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Thursday, February 18, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Man On `The Corner' -- The Originator Of TV's `Homicide' Remains Close To His Police-Reporter Roots

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The phone rings; a voice answers in a single word - "Homicide!" Yet this is not inside the squad room on your television. You've reached the Writer's Office of the popular TV series, and the voice belongs to journalist David Simon. Simon, now a writer-producer on the weekly show, is the man who first brought viewers into the homicide unit.

Initially, he told its stories in 1991, with the groundbreaking book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets." It was a rich and graphic chronicle of death as business, plied by cops whose pressure-cooker lives he caught in vivid detail. The book's research was done in one harrowing year - 1988 - spent "shadowing" Baltimore's 40-man murder squad.

It caught the attention of filmmaker Barry Levinson, who had just inked a deal with NBC. Levinson turned the piece into one of America's favorite cop shows. Now, as Simon scripts his second book for television, he has achieved three careers: as journalist, author, and screenwriter-producer.

All three stories would seem to be tales of instant success. But this is one reporter who discerned his own assignments, and tackled them by taking serious risks.

David Simon is 38; he was 22 when he joined the Baltimore Sun. Beginning as a police reporter, Simon knew he would stay with crime. "David buys into journalism completely," says one ex-colleague. "He thinks it's God's work."

Simon says he did start out altruistically. "I grew up reading the Post when they were chasing Nixon. I thought journalism was, `You write, you expose, you change the terrain.' " Sixteen years later, however, he is pragmatic. "Now, all I want is to bring the best story to the campfire. To make it something people want to hear, and not to cheat it."

He does this via "stand-around-and-watch writing": attempting to learn every aspect of his subject deeply. Thus immersed in the daily detail of someone's life, he learns to write it, "as if I were inside their head."

He describes his novelistic voice as "communal," and uses it to create dramatic structure. It lands him at award banquets and in textbooks. Journalism professor Ben Yagoda featured Simon's work in his new book, "The Art of Fact." He cites the writer for "artful and fruitful experiment . . . with structure, chronology, even syntax."

"Learning to catch how people really talk," says Simon, "is the way you show what's true in everything, from novels to screenplays." He credits his time with the homicide squad for that skill. But, he notes, that adventure came about almost by accident.

In 1985, he spent his Christmas Eve with the murder unit - and it struck him as exuding a perverse reality. "There was none of that `murder matters' ethos from detective fiction. A body wasn't about the victim's identity. It was purely and simply a problem to be solved."

He filed the thought away for two more years, until his newsroom at the Sun went on strike. "I was incredibly angry, and I needed some time away." But, at 26, he didn't want to lose his job; so he decided to go on leave and write a book. Remembering his epiphany in the homicide unit, Simon wrote a letter to the Baltimore police commissioner. His request - a year's "internship" with the squad - was granted.

Not many of the cops were enthusiastic. They had given him quotes and shared beers. But, when he turned up every day, Simon got a cold shoulder. "The world is raised on Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason. People want a case-breaking moment, when the fingerprint `speaks.' They thought I had the same view, the civilian perspective."

But Simon persevered in "seeming like the furniture." He shed a diamond earring and lopped off his ponytail. "I had to learn how to meet them on their own terms. My terms just wouldn't have gotten me a book."

When the product of his labors became a best seller, Simon returned full time to the Sun. But he brought two lessons with him. The first was: Learn how to wait. "In the unit, I filled a notebook every day. But I needed time to let it settle, understand it. I was trained to write 15 inches in an hour. So, it was unnerving; it was actually hard to do."

Lesson No. 2, he says, was don't promote yourself. "The world doesn't care what David Simon thinks. It cares what a detective thinks, standing over a body. Of course, you advocate whenever you tell a story. You decide what to take in and what to exclude. But it's never the story of you."

While Simon worked his beat, the TV series came to Baltimore. "Homicide" started broadcasting during mid-1992, but its initiator stayed in the background. "For years, the show was a very strange stepchild. I'd be out at a murder scene with some detective from the book. He'd be pissed about how he looked on television. And I'd get into it with him."

