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Clark Johnson, On Screen and Behind the Scenes

Clark Johnson has worked as a director on several of TV's most memorable cop shows, including The Shield, Homicide: Life on the Street and the pilot episode of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire. This season, he's appearing on camera as well, as The Wire's City Editor Gus Haynes.


Other segments from the episode on January 21, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 21, 2008: Interview with Clark Johnson; Review of Andy Bey's "Round midnight," and "Ain't necessarily so."


DATE January 21, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Clark Johnson, actor and director for "The Wire," on
"The Wire," "The Shield," "Homicide," directing and his life

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're big fans of the HBO series "The Wire" so we have a "Wire" double-header.
Tomorrow we'll hear from the actor who plays Omar, Michael K. Williams. My
guest today is Clark Johnson. He directed the pilot of "The Wire," the second
episode, and the series finale, which will shown in a few weeks. And on this
fifth and final season, he's also on camera as Gus Haynes, the city editor of
The Baltimore Sun. Johnson also directed the pilot and several other episodes
of the FX cop series "The Shield," including the series finale, which has not
yet been shown.

Many of us first saw Johnson in the '90s on the TV series "Homicide," playing
Detected Meldrick Lewis. "Homicide" was based on a book by David Simon, who
later created "The Wire" which, like "Homicide," is set in Baltimore. Simon
has described "The Wire" as really about the American city and how we live and
about how institutions affect the individuals within them and the compromises
those individuals are often forced to make. In this final season, Simon has
added a new institution, the newspaper, specifically a fictionalized version
of The Baltimore Sun, where Simon used to work. Clark Johnson as Gus Haynes,
the city editor, is upholding journalistic values that the editors above him
seem willing to compromise. They want colorful stories that will get
attention, even if the facts don't quite check out.

In this scene, Gus is talking to a reporter named Scott Templeton, who was
assigned to write a color story about the Orioles game. The story he's handed
in is about a 13-year-old African-American boy who's in a wheelchair because a
stray bullet left him paralyzed. The kid wants to see the game, but can't
afford to buy a scalped ticket. The reporter says he only knows the kid's
nickname, no full name, no photo. Gus, the editor, expresses his skepticism
to the reporter. Later in the scene, the managing editor intervenes.

(Soundbite of "The Wire")

Mr. CLARK JOHNSON: (As Gus Haynes) The kid is nowhere to be found. I sent
photo down there to try to dig him up. Nothing. Probably left. OK, so we
got a poor black kid, in a wheelchair, with no ticket. He rolls himself from
somewhere in west Baltimore to--to the shadow of the mighty brick-faced
coliseum known as Oriole Park, listening to the--the cheers from the crowd
which told the whole tale.

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) I got a five.

Mr. JOHNSON: (as Gus Haynes) We're going to give good play to a 13-year-old
known only as E.J., who declines to give his name because he skipped school.
He's got no parents. He lives with his aunt. I mean, I'm not saying that
this kid isn't everything you say he is, but Scott, damn, as an editor, I need
a little more to go on if I'm going to fly this thing.

Mr. THOMAS McCARTHY: (As Scott Templeton) I resent the implication.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. JOHNSON: (as Gus Haynes) I'm not implying anything. I'm on your side.
But the standard for us has to be...

Unidentified Actor #2: (as Jim) Scott, just finished your story. Good read.
I'm putting it out front. I think you've really captured the disparity of the
two worlds in this city in a highly readable narrative. I wouldn't change a

Mr. McCARTHY: (as Scott Templeton) Thanks, but I'm not sure everyone shares
your enthusiasm.

Mr. JOHNSON: (as Gus Haynes) Jim, aren't you just a little bit concerned
that we don't even have a last name for this kid? I mean, I thought we held
ourselves up to a...

Actor #2: (as Jim) It's not an ideal situation, no, but the boy's reluctance
to give his last name clearly stems from his fear of being discovered as a
truant. Do you have a problem with it?

Mr. JOHNSON: (as Gus Haynes) A little bit, kind of, yeah. I'm just saying
that the standards we have...

Actor #2: (as Jim) I think we're on terra firma here.

Mr. JOHNSON: (as Gus Haynes) Gotcha. Man made a call. You're good to go.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Clark Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Did you expect to get an acting
part on the show after having directed the first two episodes years ago?

Mr. JOHNSON: I hadn't really thought about it. I kept wanting to regain
contact with the show because, you know, after having done the pilot and the
first couple, I went off into feature film land and "The Shield" and things
elsewhere, so I couldn't get back. So I had hoped to do one of the ones in
the last season, and then the role came up and it was a regular role for the
season and I thought, what a better way to, you know, to finish this loop for
me, to be involved as an actor and a director.

