Little Melvin on HBO's "The Wire"


Baltimore Magazine, 2004




Twenty 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 Blount Danois

Melvin 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 confiscated $100,000 worth of furs, more than $27,000 in cash, and Williams’s prized $52,000 black Maserati Quattroporte.

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.)

 Two decades 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 character."


"LITTLE 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.

 He became 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.

 "They were joking with me about my photographic memory," says Melvin. "and the suggestion was that my memory would he good for remembering scripts."

So they hired him.


WILLIAMS SITS 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 radial tires. 

"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 Burns.

"Hopefully." he 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 process."

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.