Simon did relent long enough to write a single script. He collaborated on it with David Mills, a college buddy who was working at The Washington Post. Their joint episode, which starred Robin Williams, won a 1994 Writer's Guild of America award.

Mills took it as a sign; he moved to Hollywood. There, he forged a new career (he is now on staff for "ER"). But Simon stayed in Baltimore and in journalism. In '93, he began another book, "The Corner" (Broadway Books).

Co-authored with ex-homicide cop Edward Burns, "The Corner" has brought Simon his greatest acclaim to date. But where his first book ripped the lid off a closed profession, "The Corner" takes readers on a tour of hidden lives. All the book's characters reside within six blocks of each other, in an inner-city West Baltimore neighborhood. There, the heart of their universe - the corner - is an open-air drug market.

Burns and Simon spent three years learning this landscape. Their book follows users, touts, runners, "soldiers," activists, families; people on every side of the all-pervasive drug trade. Each one has a story, but a trio of lives looms the largest. One belongs to self-made businessman Gary McCullough, who loses everything to his addiction. Another is his ex-wife Fran, a junkie who still struggles at motherhood. They are tied by their teenage son, DeAndre, who - at 15 - becomes both a father and dealer.

In access to this secret world, "The Corner" has no equals; it transcends "There Are No Children Here" or "Clockers." Presenting our drug war from the viewpoint of participants, it is startling, gritty, soulful and unpredictable. Although greeted with universal superlatives (The New York Times named it "Notable Book of the Year"), its outspokenness perplexed both left and right.

Says Simon, "Liberals were appalled that we criticized welfare. And conservatives think we're ennobling terrible people." He pauses. "A lot of cops think I just switched sides."

Before the book was finished, Gary McCullough died of an overdose. (Seven other characters also perished since its writing.) But there also were unexpected victories. Fran became clean; DeAndre's ex-girlfriend escaped; one of the most hardened addicts walked away from the corner.

To understand that these are truly huge achievements, Simon spent hours in shooting galleries, jails, homes, alleys and playgrounds. Now, an hour rarely passes when he doesn't think about it. "This involved people's whole lives, there's no privacy in it. That was an enormous gift which many, many people gave us. Even the most functional were at war with themselves. But they were not foolish people. And they made that choice."

They also read his drafts, surprised "their lives seemed quite so graphic." But one critic Simon truly misses is McCullough. Even while his late friend was occupied with shooting up, the pair would debate philosophy, writing and religion.

"It almost broke me when Gary died," says Simon. "I went in saying, `I don't know who'll live or who'll die. I just know I'm gonna see bad things.' But that was said in the abstract. Once people let me in, it was very, very different."

Edward Burns feels the experience shook Simon deeply. "It's sort of like being told about vampires but never meeting one. Then one day, boom, you're in a castle and there's a vampire. This is what the corner is. It's a monster."

Simon returned from that monster to the Sun. But his viewpoint had changed. "I was less enamored of the braggadocio, all that big, we're-really-having-an-impact talk." Turning down a job on "NYPD Blue," he became one of seven writers on the "Homicide" series. Before long, he was also made a producer.

Simon has few illusions about television. " `Homicide,' the show, has to work as entertainment; it could never reach the vision of the book. So, when I write for TV, I wear a different hat. I know life is essentially anti-drama."

Yet he has just agreed to script "The Corner" for HBO: a prospect he initially described as "completely impossible." He is collaborating once again with David Mills, and feels the cable channel may accept a rougher structure. "There's no network censor, so we can show a lot. And the characters will speak realistically. Which is not to say that there won't be shorthand. TV means finding shorthand ways to reference anything real."

It's clear the world of the corner still presses on him. But it is equally clear Simon will find other stories. "I never feel like a TV writer-producer. I'm still a newspaperman. I just don't work for a newspaper."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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