GROSS: What did the creator of the show, David Simon, tell you about your
part as the city editor at the Baltimore Sun and about the problems that Simon
himself faced during the period of cutbacks and buyouts at the Baltimore Sun
when he worked there?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, first of all, he let me know that the character was
loosely based on him and his experiences in a sense. And then Bill Zorzi, our
other former Sun reporter who is now a producer and a great writer for the
show claims that the character's loosely based on him so I took it from both
of them and that became the character.

GROSS: David Simon was a reporter, not an editor, right?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. He was a reporter, but the newspaper guy, you
know? It was the sensibility, the righteous indignation that comes out of my
dialogue comes from his take on the state of print journalism so...

GROSS: I'm a huge fan of "The Wire" but I didn't pick it up right away. I
found it hard at first to keep track of all the characters because there are
so many. You've got the cops, you've got the drug dealers, you've got the
city government that you're following, and when the characters were all being
introduced, I just couldn't keep track and I--it took me a couple of seasons
before I really went back and followed them. And I've actually heard this
from other people, too, that it was initially hard for them to follow
everything because there's so many characters to figure out early on. Now I
love these characters so much, but I'm wondering, when you started directing
it and you were doing the episode, seeing all these characters that you had to
establish in one hour, how did you handle that? Like, what were some of the
challenges for you?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think most of the characters were so well defined and so
creatively drawn that I didn't have a problem with it, with the pilot. Now
when I came back this season and had to reconnect, it was dense because, you
know, people had come and gone and people were referred to that weren't on the
show anymore, and it was pretty, you know, it was a lot of homework to get up
to speed. And I think that that's one of the things that people attribute our
so-called lack of a huge audience is that very thing, is that you got to work
at it. You've got to get in there and really get to know these people. It's
dense, and--but as you experienced, once you do, you're kind of hooked. And
that's why we have a great, passionately loyal fan base.

GROSS: That's why DVDs are so great, because you can always pick it up.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

GROSS: What were some of the guiding principles behind how the show was
supposed to look when you started directing it?

Mr. JOHNSON: Basically the show itself has two things. It has a look of its
own and that the place that it's set in is an important character. Now,
Baltimore was an important character in this series, and the look of the show
was quite different from the look of, say, "The Shield," which was frenetic
and handheld and run-and-gun 16 mil embedded type of a format, of a style,
whereas "The Wire," because of the theme of the show, which is to surveil and
to observe and to watch from a distance, we took the idea to do it with a long
lens and just to be more settled and to watch from afar, and that's been the
look of the show throughout, is that detached, you know, view of it.

GROSS: Have you learned a lot of street slang from doing "Homicide" and "The
Shield" and "The Wire"?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the language evolves, you know. The colorful thing about
any sublingo, if you want, is that it completely evolves. You can go all the
way to the streets of London where they have that Cockney slang, where that
bangers and mash means absolutely something else, and that would change and
morph into another phrase, so if you don't keep up with it, it becomes
irrelevant really quickly. It's fine for, you know, a TV show but it doesn't
really represent what the kids are speaking like now.

Like for instance, my daughter goes to school in Paris. She's in college in
Paris and they--she's learning colloquial French in addition to her great, you
know, school-taught French, and one of the phrases they use there is...(French
spoken) which means, `What up, homey?' in colloquial French. (French spoken).
So things change...

GROSS: But what does sit mean? I lost you.

Mr. JOHNSON: `What up, homey?'

GROSS: `What up, homey?' Oh, oh.

Mr. JOHNSON: (French spoken). And I mean, you know, so things change and,
you know, we try and to keep up with it. And David Simon has a great ear for
it and, you know, all those years on the beat, you know, as a, you know, just
a service reporter, he would collect those things and then, of course, he'd
have to update them. And the the kids that we hire on the show, a lot of
times come right off the street, so we tend to stay fairly current with that,
I think.

GROSS: So where does that leave you as a director when you're directing young
people who have some, like, instinctual talent but they're like not trained?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, that instinctual talent is what I nurture and try to
bring out, whereas we had a lot of stunt casting with reporters or former
reporters from The Sun and people that Simon and Zorzi knew. And, you know, a
lot of them, God bless them, great writers but couldn't act worth a damn, you
know, so it was easier getting stuff out of the kids who were, you know, open
books, fresh, you know, takes on it than jaded hard-core reporters trying to
play themselves. Be funny because a lot of them are really charismatic and
interesting off camera. Soon as they say "Action!" they freeze up...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...whereas with the kids it didn't happen too often.

GROSS: So tell me what kind of advice you gave the kids?

Mr. JOHNSON: I didn't really--I don't give advice unless it's asked for,
generally. I mean, I just--what I do as a director is I--because I'm an
actor, I watch, and as I watch I'll tell the actor what I just saw, and if
that's not what the actor was trying to present, then we'll discuss it and
we'll say, `Well, how can we get that across? Because it looked to me like
you were doing this.' So that's--pretty much applies to the way I raise my
kids or the way I direct actors, you know. It's like, OK, here's what I saw.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Clark Johnson, and in the
current series of "The Wire" he plays Gus Haynes, who's the city editor at The
Baltimore Sun, and he also directed the first two episodes of "The Wire" and
directed the finale of "The Wire," which is coming up in just a few weeks. He
played Detective Meldrick Lewis on "Homicide," and also directed the pilot and
several other episodes of "The Shield."

