Interview: Clarke Peters - Down to the Wire

IT WAS only a ten-minute walk between Clarke Peters's Edinburgh hotel and where he had to be, but every afternoon the journey would take half an hour, sometimes more. "All the women who stopped me wanted to talk about Damages," explains the American actor. "Unfortunately they were far outnumbered by men, all of them fans of The Wire. I shouldn't complain, and I don't. It's the greatest show in TV history, right?"

Right. Peters, 57, isn't Dominic West and he certainly isn't Glenn Close, the top-line stars of these platinum-card US dramas. But he's been a key player in both, and The Wire, especially, has brought him "my new-found celebrity", even in Edinburgh, a long, long way from the drug-ravaged projects of Baltimore we see on our screens. "After 38 years in this business, I'm an overnight sensation," he laughs. The mellifluous voice is instantly recognisable as that of Lester Freamon, the cool, calm centre of The Wire's deep-cover police narcotics operation; the man who sometimes had to explain what the hell was going on.

"In Edinburro," he says of his fandom, "it got to the point where I found myself skirting round the buildings by hugging them." Peters only came to the Festival Fringe to direct Denise Van Outen's one-woman show Blondes. Now, when he returns from a Greek holiday to see the run end, he'll be pressed into service to give a masterclass on The Wire. This will be the first time he's dined out on the phenomenon. But if he gets stuck for anecdotes (which he won't; he's a great talker) he could always tell a funny story about Stanley Baxter.

Or, indeed, Chic Murray. The parlour game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – connecting stars picked at random to the actor often described as the best never to win an Oscar – might have a spin-off version, a Fringe sideshow. For Peters is the highly improbable missing link between Murray, Baxter, The Greatest TV Show Ever (Official), Wacko Jacko, John Travolta, Joan Armatrading, Nelson Mandela, 1970s disco floor-filler Boogie Nights, Dizzy Gillespie … and David Cameron.

The Tory leader loves Holby City – or rather he loves the voter demographic identified as Holby City Woman and dearly wants to get his hands on her. Peters's last acting job, just ended, was in the BBC hospital drama, and he says: "So let's see: Barack Obama never misses The Wire and for Dave Cameron it's Holby all the way. I'm at the centre of everything, right?"

Almost, and it really helps his case that he's worked with those Scottish comedy potentates, Baxter and Murray. "A few years back, I had a small part in this movie, Saigon – Year of the Cat. We shot in Bangkok and Judi Dench coined this nickname for Chic, who I think played an ambassador. Because he was so tanned she'd say: 'Look, there's the old leather bag'. But a really funny man.

"As was Stanley when I worked with him. Further back in the early 1970s – I've been at this game a long time – my soul band, the Majestics, got a guest appearance on one of his big TV spectaculars. Those shows cost fortunes, right? Well, none of that money ended up in my pocket. But I was just happy to have the gig. And to work with such a generous star. I'm trying to remember some of his schtick… Nicky norra noo? A crazy cat."

Clarke Peters was born Peter Clarke in New York and raised in Englewood, New Jersey, scene of a childhood that the cynical might think scripted and too cute. "The place was full of artists – Dizzy Gillespie lived there, I went to school with Ernie Isley out of the Isley Brothers, John Travolta and I used to ice-skate and fight over the same girl – where are you now, Denise Warren? We were a community trying to live out the American dream: little league, boy scouts, Memorial Day parades, talent shows. It was integrated, too. I grew up happy next to Italians, Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, Chinese and Japanese – that type of middle America that doesn't really exist anymore."

In thrall to theatre, the teenaged Peters auditioned for the hippy musical Hair! right across America, failing each time, and had to follow the show to Paris to finally land his first professional job in 1971. He then moved to London where music dominated his career for a while, not just with the Majestics, but in turns as a backing vocalist for David Essex, Joan Armatrading (on Love and Affection) and Heatwave (Boogie Nights). "Got to keep on dancin'," he sings, remembering the latter's refrain. It could be Peters's credo. "My success has been a long time coming. Even so, I haven't had to bar-tend for more than 30 years now. When I did that, waiting for the phone to ring, I'd sing for the customers. I've got two sons in this business and I tell them: 'You will be unemployed, and when you are, go entertain them in a hospital or a prison.'

"My youngest, Maximillian, recently played the young Michael Jackson in the London West End production of Thriller. Does he remind me of me? No. I definitely always wanted to be an actor and in '76 I got back to doing that. His heart is set on being a singer. Watching him in Thriller, I had tears in my eyes. Then the director in me took over and was trying to tell him: lift your head, play to the whole audience. When Michael moved on, Max was devastated."

Before meeting his present partner, Penny, the breakdown of an earlier relationship persuaded Peters to experiment with the teachings of Brahma Kumaris, a monastic religion of Indian origin with a code of celibacy and non-drinking. "I had a bit of trouble with these two," he laughs. He still meditates, but perhaps his true religion is work.

He wrote the musical Five Guys Named Moe. For Channel 4, he played Nelson Mandela (Endgame). In Damages, he was supposed to do only two episodes as Dave Pell, but the producers quickly realised his power broker could thicken the plot of the already labyrinthine legal drama, so he stayed longer. It's The Wire, however, that has brought him TV immortality – in Baltimore, where "Yo Lester!" is the shout-out from the real police for whom he has new-found respect, and also among the more discerning star-spotters of Festival Edinburgh.

"The fans all say the same things about The Wire: they love the characters, the stories, the toughness, the Shakespearean aspect. For us in the cast, it was absolutely heartbreaking when the show ended. We tried to put out a rumour there would be a movie version, but that didn't fly. We talked up some spin-off possibilities – I really fancied The Freamon Files. Some of us are still pretty devastated it's all over."

But it's not; for Peters, this is the most exciting phase. David Simon, The Wire's creator, has recruited him for his next TV epic, Treme, set in New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina.

"Without giving too much away, it's about how culture is reclaimed through musicians and chefs. What do I play? An upright bass. In the wake of the disaster, you can imagine David exercising his right to comment on a whole bunch of stuff. Some people will get it in the neck, some in the knees."

The series starts shooting in November and Clarke also has three movies in the can, the most intriguing of them having been shot in and around Glasgow. Legacy concerns post-traumatic stress after the battlefield and co-stars Idris Elba who was Stringer Bell in The Wire. He says the pair frequently hung out in Sauchiehall Street and presumably it was their terrific TV show which earned them the respect of the locals. Well, it can't have been Peters' attempts at Stanley Baxter's Parliamo Glasgow.

&#149 Clarke Peters is hosting two Q&A sessions on The Wire on Friday and Saturday, at the Underbelly, at 11am.