You know him, you love him, you would be a fool to ever trust him: Clay Davis is one of the most entertainingly despicable characters on "The Wire" for so many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to stretch out a certain infamous four-letter word so it sounds like it has 17 syllables. (This would be the for-adult-eyes-only portion of the blog, folks.)
But where did "Sheeeeeeeet" come from: "The Wire," or "The 25th Hour," the Spike Lee movie that Isiah Whitlock Jr. appeared in back in 2002, the same year that "The Wire" debuted?
As part of my post-mortem interview with "Wire" creator David Simon (the full version of which will appear here immediately after the finale airs), I asked him whether "Sheeeeeeeeeet" was his idea, or something he came up with after hearing Whitlock say it so splendidly in the Spike Lee movie.
Now, "25th Hour" came out in mid-December of '02, while "Cleaning Up," the first real appearance of Clay Davis (he pops up briefly earlier that season in "One Arrest" in a party scene, but it's basically a walk-on), aired in September of that year. Complicating matters is the fact that, while Simon and Whitlock both remember an alternate spelling of the word (specifically, "sheet") was in the script for Whitlock's audition scene, from "Cleaning Up," it's not in the final version of that episode. Simon's assistant heroically waded through the scripts for every Clay episode over the first three seasons to see if it was in earlier drafts, and the first time she could find it was in season 3, episode 6, "Homecoming," which aired in October '04.
Either way, it's moot. As Whitlock told me:
It was something my uncle used to do all the time. Growing up, he would do it five six seven times a day. You'd go, "Did you sleep well?" and he'd go, "Ah, sheeet, my head was on the pillow." I would every now and then just do it in conversations.Simon acknowledges that his memory on this could be fuzzy, and says that the first time he saw "25th Hour" was before season four, when they were talking with Lee about directing an episode. So it's entirely possible that they came up with the idea independently -- or, as Simon says, "Maybe it started with (Whitlock), but I think we heard the Southern drawl in his tone and went with it."
I was having a conversation with Spike Lee one time, I think we were talking about football, and I did it, and he said, "You should keep that and use it." So that's where I started doing it. I did it in "The 25th Hour," that was the first time I did it.
For what it's worth, Simon says that first "sheet" kept expanding, first to four "e"s, then even more. No one could remember exactly how many "e"s were in the script of this season's fifth episode, "React Quotes," but Whitlock said he could sense this might be his final chance to say it, and under the circumstances (for himself and for the then-under siege Clay), he decided to stretch it out as long as he could.
There is, however, a downside.
"It's hard to get up and down the street without somebody doing it," he says. "What have I done? I've unleashed a monster."