In the first seasons, the gangs, the drug gangs are in high-rises and
low-rises of the housing projects.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

GROSS: And the low-rises, where the kids dealing the drugs stay is like on
the lawn in front of the low-rises and they're sitting on like beat-up easy
chairs and beat-up couches and kind it's of like their office on the lawn.
Was that a housing project that you were shooting in?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, that was. I mean, that couch actually--that's funny that
you remind me of that because it's been a while, but Bob Colesberry, it was, I
think it was his idea with that couch, because it was just this old mangy
couch and we thought, OK, it's an office. And that wouldn't be inappropriate.
I mean, kids, they're hanging out, and they're kids, I mean, that's the
tragedy of it. What would these kids be doing if they were channeling these
energies into something constructive other than drug dealing, which is often
the only option some of them feel that they have. So that was really
important for us to show them hiding in plain sight their activities.

The other complication in Baltimore was a lot of those towers came down, and
they were, you know, replaced with a more diverse housing situation that
supposedly, you know, it gives people a little more sense of pride than just
those impersonal high-rises. I remember in Philadelphia when I was a kid, the
towers in the Forties off of Market Street. I'm walking by there, because I'm
from West Philly, and my uncle said--he looked up at towers, he said, `They
just getting us ready for prison.' Because, you know, the chain-link fence
outside that marks the hallways that are outside the building. So this is
really relevant to us and to this story, that idea of future incarceration,
bleak as that may seem.

GROSS: My guest is Clark Johnson. He directed the first two episodes of "The
Wire" as well as the upcoming series finale. And on this finale season, he
places Gus Haynes, the city editor of The Baltimore Sun. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Clark Johnson. On this season of the HBO series "The
Wire" he plays Gus Haynes, the city editor of The Baltimore Sun. Johnson also
directed the pilot, the second episode and the upcoming series finale.

Were you around for the auditions for "The Wire"?

Mr. JOHNSON: For the pilot?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the director, that's my job is to be
with, you know, Alexa Fogel is our casting director, and her and myself and
Simon and Colesberry would have sessions and bring in hundreds of actors from
New York and LA and Baltimore. Dominic...(unintelligible)...came from London.
And then we'd take our primary choices out to HBO, and Carolyn Strauss and
Albrecht would look at them and then we'd make our decisions as to who got the
roles. But yeah, that's--casting to me is as important as anything there is
in a successful drama presentation.

GROSS: Can you tell us one of your favorite casting stories?

Mr. JOHNSON: I could, but it's visual, and it's "The Shield," you know? Do
you want to talk about "The Shield" for a second? Because it's the classic...

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...audition tape of all times.

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the opening in the pilot of "The Shield," Mike Chiklis
and his strike team are chasing this drug dealer through thick and thin, all
over the place, and this kid is swallowing his drugs and throwing stuff away
as they're chasing him, and they catch him finally when he gets to a fence
that he can't open, and he turns around and says, `You lose. You lose, G-man'
or something like that. And Chiklis, you know, punches him in the stomach,
yanks down his pants, and he's got his drugs--more drugs taped to his groin,
and Chiklis tears the tape off and the kid screams in agony and he
says--whatever his line is.

So we had this kid came in to audition, and he, you know, it's a standard
thing in the audition process. It's a bleak little room with a bunched couple
of chairs, and the director and the casting people are sitting there looking
at the poor actor who's standing at a piece of tape and he's reading to a
casting person off camera. And this kid came in and he said his name and what
role he was reading for, and we said `Action' and he took off running. He
left the room. We could hear his footsteps receding down the hall. We were
sitting there, we're so `What the hell's going on?'

And we kept rolling and then the kid--we could hear his footsteps getting
louder and he came back and he came back to his mark. He said his line, he
said Chiklis' line, he punched himself in the stomach, he pulled his own pants
down. The camera girl, God bless her, tilted down because we knew no one
would belive us, and there he was in all his glory. He had taped something--I
didn't look that closely--to his groin, and yanked it off himself. We panned
up and he finished the scene, and we just sat there just in rapt amazement at
just the energy and the great effort that this kid had done to play
everybody's role in the scene. And sadly he didn't get the part, but it was
the most remarkable...

GROSS: He didn't? After all that, he didn't get the part?

Mr. JOHNSON: Isn't that pathetic? No, he didn't.

GROSS: Why? Why not?

Mr. JOHNSON: Because there was an actor that was better. I mean, actors
live in a hard, harsh reality of `too tall, too short, too happy, too sad,'
you know. That was one of the problems of me being a director. I'm glad I
was an actor first because if I knew then what I know now, oh my God. It's
daunting how decisions are made.

