Michael K. Williams, Titan Of Television Dead At 54

The man who played Omar on The Wire was found dead in his apartment on September 6, 2021.
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Michael K. Williams
Image Source: Pitchfork

It is with great sadness that we must report the death of legendary actor Michael K. Williams. One of the premier black actors of the 21st century, Williams's credits include The SopranosThe WireBoardwalk EmpireInherent Vice, and Lovecraft Country

Actor Michael K. Williams, best known for his role as Omar on The Wire was found deceased in his home on September 6th, 2021. He is survived by his one son.

Williams was renowned for his vulnerable and gritty portrayals of gangsters, especially for HBO. His role as Omar Little on The Wire, which he started in 2002, was the first portrayal of a multifaceted LGBTQ character in the crime genre of television. 

Williams used his experience growing up in the Vanderveer Projects of Flatbush, Brooklyn to give Omar Little the necessary toughness and realism required for a gangster role. His deep connection to the role was evident, and he spoke openly about this. 

Of the violent, yet unabashed gangster he portrayed on The Wire, Michael K. Williams said, "Omar is this dark-skinned outspoken man in the hood who didn't care what anyone thought of him. He is everything I wished I could be."

Michael K. Williams on The Wire
Image Source: Daily Star

In The Beginning

Michael K. Williams struggled as a youth, living in poverty in Brooklyn. His first real job was as a temp for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, but he soon left school and quit his job. Williams was deeply inspired by Janet Jackson's fourth studio album, Rhythm Nation 1814, as he decided to pursue a career as a dancer.

After a rough period of intermittent homelessness, he struck success by landing jobs as a backup dancer with George Michael and Madonna. These contacts helped him greatly in his career.

Although Williams' initial interest tended towards choreography, he soon found the increased opportunity as an actor. In 1996, he starred alongside rapper Tupac Shakur in Bullet. This foot-in-the-door allowed him to gather additional roles as a thug-type character in rap music videos. Shakur, a legendary actor in his own right, reportedly chose Williams for this role after seeing his picture in a stack of polaroids.

One of Michael K. Williams' most noticeable characteristics was a large scar he sported on his face. On his 25th birthday, while drinking on Jamaica Avenue, he was slashed with a razor blade. Ironically enough, this traumatic incident gave him a credible physical edge in his acting career as a tough guy and streetwise gangster.

Omar Little in Court
Image Source: Screenrant

The Wire and Omar Little

When David Simon's groundbreaking series, The Wire, began filming in 2002, Michael K. Williams was on a shortlist of actors desired by the new crime drama. After a single audition, Simon offered Williams the role as Omar Little, a gay gangster based on real-life stick-up artist Donnie Andrews.

As Williams began to perform as the character on screen, it was obvious that he had touched on something very special. His performance as Little earned him critical acclaim, with USA Today citing Williams' portrayal of Omar as one of the "10 Reasons We Still Love TV".

President Barack Obama called The Wire his favorite television show and credited Omar as his favorite character. When asked to elaborate, the former President said, "That's not an endorsement. He's not my favorite person, but he's a fascinating character... he's the toughest, baddest guy on the show."

Williams as Chalky White
Image Source: Life+Times

Boardwalk Empire and Everything After

In 2010, Williams was brought onto the cast of Martin Scorsese and Terrence Winter's 1920's period drama series Boardwalk Empire, which starred Steve Buscemi. He played the only black gangster on the show, earning critical praise again as Albert "Chalky" White. 

In the years between The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, Williams worked with many famous rappers in music videos. These include The Game, Young Jeezy, Tony Yayo, and Cam'ron. In 2011, he was slated to play Django Freeman in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, but the role went to Jamie Foxx following Williams' scheduling commitment to Boardwalk Empire

In 2016, he worked with Paul Thomas Anderson and appeared in Inherent Vice, sharing the screen with Joaquin Phoenix. In 2019 he was again nominated for an Emmy for his role as Bobby McCray in Netflix's When They See Us. Recently, he starred in Lovecraft Country as Montrose Freeman, for which he was also nominated for an Emmy.

