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Fun comes down to 'The Wire'

Fun comes down to 'The Wire'

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Three seems to be the magic number.

Sports has its Triple Crown.

Writing - well, I guess we will have to call it the Simon Effect.

As a young man right out of college, David Simon accomplished what many journalists covet - a good beat for a major newspaper.

But Simon went a step further. Through his work on the cop beat for the Baltimore Sun he came up with a great idea for a book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets." That idea grabbed the attention of an agent and a publisher.

Soon the man with tons of bylines in newsprint would have his name on the front of a hardback book.

But Simon parlayed that author title one more step.

After his true-crime book became the genesis of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," the journalist/author was asked to add script writer to his resume.

The Simon Effect worked so well, he did it a second time.

His next book, "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood," which he co-wrote with Ed Burns, paved the way for another television script. The story of life in and around an open-air drug market in Baltimore evolved into an HBO miniseries.

Not only was the work named a Notable Book by the New York Times, the miniseries won an Emmy for best miniseries and a second Emmy for writers Simon and David Mills.

His novel ideas fit television.

In fact, Simon is in the midst of writing and producing the fifth season of the hit show he created, "The Wire."

Although production is well under way for the HBO drama, Simon is taking time out of his busy schedule to join George Pelecanos on Saturday afternoon at the Virginia Festival of the Book. The two will discuss writing for television at 2 p.m. at Gravity Lounge.

Pelecanos, himself, is a triple threat. He has written essays for newspapers and magazines, more than a dozen novels and is an Emmy-nominated writer and producer for "The Wire."

"Back when I was at the Baltimore Sun, a friend, who also worked at the Baltimore Sun, had told me I should read George Pelecanos," Simon said. "I was being contrary. He is in Washington. What does he know about crime writing-"

Simon didn't take the advice. He didn't look at Pelecanos's work even after a second friend recommended his writings.

But one day, Simon picked up one of his books, and changed his mind. Years later Pelacanos came to mind when Simon was lining up a passel of talented writers.

"I approached him and asked him if he wanted to write for 'The Wire.' I wanted to write this as if it were a novel, a novel with 13 chapters."

Each season was its own novel, a television novel about life on the drug-filled Avenue in Baltimore. Each episode is its own chapter.

It works. With "The Wire," Simon won his third George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.

The transition from journalist to Emmy winner, however, started in 1987, when employees of the Sun went on strike after their benefits were cut.

"I was one of the strike captains," Simon said. "I was in charge of one of the crews that picketed one of the gates."

The strike ended, but emotions still ran high.

"I didn't want to be in that newsroom, at least for a while, so I looked for a way to justify a leave of absence."

Writing a book was that way.

He took a year off to begin what became the two-year "Homicide" project.

"I remembered back in '85. It was Christmas Eve and about four in the morning I brought a bottle up with me to the homicide unit for a little Christmas cheer. There was this good guy, Bill Lindsay, and he said, 'if somebody wrote a book about what goes on during a year in this place, I would read it.' "

Homicide units, Simon explained, tend to be very clean, devoid of corruption.

"There isn't a way to make money off dead bodies," Simon said. "It's not like narcotics, it's not vice."

So, Simon ran with the idea. He got the green light from the commissioner, the newspaper and a publisher.

"Homicide," an account of life inside the Baltimore homicide unit, was published in 1991.

"It took me longer than a year, but that allowed me to follow up on some of the cases," Simon said.

The book won an Edgar Award, and eventually caught Hollywood's eye.

"They sent it to a few directors, but nothing happened," Simon said.

"After a while, I said, 'Why not send it to Barry Levinson- He's from Baltimore.' It was as simple and stupid as that.

"One of his assistants, Gail Mutrux, read the book and liked it."

And the Simon Effect soared to the third rung.

"Homicide: Life of the Streets" ran from 1993 to 1999.

"It was a remarkable drama," Simon said. "It was beautifully acted and well written, but it was designed as entertainment. It did not reflect the book."

Simon wrote one episode for the second season and was invited back to become a writer for the last few years.

After a second leave of absence, Simon eventually left the Baltimore Sun, although he still works as a freelance journalist.

"I do love journalism," he said. "And I have a great deal of affection for the Baltimore Sun.

"I enjoy coming onto a film set, too. Just like a newsroom, there is a sense of humor and a sense of camaraderie."

He really enjoys the freedom that comes with working for cable.

"I honestly don't think I can go back [to network television]," he said.

"You write out for 12 minutes, and then you sell soap. It prevents storytelling."

That is what he does so well.

Simon is already working on a third book.

This one is a non-fiction account of the rise of drugs from the 1950s to the 1970s.

And as we all know, good things can come in threes.

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