GROSS: So is there anything that you started, in terms of a shooting style or
mood or whatever, when you started doing "The Wire" that you think really kind
of stuck and you can see that influence continuing now?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. The long lens look, and I actually got sick of it
after--no, I mean, it's, you know, "Homicide" was an amazing experience for me
because, you know, a young actor, I had done another cop show before that
called "Night Heat," and before that I was a driver, you know, in the movies.
And so the experience of "Homicide" and the way that show was shot just
completely stuck with me, you know. And oddly enough--and this is not just a
hindsight thing--at the time, because the camera was so frenetic and always in
places where you didn't expect it to be, it took a while for us actors to get
used to that conceit, and that was specific to that show. We predated "NYPD

And so once "Homicide" became the cool look, you couldn't watch a Ford
commercial without seeing that same camera style. When "The Shield" came out
with--what we used--Ronn Schmidt and I had a real specific look to that show,
and a lot of it had to do with adjusting the shutter, the angle of the shutter
so it gives it sort of a choppy look that you can't quite pick up with your
eye. That was really specific for that show. And then you see it in
everything now, and you see the camera moving and being part of the other
actors' perspective, like if somebody's got something in his hand, we tilt
down and we tilt up. Now I see it everywhere.

Not that we're--you know, invented the wheel, it's just that once an idea
hits--and I've, you know, stolen from "Homicide," I'm not saying otherwise,
but once something becomes part of the popular mosaic, it gets tired really
quickly. When you have something that's really as ground breaking as the look
of "Homicide" or the look of "The Wire" or the look of "The Shield," it
becomes part of the mainstream and then, you know, anything like that, you
don't want to do it anymore because, OK, now everyone's doing it. So I don't
know. David Mamet once said, `I don't know if that answers your question, but
it's a damn good answer to something.'

GROSS: That's a very good answer. You did well on the answer. I'm assuming
you're not going to tell us anything about how "The Wire" ends, even though
you shot it and you're probably in it, your character's probably in it, and
plus I want to be surprised, so even if you're going to tell me, I probably

Mr. JOHNSON: See, the thing is, HBO gives us mind control drugs and I don't
even remember what happened now because they've erased it from our memories.
I'm going to have to watch it with you because I don't know.

GROSS: But I'm wondering what it was like to be--like, to shoot the final
part and know like, OK, now that the show is really over, you know, having
worked on the first and the last episode? And I'm also wondering if you went
back and watched the pilot before shooting the last one.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, I did. I went back and watched the pilot, for sure, and,
you know, a few other episodes as well. But it was bittersweet. You know, I
think "Homicide" went on two seasons too long. I mean, financially, I don't
think so but I think creatively it went on maybe two seasons too long. We
were desperately trying to stay on the air, and our powers-that-be were trying
to, you know, second-guess the audience's needs so--but "The Wire," I think,
to me, I would love the show to go on. I would love to spin off Gus Haynes
and have a newsroom show. I mean, I think there's a lot of life left in this
idea, but since it was decided that it was time to go, it ended really
strongly in my opinion. It ends, you know, it's a good way to wrap it up. So
it was bittersweet.

But it took forever to shoot because every time we would wrap a character, a
series wrap for a character, we'd stop and acknowledge their work, and they'd
speak, and then we'd all cry and then we'd start shooting again so it took
weeks to finish.

And then after that, I went out to California--this is a couple of months
later--and did the same thing on "The Shield," because "The Shield" was now
ending and I shot the very last...

GROSS: Oh no.

Mr. JOHNSON: of "The Shield." So it was like, what am I, the series
killer now? And so...

GROSS: Not a serial killer but a series killer.

Mr. JOHNSON: And so--the series killer. So it was, again, bittersweet
because, you know, I really was fond of that show, too, and it was well
written. So when you look at the television landscape now and you see
what--how much crap is on there, and especially now with this writers' strike,
it's that much more poignant that we are losing two great shows like this, and
"The Wire" especially, that, you know, it still could have gone on, in my
opinion. I think there's way more cities in that--stories in that naked city.

GROSS: Clark Johnson will be back in the second half of the show. He
directed the pilot and the upcoming series finale of the HBO series "The
Wire." And this season he plays Gus Haynes, the city editor of The Baltimore
Sun. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Clark Johnson. On this
fifth and final season of the HBO series "The Wire," he plays Gus Haynes, the
city editor of The Baltimore Sun. Johnson also directed the pilot and the
second episode of "The Wire" as well as the forthcoming series finale. He has
a similar place of honor on the FX cop series "The Shield," having directed
the pilot, the forthcoming series finale and some episodes in between. And
back in the '90s on yet another cop series, "Homicide," he played detective
Meldrick Lewis.

Here's a scene from "Homicide" in which Meldrick is interrogating a drug lord
named Luther Mahoney, who's been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
Meldrick and another detective from narcotics are trying to get a confession
of murder from the drug dealer. The narcotics detective speaks first.

