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Michael K. Williams Was an Iconic Actor Born for an Iconic Role

‘The Wire’ star, who was found dead on Monday at age 54, will be best remembered as Omar Little, but he contained multitudes beyond the character

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You pray, as an actor, for just one role as colossal and sensational and indelible as Omar Little, the shotgun-toting and lethally magnetic stickup man who owned every scene of HBO’s epochal drug-war saga The Wire, including the scenes he didn’t even appear in. (The two most terrifying and electrifying words uttered repeatedly on television in the first decade of the 21st century were Omar comin’.) You pray, as a thrilled viewer, for just one actor as graceful and charismatic as Michael K. Williams who could do that role justice. You do worry—and this is everyone now, maybe Williams included—that this one role is so magnificent and unforgettable that it might overshadow everything else he already did or the thousands of possible sensational roles he could embody in the future. But Williams was always clearly too graceful and charismatic to be pigeonholed. He played one of the best characters in TV history, any era, any genre. But he also contained multitudes beyond that.

It’s OK though, truly—it’s a testament to the greatness of both the character and the actor—if you thought of Omar first when the terrible news broke on Monday that Williams had been found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 54; no official cause of death has been released. Williams was born in Brooklyn and raised in East Flatbush; one of his first major artistic ambitions was to be a backup dancer for Janet Jackson. (Her video for 1989’s “Rhythm Nation” had that effect on people.) That never quite happened, but he did dance in videos for Madonna, Missy Elliott, George Michael, Ginuwine, and most prominently Crystal Waters. He’d talk about that all day; a video of him joyously dancing to house music in a Brooklyn park went viral in October.

Williams made his film debut in the 1996 crime thriller Bullet opposite none other than Tupac Shakur, who sought out the young dancer turned actor based on a single Polaroid portrait. (Williams’s harrowing facial scar, the remnant of a razor attack during a Queens street fight on his 25th birthday, forever changed the way casting directors saw him: Thereafter, “They were like, ‘Mike, roll these dice in this video! Have this fight in this video!’” he told NPR in 2014. “I was like, ‘All right!’”) He had brief early roles on Law & Order, Deadline, and even The Sopranos. But his career—and, arguably, the Golden Era of prestige TV—truly started with The Wire, which ran from 2002 to 2008 and made Williams one of the most unforgettable faces in HBO history.

I will always think first of the Season 3 confrontation between the exasperated Baltimore detective Bunk (Wendell Pierce) and the drug-dealer-robbing folk hero Omar, a cataclysmic faceoff between two all-time-great characters in which Williams showcases both his greatness and his generosity by doing the most with the least. Bunk does virtually all the talking, and indeed builds up to one of the greatest lines in the entire series. (“Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.”) It is enough for Williams to be nearly silent, to be effortlessly menacing, but with an ocean of mesmerizing intensity roiling underneath. This confrontation, this Bunk monologue, is in essence about how iconic a character Omar has become: his ultra-cool malevolence, his homosexuality not played for laughs or cheap shock value like so much TV of that era, his warped but startlingly vivid code of honor. By this point everyone wants to be Omar, onscreen and off. It’s a career-making and era-defining role that Williams swiftly worked to build on, to move beyond.

For starters, that involved being one of HBO’s most valuable and versatile superstars: Williams went on to play the bootlegger Chalky White in the Prohibition-era gangster epic Boardwalk Empire (which ran from 2010 to 2014), the steely Rikers Island inmate Freddy Knight in the 2016 crime drama The Night Of, and most recently the turbulent father figure Montrose Freeman in 2020’s horror series Lovecraft Country. Infamously, The Wire received only two Emmy nominations (both for writing) during its indomitable run, but Williams himself was nominated in 2015 (for the HBO movie Bessie), 2017 (for The Night Of), and 2019 (for the Netflix drama When They See Us). He was great ranting about Legos on Community; he was great in the offbeat Sundance TV crime series Hap and Leonard, which granted him more of the spotlight than he usually got. In all these roles, singular and complex as they were, there was a piece of Omar: the danger, the allure, the roll these dice in this video hostility. But by then there was a piece of Omar in every great character on television. Everyone aspired to that unfathomable depth, that effortlessly commanding sense of time and place and self. Of course he worried about being typecast. Of course he had shrewd and thoughtful ways of confronting that danger, too.

It’s possible that the last time you saw Michael K. Williams was at the BET Awards in June, when he joined Method Man, the Lox, and Swizz Beatz in a tribute to DMX, who’d died in April. Which is to say that for a genuinely shocking 50 seconds of television, Williams became DMX, in all his barking, praying, reverent fury, as DMX’s family tearfully looked on, and as millions of people watching said, Yep, that’s him. That’s the guy we love.

His breakout role was destined to be nearly impossible to live down, it’s true: ”Michael K. Williams Is More Than Omar From ‘The Wire,’” ran the headline to a 2017 New York Times headline. He talked then about getting deeper into film and TV production, but also deeper into political activism; he talked about how the roles you take, if they’re vivid and indelible enough, can serve as a type of activism, as a tribute, as a force for good in the wider world. To that end, he also talked about the Vanderveer Estates apartment where he’d grown up in East Flatbush: “Vanderveer is 59 buildings, six floors high, with seven apartments on each level,” he said. “There are so many people here—beautiful and beautifully flawed people—and I want all of their stories to be told.” With enough time, he could’ve told the stories of each and every one, and done each and every one justice.