Little Melvin on HBO's "The Wire"
Baltimore Magazine, 2004
years ago, detective Ed Burns helped put the notorious "Little
Melvin" Williams in prison. So why would he hire him for
The Wire? By Ericka
Douglas Williams waits in a small room off of the main entrance to the
Bethel AME church on Druid Hill Avenue, wearing his signature all-black
clothing. A black towel draped over his shoulder,
yellow tinted sunglasses by his side. A picture
of a crucified, brown skinned Jesus hangs on the wall to his left.
In front of him are lockers tacked with BELIEVE stickers.
As camera crews, extras and
cast from the third season of the HBO series The Wire mill
around him, Williams sits in a red leather chair, self-possessed and
indifferent to the confusion around him. Bethel AME is his
church, but today, it's where he will work on his acting chops.
Moments later, Williams is
sitting in a pew, facing stained glass windows, filming a scene in which
he counsels a young man trying to get his life in order after being
released from prison. Williams plays a deacon at this church, a man
whose job it is to tend to wayward souls like the one now before him.
"You want a job, you've
gotta work to get it," he says to the youngster, his voice musical,
soft, connected. "We'll help you, but it will be your sweat."
Bibles rest in the shelving
of the pews. The camera focuses on their covers, and the scene ends.
People begin moving around and talking. In a few more minutes,
they'll shoot the entire scene again. In one small corner of the room
sits Ed Bums, a former Baltimore City homicide detective and now a
producer on The Wire.
Twenty years ago, Burns participated in the investigation
and raid on "Little Melvin" Williams's property that
worth of furs, more than $27,000 in cash, and Williams’s
prized $52,000 black
A year later, in March 1985, The
Sun's headline read "Little Melvin Sentenced." A federal
judge had sent Williams to prison for 24 years on drug-related charges.
The article was written by then-Sun
reporter David Simon, who
co-wrote The Corner with Burns, and is the creator and executive
producer for The
Wire. (Next to that article was one written by Rafael Alvarez,
also a co-writer on the show.)
after Burns helped send Williams to jail, he's ended up giving the
former drug kingpin his first acting job. It's only fair, considering
that many of Williams' exploits have served as
inspiration for Burns, Simon, and the other writers.
They've even placed the 62-year-old "Little Melvin"-who is an
avowed born again Christian-in the role of a deacon for the macabre,
tough police drama.
Burns says that Williams is
a great actor with a photographic memory. "We get a lot of guys
off the street try to do this and they choke," Burns explains.
"He has a calmness about him that allows him to be this
MELVIN" WILLIAMS'S REIGN OVER the city's heroin trade in the 1980s
provided fertile ground for the show's writers: Stringer Bell-one of the
top lieutenants to The Wire's ruthless criminal mastermind Avon Barksdale-operates a
photocopying business as a front company for drug sales; one of
Williams's top lieutenants, Lamont "Chin" Farmer, owned
Progressive World Press on North Avenue, which was a front for the drug
business. On the show, Barksdale owns a strip joint named Orlando's,
which is similar to Williams's old Underground Club on Edmondson Avenue.
And like Barksdale, Williams operated a very sophisticated drug ring,
creating codes for pagers that seemed impossible to unravel.
Because of the ingenuity of
Williams, Baltimore City detectives sought and obtained the first
wiretap warrant in the country for information coming off of a pager.
Burns remembers that even with the wiretap,
it was hard to
nail down a gang as sophisticated as Williams's. "Chin [Farmerl
would get a page and he'd walk a couple of blocks to the pay
phone," Burns explains. "Then Melvin would get a page and walk
to a phone booth. These phones would be wired up [tapped]. We'd have two
machines recording it. "So Melvin says to Chin, 'How's your bank!'
and Chin is saying, 'I am one mark shy of the mark,' and Melvin says,
'Meet me'--which we couldn't make heads or tails of. And then they met
in Melvin's Maserati and whatever conversation they had, they had.
That's how cautious they were."
A hustler at heart,
Williams's initial mainstay was gambling, and his prowess earned the
attention of Julius “The Lord" Salsbury, a top associate of
Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky--a rarity, as strained race relations were
the norm even in crime. He eventually became a godson to Salsbury, and
later gained entry into the inner circles of the infamous New York based
Gambino crime family.
In 1975, Williams was
sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for narcotics distribution-on
the word of what he and Burns both agree was a corrupt informant.
"His first conviction
was a setup by the government." says Burns. "It was a sham;
they planted drugs on him."
"But that didn't matter
until I had gone to the penitentiary." says Williams about the
arrest. "So I decided that since you have made me a drug dealer, I
will give you a drug dealer you will never forget."
Williams was paroled in 1979,
and Baltimore would never be the same.
Baltimore's main supplier of heroin, a substance that plagues the city
in epidemic proportions to this day. At its peak, Williams's operation
employed some 200 dealers and made millions of dollars a year; he owned
dozens of properties and vehicles, and his gang waged a campaign of
violence and intimidation throughout the city.
Federal, state, and local
authorities finally arrested Williams in 1984. He would spend the next
13 years in federal penitentiaries across America.
Williams--who says he has
dedicated his life to Jesus
Christ, and serving God--was paroled in 1997. He was arrested in 1999
and charged with using a handgun to beat a man on a West Baltimore
street (a parole violation). Facing another 22-year sentence for this
violation-which would have kept him in prison well into his 80s-he was
released by a judge in January 2003. Within 24 hours of his
release, he was re-arrested for the 1999 parole violation by federal
authorities, who felt he had been unlawfully released.
Eventually, things were
settled, and Williams was set free in September 2003. Soon after that,
he got a phone call from David Simon and Ed Burns. They wanted to take
him to lunch at Mo’s Pasta and Seafood Factory in Little Italy and
talk to him about The Wire.
were joking with me about my photographic memory," says Melvin.
"and the suggestion was that my memory would he good for
So they hired him.
AT A SMALL WOODEN table at a warehouse in a Baltimore city
neighborhood. Outside there are several young men busily working at a
flea market, selling an assortment of goods including flavored ice and
"I respect him, unlike
many police officers I've met," Williams says of Burns, speaking
slowly and deliberately, never cracking a smile. "He never
straddled the line. Didn't fabricate evidence.
He had one agenda--to put Melvin in the penitentiary. He was as
honorable and as sincere at being a cop as I was at being a criminal."
Many believe that Williams's sins are unforgivable. One judge told him
that no matter how many times his hand has been touched by God, he will
never be anything more than a criminal.
Ed Bums doesn't agree.
"In my book, if you do your time, that's it." he says about
any criticism for hiring Williams.
But right now, Burns can't
worry about things like that. He has more immediate issues like making
sure the storyline has suspense and that the dialogue sounds right,
making sure it will grab the audience. It doesn't hurt that now he has a
little more help to make sure things are authentic. "Melvin is very
disciplined, so it was no surprise he was a good actor," says
adds, "he's staying straight." The crew is preparing to resume
filming. Williams waits patiently for his cue. He's asked about how
surviving his past informs what he tells to the at-risk youth he
lectures regularly. "I spent 26 I/2 years in all of [America's]
worst penitentiaries-to say I survived is misleading," says
Williams. "I tell young people who think they have the opportunity
to live my life over that the probability of success at being a criminal
is almost nonexistent, and that doom is ultimately part of the
There is a rush of activity
as everyone takes their places. One of the directors calls out,
"Set, rehearsal, eight seconds, seven, six, five, four . . . Ready
everybody? And . . . action!”
And Williams begins to act.