(Soundbite of "Homicide: Life on the Street")

Ms. TONI LEWIS: (As Detective Terri Stivers) You know, we did a raid on Bo
Jack Reed's stash.

Mr. ERIK DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) Ah, the late Mr. Reed. He had a
nice, long run before he fell. You find any of that poison?

Ms. LEWIS: (As Detective Terri Stivers) We did--not all of it, probably, but
enough to convince us that the bad bags were from his crew.

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) Oh, I'll bet they were.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) Well, he was pointing the finger at you.

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) Are you suggesting a motive?

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) Well, we have, say, a theoretical drug
slinger, you know, he's marketing a viable product, proper purity, proper cut,
until some no-name, no-nothing old school, just-out-of-Jessup knucklehead
starts messing around with his home chemistry set and he starts killing off
the customers quick.

Ms. LEWIS: (As Detective Terri Stivers) As opposed to killing them slow.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) Even if this drug slinger, this theoretical
drug slinger, was a reasonable man, I mean, that guy might be compelled to

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) You know, your case makes sense. I like

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) I like it, too.

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) Except I don't sling bags and I didn't kill
Bo Jack Reed.

Ms. LEWIS: (As Detective Terri Stivers) Then who did?

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) A guy named Carlton Phipps.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) No, he's dead, too.

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) You know, I heard that.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) Hm. See, our problem is that we don't have
any way of connecting Carlton Phipps with the murder of Bo Jack Reed. Well,
see, I worked that case.

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) Mm-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) I talked to Carlton's people. You know
what they told me? They said he was despondent, that he may even have taken
his own life.

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) He killed himself? He shot himself in the
back of the head? Who are you fooling? He was murdered. Bo Jack's people
came back on him. I mean, he had the gun that killed Bo Jack right on the
table in f...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) Let me ask you this: How you know where
Carlton caught that bullet? And let me ask you this: How in the hell'd you
know what was on the table in front of the man?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DELLUMS: (As Luther Mahoney) Well, the word was all over about what
happened to Carlton.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Meldrick Lewis) Oh, Luther, Luther, Luther, you just fell
for the oldest trick we got, baby.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's my guest, Clark Johnson, as Detective Meldrick Lewis on an
episode of "Homicide."

How'd you get the part on "Homicide"?

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, that's--I got to tell--but before I...

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. JOHNSON: Erik Dellums is--he's a great actor and he played Luther
Mahoney, and I've used him a few times. I call them "the Clark Johnson
players," and he's one of my actors that I--he played Bayard Rustin, a pivotal
character in my first film "Boycott," pivotal in the civil rights movement, a
completely different guy than that. It just--you know, from a saintly civil
rights activist to a ruthless drug lord is a great switch.

GROSS: Well, how'd you get the part in "Homicide"?

Mr. JOHNSON: The classic actor's story, you know? I was in California and I
really despised the town of Los Angeles in a lot of ways. It's just--I was
struggling there and I, you know, sleeping on a friend's couch. Two young
kids back East and trying to get going, and the one last audition before I go
home with my tail between my legs was this thing--this Barry Levinson, it was
the only name I knew at the time--audition for a new cop show. And I go to
read for the casting director, and there's no script. There's a book, and
it's a book by David Simon, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," and
they said, `Pick anything from there and read from it.' So--what? So I read
from the actual book, and then of course the process continued and I went back
to New York and met Fontana and Barry, and, you know, subsequent auditions
later got the part, but that was the initial audition...

GROSS: But...

Mr. JOHNSON: ...and I read that and went `this is something that's going to
be groundbreaking, I just know it.'

GROSS: Was there a lot of dialogue in it that you had to read?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, his book, I mean, I don't know if you read it or
remember it but his book is like a screenplay in a lot of ways. There is a
lot of dialogue in it, so it wasn't hard to pick stuff out. And I think my
character is a combination of elements of that book that Paul Attanasio and
Simon--I mean, and Fontana and Barry Levinson concocted, but also elements of
my own experience of having played a cop on another series and my uncles back
home in Philadelphia with the porkpie hats. So it was a combination of things
that arrive at that character.

GROSS: Did they ever explain to you why they had you read from the book
instead of reading from a script?

Mr. JOHNSON: There was no script yet.


Mr. JOHNSON: As far as I know, there was no script yet. So, you know...

GROSS: So tell me about your uncles in Philadelphia who you just referred to.

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, I idealized my uncles. I'm actually writing my parents'
life story right now, and they're a colorful bunch. And my Uncle Duke in
particular was the coolest cat I knew, and then my Uncle William was the
second coolest, and they both wore little porkpie hats but my Uncle William's
hat was always just a little too small.

GROSS: Which your character wore. Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right. And my Uncle William's hat was always just a little too
small, which I thought that was hysterical. So I thought Mel's just got a
porkpie hat that's just a little too small. It used to fit.

