same thing too. I said, “Are you a fucking idiot?” I tried to argue with him, his father tried to argue with him like “This is a great… You’re working at the Washington Post Style section. Take a leave, give it a year but they want you back. Don’t burn the bridge.” David was like, “I won’t give it my all if I don’t burn the bridge, if I don’t walk away.”

David Simon:

And so he left and he very quickly got a job on Picket Fences. Found out that David Kelly writes all the scripts himself. So he moved on to… I mean how he moved onto Milch, it was its own charming story. But he ended up writing for NYPD Blue. And he kept saying to me, “You will not believe how many motherfuckers out here can’t write. If you leave and come here, you will not starve.”

David Simon:

He just kept laughing at me. But the truth is I was like, Dave, I want to be a newspaperman. I want to do this. I love this and it was fun to do that script with you. And I mean what happened was the second they offered us a script on season three and I gave it to David because he needed a credit on his own.

David Simon:

So he did season three and then I asked for one for season four and so I did one for Homicide and by season four of Homicide, David was working on NYPD Blue and he went to Milch. David Milch, his boss on NYPD Blue and said, “Can Dave Simon get a script from us?”

David Simon:

Back to back, I wrote scripts for Homicide season four and I wrote one for NYPD Blue and David Milch called me and offered me a job at the same time that Fontana did writing for the show in the same window when the Baltimore Sun had its third buyout. Which is telling you something that they were now, at a time of great profit… This was before the internet, but at a time when newspapers were more profitable than ever, Wall Street had figured out how to make more money with shittier newspapers, less coverage, shittier newspapers, smaller news hole. We can make more money than with better newspapers.

David Simon:

And so they’d had one buyout in ’92 where I thought about taking it… I was eligible and I thought about taking it. Rebecca Corbett, my editor and I went to the Washington Post and we had interviews and they offered me a job. First they were trying to offer me the Virginia Bureau and I remember saying to  Milton Coleman, I think, was the AME for Metro. I said to him, “That’s not a victory for The Post… to have me in fucking Richmond. I’m sorry. I’ve learned to do the job better than that.”

David Simon:

I actually said I wouldn’t do that. “What else you got?” Because I wasn’t going to jump to go laterally into… It was like the Post was a better newspaper and it was my hometown paper but what happened was they finally, like, they waved the flag… Marilyn Thompson had a Metro Projects unit. I thought that’s me. And so I talked to her, I got along well with her and I was on the phone with Bob Kaiser, managing editor I remember.

David Simon:

And I was waiting to hear from Rebecca. If Rebecca had jumped. I was going, I was not staying behind without my editor… She was that much my mentor. And she decided to hang on at the Baltimore Sun. I stayed with her. And Kaiser had said to me, “Because if we make the official offer and you turn us down, then you’ll have burned a bridge. So don’t make us make the, yeah, you can still call us back.” And so that’s where I left it with the Post.

David Simon:

So that was the first buyout. Second buyout, it was for management only, it was for editors. That they were buying out editors. Third buyout was ’95. And I just done these two scripts and both Tom on Homicide and Milch. They both offered me jobs. Milch offered me more money. Tom said something to me that resonated. There were two things, one of which was, and I liked NYPD Blue, I thought there was a tone there that I recognized as being very cop.

David Simon:

It was like in some ways, although the Baltimore stuff was from my book, what Tom had created, was a much more of a philosophical bunch of detectives. They were much more agonized over the nature of evil. And I mean especially if you think about Andre Braugher’s character.

Kary:

Right.

David Simon:

It was great writing. It was really great writing. I’m not denigrating it at all, but the workaday cops that I knew who would no more discuss the nature of evil with you, then they would, you know-

Kary:

Yosh was raised Catholic too?

David Simon:

Yeah. There was a real Catholic streak of man, God, pain, the nature of pain. Like they were really fucking with their Jesuit upbringing there.

Kary:

Right. Right.

David Simon:

And I had nothing on that. What I had was-

Kary:

What Milch had-

David Simon:

I had… I know how probable cause works. I know when you can put handcuffs on a guy when you can’t. So in some ways I was more akin to what NYPD Blue was chasing, but A, this was in my home, it was on the East coast and my parents were getting up in years and I had, my son had been born the year before and I wanted him to be around his grandparents. So taking him to LA, LA didn’t appeal to me but-

Kary:

And it was on a show based on your book.

David Simon:

Yeah. So like, right. I mean it was in my town and I thought I’m going to do this for a couple of years and then I’m going to go to the Washington Post. So why don’t, why get out of the area while I’m learning how to do TV and having some interesting adventures and learning a new craft and I’m figuring out how people film shit because I’ve never been to film school and I don’t even know what the camera does.

