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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Television critics have lavished praise on HBO's urban drama "The Wire," and the show has earned the prestigious Peabody Award. But one endorsement stands out above all for co-star Wendell Pierce.
Actual police detectives wiretapping telephone conversations on a real drug case noticed the chatter went dead during the show's hour-long broadcast, an officer once told the actor.
"The highest compliment came when a police officer told me on the set, 'They talk about you guys on the real wire,"' Pierce said in a recent Reuters interview.
Such rapt attention from the show's subjects underscores the authenticity of "The Wire," which melds crime drama with social commentary and returns on Sunday January 6 for its fifth and final season.
The series is far from a ratings hit, averaging roughly a fifth of the 8 million viewers who tuned in each Sunday for HBO's celebrated mob drama "The Sopranos" last season. But "The Wire" has consistently drawn critical raves, and its fans rank among U.S. television's most loyal and enthusiastic audience.
The Baltimore-based series will focus on the media this season, building on critical examinations in past years of the criminal justice system, politics and education.
"That same impact of the individual being lost in the institution and the moral ambiguity, all those same themes are placed in the newsroom," said Pierce, who plays Detective William "Bunk" Moreland, one of many signature characters in the sprawling, mostly black ensemble cast.
Pierce's cigar-chomping homicide detective provides regular comic relief to a show that can be bleak and heart wrenching.
Despite Bunk's personal flaws -- he is often a sloppy drunk chasing women -- no one questions his dedication to the job.
"For me, Bunk represents a real sense of steadfastness, pride in his work," Pierce said. "While everything else may be in turmoil around him, there's one thing that he knows: he's a good policeman."
Pierce, 44, who has acted for more than 20 years in theater, movies and television, researched his role by talking to Baltimore police officers and residents of neighborhoods the show is filmed in.
Their anecdotes about their communities helped shape his portrayal of Bunk, whose character is loosely based on a respected retired Baltimore detective of the same nickname.
"He represents metaphorically all those African-American police officers who became police because what was happening in their neighborhoods is not a reflection of their neighborhood," said Pierce, a New Orleans native.
"Those small few who have brought disproportionate amount of crime to those neighborhoods are the ones they're after. That's the reason they became police."
Series creator David Simon, who covered crime as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun newspaper, and collaborator Ed Burns, a former Baltimore detective and teacher, have drawn from their experiences to develop story lines and ensure authenticity.
The cast combines longtime performers like Pierce with novice actors who bring their real-world Baltimore experiences to the show. They range from a cameo by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke as a city health commissioner to real-life ex-con Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, who plays a chilling assassin known as Snoop.
"I have never been on a show where it works," Pierce said. "The authenticity of the show kind of brought all those elements together, where you have actors being as authentic as possible, people who are of the world who have been there stepping up to the acting game."
Pierce has worked with film directors like Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Sidney Lumet but calls "The Wire" the "high-water mark of my career" and has been recognized as Bunk by fans as far away as Johannesburg, South Africa.
He just finished performing in a New Orleans run of "Waiting for Godot," is appearing next in a USA cable network series "In Plain Sight" and will narrate the Kings of the Crescent City jazz concert at Lincoln Center in January.
Pierce also said that he and "Wire" co-star Sonja Sohn approached HBO and Simon about a prequel movie to "The Wire," which would chart the rise of the fictional Barksdale crime family depicted in the first three seasons.
He said "The Wire" has demonstrated "the power of the artistry that television can have." But Pierce hopes the show has impact beyond television.
"I hope mainly that no one will see some black kid standing on a corner in some long, white tee and baggy pants and not just go to some immediate two-dimensional stereotype," he said. "At least they know that there's some humanity there."