GROSS: Right. Now, what did your uncles do?

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, regular round the way stuff from West Philadelphia.
My Uncle Duke was a, you know, late-night maintenance guy in a downtown office
building. And my Uncle William, God bless him, really didn't have a job since
he got out of the Army after the second world war, but he managed to get by.
He managed to get by. He always had something on the go. They were very much
influential in my young life.

I wanted to--and the scripts always supported this--I wanted to police the
streets of Baltimore from a position of being from the streets of Baltimore,
from, you know, knowing why a guy says what he says and why he had to say what
he says, not so much what made him think that but what made him have to say
what he said, and you only know that from knowing where he's coming from. I
mean, you know, you could say one thing to somebody when it's just me and you
in the room, Terry, but if my homey's right beside me, I might not be able to
respond to your question the way, you know, I honestly would if my homey
wasn't there. You know what I mean? So that dynamic as the cop that I'm
playing respects and understands that dynamic and the specifics of it so you
can't do that if you just drive around in a radio car.

I mean, that was the difference between--say, for instance, on "The Shield,"
with the LAPD it's a big, huge jurisdiction. You can't walk foot there. You
can't get to know your neighborhood. You don't have a neighborhood. It's
got, you know, 500 square miles is your neighborhood. So they're detached.
They're in their cars. They don't know there are Damon Runyon characters in
the neighborhood whereas in Baltimore, you arrested that guy eight times last
week, you know, he sat in the same coffee shop as you did this morning, so
it's a completely different way of looking at things.

GROSS: How familiar were you with the kind of streets that you patrolled in
"Homicide" and that you told stories about in "The Wire"?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I come from West Philadelphia and, you know, it's a rough
and tumble neighborhood. And that I drew from, but, you know, I don't do
drugs and I don't sling drugs and so I, you know, obviously I don't have a
specific reference about that, but we did get in there and get talking to
people and get hanging out, and then I rode around with the cops like every
cliched actor does. And in fact, the second day that we were in Baltimore,
Kyle and I were riding with some--with a uniform, one patrol car and they had
a call that they were responding to. It seemed like a minor domestic thing,
and went up into the high-rises, and over their radio and a couple of minutes
later we heard `shots fired, shots fired' and that turned out to be a cop was

And it became part of the storyline for us. Lee Tergesen played the cop that
was shot, and in this case killed, but our character survived and was blinded.
So this is me driving with some cops and watching him deal with the reality of
their world. It sort of humbles you that, you know, we're a bunch of
spoon-fed actors, but we have to play these guys for real, and that involves
seeing what their world is like. And it's pretty important for us to get out
there and feel it with them, but no more so than is supported by the writing.

GROSS: My guest is Clark Johnson. He played Detective Meldrick Lewis on
"Homicide." Now he co-stars on "The Wire" as the city editor of The Baltimore
Sun, Gus Haynes. He also directed the first two episodes of "The Wire" as
well as the upcoming series finale. We'll talk more after a break. This is


GROSS: My guest is Clark Johnson. In the current season of "The Wire," he
plays the city editor at The Baltimore Sun, Gus Haynes. He also directed the
first two episodes of "The Wire" and directed the season finale, which is
coming up in a few weeks. he directed the pilot of "The Shield" and several
other episodes, as well, and played Detective Meldrick Lewis in the series

Your parents are from very different backgrounds. Your father is
African-American. Your grandmother on his side cleaned houses for a living.

Mr. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Your mother is white. She grew up, I read, on like Fifth Avenue or
something in New York.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Partially, yeah.

GROSS: So did you feel like you had a foot in two really different worlds
when you were growing up?

Mr. JOHNSON: No, because--and that's part of what my script is that I'm
writing about my parents--is that my mother was disinherited. Her maiden name
is Clark. She comes from, you know, quite a successful family. You know,
parents split up and they both remarried, and her mother remarried quite
successfully in the financial sense, and so my mother on that side went to
Spence and, you know, had a doorman building on Park and 72nd in Manhattan.

But when she married my father, that was taken from her. Her father said that
she died in Europe and never spoke to her again. So she became--my

GROSS: Was she disinherited because your father is African-American or for
other reasons?

Mr. JOHNSON: Right. Right. Right. Because they, you know, they shamed the
family. I mean, that's the tragedy of that. Deeply disappointed her father,
and that completely surprised my mother because he had been one of the
military lawyers in the Nuremberg trials and large involvement in the
desegregation of the Army in the Truman administration, you know, so he was a
liberal for his time, but it's that classic "not next door and not my
daughter," you know? So it took her by surprise. So, to answer your
question, I never really had that side of the family until years later. So
there wasn't--and both my parents got involved in the civil rights movement
fairly early in my young life, so she became one of us as opposed to me
straddling the fence of two worlds.

