Nathan Barksdale, Real Life Inspiration for ‘The Wire’ Characters, Dead at 54

by: James Bentley Afro Associate Editor jbentley@afro.com
/ Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale (Courtesy Photo) /
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Nathan Barksdale
Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale talking in “The Avon Barksdale Story: Legends of the Unwired.” (Courtesy Photo)

Nathan Barksdale, the real-life inspiration for the iconic “The Wire” character Avon Barksdale and others died in a federal medical prison in North Carolina at the age of 54 on Feb. 13. An official at the facility in Butner, N.C. where he died told reporters he died of an undisclosed illness while serving his second term in a federal prison.

Barksdale, who was known in the streets as “Bodie,” was a well known Baltimore gangster in the 1980s. He ran a violent organization with an extensive heroin dealing operation that controlled a majority of the drug traffic in the Lexington Terrace apartments and the George B. Murphy Homes projects. In the course of his reign as one of Baltimore’s drug kingpins he was shot more than 20 times and had to have his right leg amputated below the knee.

In 1985, Barksdale was convicted of torturing three people in an 11th-floor apartment in the Murphy Homes. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. After being released from his first stint in prison and seeing the success of “The Wire” Barksdale decided he wanted to tell his side of the story. He went on to produce “The Avon Barksdale Story: Legends of the Unwired” based on his life.

In the documentary the narrator says “in real life he was one of the most notorious and resilient gangster drug kingpins Baltimore has ever seen, he was a magnet for violence.” It was during this time that Barksdale also worked with local Safe Streets programs as one of the best “violence interrupters” in Baltimore’s tough inner-city neighborhoods.

In Nov. of 2013 he once again found himself in the sights of the law. The DEA charged Barksdale with federal gun and heroin charges. Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman Edward Marcinko described Barksdale as a high-ranking member of the “Black Guerrilla Family” criminal organization. In 2014, he pled guilty and was sentenced to almost four years in federal prison. “I got busted,” Barksdale said at his plea hearing.

Like the recently deceased Melvin Williams, who was also an infamous Baltimore drug kingpin and partial inspiration for the HBO drama, Barksdale had seemingly turned his life around and was trying to give back to the community from which he had taken so much.

David Simon, creator, writer and executive producer of “The Wire,” said in 2014 that Barksdale did inspire aspects of various characters including protagonist Avon Barksdale as well as drug dealer Bodie Broadus and some of the other major players throughout the show, but was not specifically the basis for the Avon Barksdale character.

“There are some anecdotal connections between his story and a multitude of characters,” Simon said. “We mangled street and given names throughout ‘The Wire’ so that it was a general shout-out to the Westside players. But there is nothing that corresponds to a specific character.”

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