Omar Little is one of the most beloved characters on The Wire. A stick-up man who only robs drug dealers, Omar is the kind of criminal - one with a code, and one with panache - we can get behind. He's also ground-breakingly gay, an aspect of the character addressed but rarely made central in the show.
Few know that Omar was based on a real man. Donnie Andrews grew up tough - he saw his first corpse when he was ten, and it was hanging from a tree branch - and found his way into crime very early. Growing up in the Baltimore projects, Andrews was brought up by hustlers and drug dealers. He was arrested 16 times before a murder pop that put him in jail for 18 years. Coming out the other side of that jail stint, Andrews was a changed man. During his time in jail, he met David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who created The Wire, and told him some of his stories - stories that informed Omar.
Talking to the Indpendent in 2009, Andrews told a story that became an iconic Omar moment:
I might get two or three hundred dollars robbing a bar, but from a drug dealer I could get two or three hundred thousand. I told [my wife] about a time I went to rob a stash house and they wouldn't open the door. I yelled: 'If I've gotta come in there, something bad's gonna happen.' The window opened and they threw the drugs out.
The killing that got Andrews put away for almost twenty years and that changed his life reads exactly like a storyline from The Wire. Andrews preferred to work alone, to keep a small crew he trusted. But he got caught up in a gang war when one of his buddies was shot in the foot; Andrews signed up with the neighborhood drug lord to get revenge.
On the night of 23 September 1986, Andrews and Reggie Gross, one of Boardley's henchmen, cruised the blocks surrounding Gold Street, a neglected terrace that was home to one of West Baltimore's notorious 24-hour drugs markets. When they came across one of the Downer gang – an acquaintance of Andrews known as Fruit Loop – Andrews managed to warn him off, saving his life without Gross's knowledge.
Their next target was not so fortunate. The gunmen found Zach Roach, another member of the Downer gang, sitting with a second young man, Rodney Young, outside a Gold Street house. Gross, carrying a machine gun, opened fire first – killing Young instantly.
"Once Reggie's Uzi went off, [Zach] jumped up and it was a spontaneous reaction on my part. I just fired and, as he ran up the street, he tripped and fell. I went to give him the coup de grâce and he looked up at me. I looked him in the eye and, before he died, he asked me: 'Why?' It was like I was frozen in time. I thought: why? This guy looks just like me. He could have been my brother, my son, my father. And why for drugs? Because somebody shot Warren in the foot? Why? It stuck with me, and I couldn't get it out of my head. I'm trying to figure out why to this day."
The Baltimore PD couldn't pin the murder on Andrews, but he felt immense guilt. Ed Burns, a cop who would later partner with Simon to write The Corner, convinced Andrews not only to confess but to wear a wire into a meeting with the drug lord who ordered the hit. Andrews took the time and brought the kingpin down, even though he could have easily walked away. It was completely a moment of conscience.
In jail the drug addicted man cleaned up, read the Bible and found a new lease on life. As Ed Burns and David Simon worked on The Corner they became concerned about Fran Boyd, who was the crack addict woman at the center of the true story. To help her out they hooked her up with Andrews, and a love connection was born. They were married two years later. David Simon was best man.
After getting out of jail Andrews began doing community work. The question he asked himself as he looked into that boy's eyes became the name of his nonprofit - "Why Murder?". His goal was to get kids out of the cycle of crime and punishment that was destroying his community.
Andrews was in New York City this week to give a talk when he had a heart attack and died. Fran Boyd remains, but her son - who was also a character in The Corner - died last year. It's been a tough time for her.
Omar Little met a very different end on The Wire, and while it's sad that Andrews is gone, his final days were spent trying to make the world a better place. We should all hope to go out like that.