GROSS: So when you were growing up, did you identify as African-American or

Mr. JOHNSON: Absolutely. Always. And that was totally encouraged by both
parents. And, you know, the idea of walking down the street and only being
affected by half, in terms of racism, you know, it really doesn't make much
sense, you know? I didn't have--I come from people that had to sit in the
very back of the bus, not either/or, you know, so my blackness was never an

GROSS: Well, what about as an actor? Has race been an issue as an actor, and
have you played people of different racial backgrounds in movies and TV shows?

Mr. JOHNSON: Not really. I mean, you know, early in a young actor's career,
unless they're very lucky, you tend to--you know, you start getting the roles
of cop number one or dead guy on the street. And it says African-American and
a lot of times they'd look at me and go, `Oh, he's too light-skinned' or they
wouldn't say it outright but I'd know that they want somebody more ebonically
speaking or more whatever that fits their stereotype of what it means to be an
African-American. So early in your career you deal with those prejudices and
preconceptions. But then as you go along, obviously race was a factor in me
playing Gus Haynes on "The Wire," for instance, but it wasn't something that
they went, `oh well, he's not black enough to play this role.' So they start
to forget that sort of thing when you have a track record as an actor. You
start to get roles because you can play the role as opposed to what you look
like at that moment.

GROSS: Did you say race was a factor in "The Wire"?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, to a certain extent. I mean, I'm sure they--you know, it
was interesting to them to have an African-American in the newsroom. The
Baltimore Sun, sadly, is pretty much lily white, and I think it was Simon--a
little jab at the Sun, saying, you know, diversify. It's a city that's 60 or
80 percent black and yet this isn't reflected at all. So that had something.
But there was like two speaking characters in that whole newsroom that were
black so it didn't really go too far. But so I'm sure that had something to
do with it. Not in a sinister way, but you know, just reflecting what it is,
is all.

GROSS: Now, your parents--I think your father is or was a professor?

Mr. JOHNSON: He was, yeah.


Mr. JOHNSON: Kinesiology. He taught phys ed and kinesiology.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And your mother set up development or relief programs in...

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

GROSS: ...developing countries?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. She worked for relief organizations like Save the
Children and, you know, sending university students overseas and, you know,
very, very energetic and enlightened, you know, global citizen. She spent a
lot of time in Africa and in the third world in general, setting programs up,
setting up teachers or engineers or whatever is needed in a particular area.
So as a kid, instead of going to summer camp, we would be in Bogata, Columbia,
or Haiti, or someplace where there was a real need for American help. And
that's what she did. So we're proud.

GROSS: That must give you an interesting perspective on race and ethnic
identity when you're a kid, to travel like that.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, for sure. I mean, my upbringing is interesting because,
leaving West Philadelphia as a kid and growing up partially in Toronto, it's a
different perspective on what--I didn't learn the word "ghetto" until I came
to Toronto. I never heard that word in Philadelphia, so a different
perspective on, `oh, that's what you--oh, that's how you see'...

GROSS: How did you know that acting was right for you?

Mr. JOHNSON: My mom took me to an audition--because we were all in church
choir and always sang in the kitchen and goofed around, and my mother thought
it would be fun to take me to an audition. Me and my actually younger sister
Molly to an audition for a production of "South Pacific" in New York, and we
got it. And so they would--when there was an East Coast show starting up--and
this is in the '60s, you know, the big touring musicals, they'd say, `Get
those Johnson kids,' so the four of us would be in these great shows like
"Porgy and Bess" and "Finian's Rainbow" and "South Pacific" so I got the bug
early, but didn't really--again, you know, I went to one audition. I wasn't,
you know, a stage brat. I just did one audition and I grew up in the wings.

GROSS: So what's one of the best songs you got to sing?

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh. Mm. God. The very first song I sang was in French, and I
didn't even know that there was a French language. I was nine, and I sang
"Dites-Moi" in "South Pacific" and that was--that was fun. I'll sing it for
you right now.

GROSS: Please.

Mr. JOHNSON: No. I'm not.

GROSS: Oh, come on.

Mr. JOHNSON: I got a cold. I was nine.

GROSS: Aw, it's always something. No, you grew up partially in Canada and
live partially there now...

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

GROSS: ...and you did some of your early film work with the great Canadian
director David Cronenberg...

Mr. JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and I think you worked on "The Dead Zone," "Videodrome" and "The

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, I did special effects.

GROSS: Tell me something great you learned doing special effects for David

Mr. JOHNSON: That he loves blood.

GROSS: Yes, he does. We talked about that. And he's so like into the
different kinds of blood.

Mr. JOHNSON: I know. I know. He's such a--I mean, he's really--I mean, I
was like the fifth special effects hand on all his movies. I barely had the
courage to say hello to him when I worked on his crews. But I got the sense
that he's just a really nice guy, a really normal guy--you know, crazy
thoughts but a normal guy. And to see the movies, you go, wow, that's the
same guy? And I'm sure that's true of other directors, but I thought that was
interesting. You know, I cut myself on "The Dead Zone," I fell off a truck
and opened up my arm, took about 38 stitches and a pint or two of blood, and
he came with little pail and said, `Let's keep the blood.'