David Simon:

While I’m learning that. I’ll probably write a couple pieces for the Washington Post Sunday mag and keep them interested in me and you know, and keep my friendships up and Luxenberg was there at that time. He’d moved over. And I’ll end up at The Post a couple of years. And the other thing is, I was trying to finish… by ’97, you know, I’d been out for a year on The Corner, the second book. ’93 I spent researching, a year on a drug corner. And so I was working on that manuscript and preparing to publish that in ’97 with Ed Burns. So got to get that book done before you can… Because you can’t, once you’re in a book, you can’t like get a job with Washington Post and go, “Oh by the way, I have to take a year’s leave of absence to finish the manuscript of this book.” No, once you get to a new newspaper, you got to kick ass.

David Simon:

So I knew my next window for jumping to The Post was probably ’98… ’97 was probably my next window. On the other hand, you can go to work for a television show and with your other hand finish writing your fucking journal… you know your next treatise of journalism because… it’s a fucking script and I know this shit and it’s going to take me… Okay now I’ve got to go to set or I got to go to casting. It’s okay.

Kary:

So was it a tough decision or was it pretty clear you were going to go with Homicide?

David Simon:

I was leaning to Homicide but then Tom said something that sealed the deal because the other thing though truly Milch said “I will make you…” He was like, “You come out here…” because that script went in fairly intact.

David Simon:

And by the way I gave him a prototype. If you ever look at that script, Giancarlo Esposito played a prototype of Omar. I gave him the character of Omar and he killed him off and I didn’t kill him off. I let them get away. I was like, “You can run with this guy for a while.” Because Omar is based on some real guys in Baltimore.

David Simon:

“So you run with this guy who robs drug dealers for a while, you’re going to have some fun with him.” And they were like… And that’s how it was originally written. Bochco looked at it. Bochco looked at that episode and said, David was in the room when they screened it and he said, “Kill the guy. At the end, it’s better.” And he killed the guy. So they ended up killing off Giancarlo Esposito at the end. The drug dealers catch up with him before the last commercial break, I was like, okay.

Kary:

What was it that Tom said that sealed the deal?

David Simon:

Oh, well what Milch said was, “I’ll pay you more money than God.” And that does get your attention if you’re a police reporter in Baltimore. But the LA thing was like, “Ah, I’ve got to move out to LA and tell my parents, and I got a new baby that they’re crazy about.”

David Simon:

Tom said, “I don’t have Bochco money and I can’t match it, but I will actually teach you how to do this. I will teach you how to do all of it. I’ll teach you how to produce.” And I said, and thinking I’m still going to the Washington Post or New York Times thinking I’m still going to end up in journals and I said, “Why Tom? Why would I want to produce?” And he said, “Because that’s the only way to protect your writing in this business is to be the last guy in the room on the cuts and to know what you’re doing in editing to know what you’re doing in casting to make it all come together. I’ll teach you how to do this.” He was basically saying, “I’ll show you how to showrun.” That word wasn’t invented yet. And that was like when he said it, it struck a chord to me, not because I thought I was going to end up doing it, but I thought if I’m really telling myself I’m doing this to gain a skillset and to learn something that I don’t know, why not learn all of it, just to know it.

David Simon:

I mean, I may not do it, but at least I’ll know what goes into it. At least when I watch movies, I go to the movie theater, I’ll know more about it. And Bochco and Milch as I later heard from David, they didn’t want you going to set, they didn’t want you going into the editing room. I mean, you could go in and sort of sit, but they were not trying to-

Kary:

Groom you.

David Simon:

They were not trying to groom you. And to Tom’s great credit and the reason I’ve had some great mentors, Rebecca Corbett was the first one. John Sterling made my books 30% better. He is a great editor.

David Simon:

Anyway, Tom turned out to be an incredible mentor. Think about it. You’re in a world where, there was at that time a limited amount of shows being bought. It’s not the wide open world that is now in terms of content and you’re training everybody and you look at all the people that came out of Tom’s shop who are showrunners now. Eric Overmyer, Anya Epstein, me, Yoshimura.

David Simon:

He basically, if you were in his shop and you had the skill sets necessary, he was going to let you develop them. You know, first year, he sent you to set. You learn how to cover set slowly. Second year, he sent you do day player casting. Third year, you came up and you sat in on the edits and he’d let you start playing with an edit with Jay Rabinowitz, the editor. Jay would keep the real edit over here because you were fucking it up, but he would at least let you try.

David Simon:

Eventually, you started to produce episodes. But it was years. I took that job in ’95 and I think I went to… When would Homicide have ended? ’99.

End of episode.