David Simon Wanted John C. Reilly to Play McNulty on 'The Wire'

Can you imagine Reilly going up against Stringer Bell?
Photo of Dominic West by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images. Photo of John C. Reilly by Suzi Pratt/WireImage

All the Pieces Matter, the new oral history of HBO's seminal series The Wire, dropped this week, and the thing is a masterclass on how to craft a TV show. It's teeming with stories about the development and production, like how butthurt Martin O'Malley was about the character of Carcetti and an in-depth look at the making of that "fuck" scene.

But on Friday, AV Club uncovered one groundbreaking gem of information tucked in among the other Wire anecdotes, a gleaming nugget of news that stands above all the rest: John C. Reilly almost wound up playing Detective Jimmy McNulty. In GQ's recent excerpt from the book, Wire creator David Simon reveals that he initially wanted Steve Brule himself to play the season one protagonist-turned-boat guy-turned-drunken vigilante.


"I thought John C. Reilly could be a different McNulty," Simon says in All the Pieces Matter, "certainly not the same, but I thought he could carry all of the excesses and vices of McNulty in a different way."

According to Simon, he got as far as pitching the idea to Reilly over the phone in 2001, but alas, parenting got in the way.

"I was in a corn maze with my kid, Ethan, who would have been like seven, six," Simon recalls. "So, I'm trying to keep up with my kid, who's running around like a madman in this maze, and that's when John C. Reilly called me back… I talked to him for maybe five minutes, and I said, 'Hey, listen, can I call you back? I'm in a corn maze with my kid.' And he said, 'Yeah, yeah. Call me back.' In the time between when he called me and when I called him back, he stopped taking calls."

At the time, Reilly was fresh off a pair of dramatic roles in Magnolia and The Perfect Storm and had yet to find his way into the Tim and Eric orbit, so the idea of him landing a spot on The Wire in the early 2000s isn't completely out there. But still, can you imagine Reilly stoically sizing up Stringer Bell or quivering under the weight of Beadie's speech about family or drunkenly crashing his car twice into… Actually, Reilly probably could have pulled that scene off pretty well.

As Simon tells it, Reilly later explained that his wife vetoed the idea, telling him "We are not moving to Baltimore." Instead, Simon wound up casting Dominic West who—save for his inability to pronounce "Snotboogy"—brought something to the character of McNulty that was equal parts hard and fragile, and served as the magnetic center that held The Wire's early seasons together.

Reilly, for his part, went on to pull an Oscar nom for his supporting role in Chicago, and the rest is history. But, good lord, it would've been something to see him go on a bender with Bunk or whatever. Sheeeeeeut.

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