GROSS: Oh no. Really?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. He was joking around, but...

GROSS: Did he use it in the film?

Mr. JOHNSON: That was really--no!


Mr. JOHNSON: I was doing effects. I was blowing stuff up. I was--we
were--we were making--we were doing a scene were we had Chris Walken--this is
going back a ways. Chris Walken is in a burning room, and it was a big, huge
scene. And he took the time to come and see if I was OK.

GROSS: So, did you hurt yourself while Christopher Walken was getting blown

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. That's part of it, you know.

GROSS: Did you get a good shot out of it?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I guess they did. I'm just, you know--I limped off. I
mean, what am I going to do? I'm just the...

GROSS: What were you doing? What were you doing in that shot?

Mr. JOHNSON: I was--I was the effects guy. I was off camera. You know, I
forget what specifically--I think I might have been tripping a bomb, you know,
knocking something or lighting a fire bar--I can't remember. But it was a big
scene where the whole room catches on fire.


Mr. JOHNSON: The good old days. I still love effects. I kept doing special
effects up until right--halfway through "Homicide" I would still take calls to
go, you know, flip a car or something. I got a kick out of it. Still do.

GROSS: Well, Clark Johnson, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so

Mr. JOHNSON: Fun to talk to you, too, Terry. Thanks for having me on.

GROSS: Clark Johnson directed the pilot and the upcoming series finale of the
HBO series "The Wire," and this season he plays Gus Haynes, the city editor of
The Baltimore Sun.

Tomorrow we'll hear from the actor who plays Omar on "The Wire," Michael
Kenneth Williams.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews two albums featuring pianist
and singer Andy Bey. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Kevin Whitehead on newly-issued live album from Andy Bey

Andy Bey was a child piano prodigy and teenage pop singer before he began
touring in the vocal trio Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters. Later, in the 1970s,
he recorded with Horace Silver, Stanley Clarke and others. But Bey's career
really took off when he was rediscovered in the '90s. Jazz critic Kevin
Whitehead reviews a newly issued Andy Bey live album that isn't exactly new.

(Soundbite of "It Ain't Necessarily So")

Mr. ANDY BEY: (Singing) Jonah, he lived in a whale
Jonah, he lived in a wave
For he made his home in that fish's abdomen
Oh, Jonah, Jonah, Jonah, Jonah
He lived in a whale...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Andy Bey on piano and vocals, bringing out the gospel
in "It Ain't Necessarily So" from "Porgy and Bess." It's on Bey's album "Ain't
Necessarily So," a belatedly issued live date from 1997, early in his ongoing

Bey has extraordinary range as a singer. He can play the romantic baritone
like Billy Eckstine, but he'll also swoop over and under a baritone's normal
range from a strong falsetto to a sub-basement. And he may fade from a holler
to a whisper as he does it. He doesn't mind showing off what he can do, but
doesn't lapse into mere showboating.

(Soundbite of "It Ain't Necessarily So")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) I'm preaching, preaching
Preaching preaching my sermon so
I heard it ain't, that it ain't, that it ain't
Necessarily so

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Andy Bey has a great feeling for Duke Ellington's music. He
can jab the piano like Ellington and has recorded a few of his tunes. Duke's
"I Let a Song Go out of My Heart" gets knockout treatment here. Ellington
loved eccentric soloists but didn't always hire the best singers, so it's
tempting to imagine what he might have done with this virtuoso.

(Soundbite of "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) I let a song go out of my heart
It was the sweetest melody
I know I lost heaven
Because you were the song

Since you and I, I, I have drifted apart
Life really doesn't mean a thing to me
Please, please come back, sweet music
I know I was wrong

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Andy Bey's made some very good records since his comeback,
but this superior one gets an extra boost from the base and drum team of Peter
Washington and--no relation--Kenny Washington. They lock in with Bey the
pianist and make him more of a rhythm singer, as on this upbeat version of
depression-era tearjerker "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

(Soundbite of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Half a million men went slogging through hell
I was the kid with the drum

Say, don't you remember my name
Is Al
It was Al all the time
Say, don't you remember
I'm your pal
Brother, can you spare a dime?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Bey's taste for pushing the limits goes back to the family
act he had with elder siblings Salome and Geraldine 45 years ago.

Bey fans may have missed, but shouldn't have, a recent reissue of 1966's
"'Round Midnight" by Andy and the Bey Sisters. There's more Ellington, more
risk-taking and plenty of evidence Andy was already special way back
when--even if he had to wait another 30 years for the payout.

(Soundbite of "'Round Midnight")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Memories always start
'Round midnight
Haven't got the heart
To stand those memories
When my heart is still with you...
And midnight knows it too

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas and he's a jazz columnist for

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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