Michael K. Williams riding in Pride Parade
Image Source: Eddie Hernandez Photography

Michael K. Williams, Dedicated Ally to the LGBTQ Community

Due to Williams nuanced portrayal of a gay man in The Wire, many in the LGBTQ community grasped onto him as an idol and defender for their cause. Williams, by all reports an absolutely great human being, accepted the role with open arms and even appeared in San Francisco's Pride Parade in 2016.

When speaking on his dedication to the portrayal of a gay African-American man, an under-represented character depiction in popular media, Williams said, “That type of community acceptance and love — at its core, that’s when the healing really begins to happen." 

As he went on, he said, “If I want to help to heal my community, I don’t want to alienate the people who are ill in my community. It doesn’t work. I have to embrace everything, everyone, that is broken in my community. Because the people who are the most in pain are the ones who are closest to the solution. That’s where the problem is — the people who are most in pain. So you have to go there, right?"

Actor Michael K. Williams
Image Source: Shayan Asgharina

Michael K. Williams and His Own Private Struggle

Growing up in the projects in Brooklyn was both traumatic and formative for Michael K. Williams as a young man. Unfortunately, as is all too common amongst young men, he struggled with addiction to drugs as well as dangerous lifestyles such as crime, all of which gave him a creative edge in his acting career.

Although Williams was not shy about his previous experiences with trauma and drug addiction, he did provide some insight into his past. When speaking with Men's Health, he said: "Pain. In a word, a lot of pain. A lot of trauma early on that, I didn’t have the proper tools to deal with. My mom was very strict. The beatings were very severe growing up. She was determined to not have her two sons run amok."

While speaking with the publication, Williams provided some more background on his past with addiction: "It plagued me, especially [during] my teenage years. It was one of the things that led me to attempt suicide. I was 17. I was lost. I was very awkward with the ladies. Drugs were there. And I was already self-medicating. And I just got lost. I just remember feeling like, 'Eh, maybe the world will be better off without me.' And I took a bottle of pills, woke up to my stomach being pumped."

Michael K. Williams was also very vocal on the healing process and was a vanguard in the discussion on mental health awareness in America. When speaking about the triggering nature of his work on HBO's Lovecraft Country in 2020, Williams spoke about the cure: "A lot of therapy. I didn't realize that therapy work was so important to my work as an actor until Lovecraft. The aha moment for me was: These stories are waking up generational trauma. These things that I use to breathe life into these characters are very real for me, and a lot of them are still unresolved."

Sadly, The New York Times has reported Williams' death as "a possible drug overdose", which they cite directly from contacts in the police investigation. This is deeply sad for a man who struggled so terribly with drug addiction. As a man who literally started from the bottom and made it out of the hood to become not only a successful actor but a spokesperson for mental health awareness and the LGBTQ community, this is a terrible conclusion to his story.

In 2020, Williams also spoke about the nefarious nature of drug addiction, and the constant battle an addict struggles with even after years of clean living. On the unintentional nature of overdoses and drug addiction, he spoke with candor: "You don't really see it coming. You're thinking you’re just going out for a drink with some friends. You don’t set off to have a relapse. At least I don’t. I think I’m fine when I relapse."

Unfortunately, it seems that it was indeed such a relapse that ended the extremely talented actor's life. He was just 54 and leaves a son behind. In January 2021, Williams posted a photo of him and his son with a caption that read: "I <3 U Son." As a young father myself, as well as a massive fan who has been watching Michael K. Williams for the better part of 20 years, I am deeply depressed by his passing. One can only hope that the ending of his deep dark struggle with drugs has brought some peace to his spirit. He will not be forgotten. Rest in peace, Michael K. Williams.

Michael and his son Elijah
Michael K. Williams with his son, Elijah. Image Source: The Sun
Joseph Poulos is a freelance writer from Michigan.

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