As the HBO series shifts from the streets to the schools, Ed Burns returns to his toughest gig ever: the classroom.

September 21, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,sun reporter

The Wire always has been a show unafraid to walk a tightrope. And one of its chief acrobats is Ed Burns.

His surefootedness will be more necessary this season than ever before, as the series shifts its attention from crack houses to city schools.

"I've been to Vietnam and I was a Baltimore police homicide detective," says Burns, a writer-producer on the show. "Nothing was as hard as my first year of teaching, in 1993. It was the most emotionally draining thing I've ever done, because of the damage these kids have suffered."

The HBO series began shooting its fourth season in West Baltimore yesterday, and will continue filming in Charm City through April. The show is expected to be broadcast next year.

Yesterday morning, a crew shot a teaser for the coming season at Walbrook Mill & Lumber, 2636 W. North Ave. - though for the show, the building just down the block from Coppin State University temporarily has been renamed Premium Hardware.

While the lumber store's actual employees tried to conduct business in an upstairs office, despite the powerful distraction of a camera crew just feet away, extras in orange aprons roamed the aisles.

The litany of "rolling," "background" and "action," picked up and repeated in succession by different voices, was reminiscent of one of those musical rounds like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." But once the actors began to speak in their uniquely Bawlamer patois, it became so quiet, you could practically hear the "g" drop in "drillin'."

Between takes, crew member Boots Shelton held up a measuring tape at nose height and counted off the inches to the precise point where each actor was to stand. This helps the camera operators focus their equipment.

The whole season is a game of inches, in more ways than one. The Wire's theme this year is "the American ideal of equal opportunity through education," says series creator David Simon. "Maybe the opportunities are not as equal as we like to think they are."

It will be something of a departure from the world of hookers and junkies with which Simon, a former police reporter for The Sun, has the most professional experience. That's where Burns comes in.

"Ed's influence is profound, especially this year," Simon says. "I didn't cover schools, and Bill Zorzi didn't cover education," Simon says, referring to the former Sun editor and political reporter who now writes for the HBO series. "This is not our area of expertise."

Simon continues: "A lot of the voice this season is Ed's voice, and it's pretty full-throated. In the best tradition of The Wire, he's writing what he knows from having taught at Hamilton Middle School and City College for seven years."

Burns' responsibilities this year will include writing two episodes and serving as an on-set producer who ensures that the show's voice and tonalities remain consistent, despite a constantly changing cast of writers and directors.

In its fourth season, The Wire must endear itself once again to viewers, and largely without the help of its two most popular characters. The Machiavellian drug lord Russell "Stringer" Bell was killed at the end of Season 3. And maverick cop Jimmy McNulty decided to quit investigating murders and drugs undercover, and returned instead to a job as a uniformed patrol officer. McNulty will be back for Season 4, Simon says, but in a diminished role.

This season, the show will follow four boys through a fictitious middle school.

"Ed was key in casting the show," says Joe Chappelle, who is directing the first and 12th episodes of the new season. "These are great roles, but they're tough roles for children to portray. Ed saw each kid in the script clearly and distinctly in his mind."

For example, Chappelle says, Burns figured out that one boy was being considered for the wrong part. The young actor wasn't persuasive as the boy who lags behind the rest, but Burns thought he would be more credible in the role of the group's innocent. And he was right, though they eventually cast a different actor in the role.

"We had to reject a lot of very talented kids because they looked too old to attend middle school," Burns says. "We had to throw a casting net all around the country to find kids who still had the stamp of childhood on their faces."

Adding to the pressure, The Wire very nearly was axed by HBO last season. At the last minute, the cable giant agreed to renew the critically acclaimed but audience-deprived show for one more season with the possibility of a fifth.

Burns, 58, hopes the show will be renewed; there are so many stories he wants to tell, and a 12- or 13-episode season is too short to tell them. During Burns' seven-plus years as an educator, he began defining the kids he saw into two groups: the stoop culture and corner culture.

"They don't match in the classroom," he says. "It is a farce to pretend they do. The corner kids get more and more angry because there is a disconnect between their upbringing and the expectations of the school system. The stoop kids get lost in the conflict."

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