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The Michael K. Williams Syllabus

The five-time Emmy-nominated actor beloved for his roles on ‘The Wire’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ was found dead on Monday at the age of 54

HBO/Ringer illustration

Michael K. Williams, the enormously gifted actor who starred in landmark drama series and films for more than two decades, was found dead on Monday at the age of 54. To honor his legacy, our staff looks back at several of Williams’s most iconic roles that helped define his five-time Emmy-nominated career. To read our obituary and remembrance of his life, click here.

Chalky White, Boardwalk Empire

Williams will partly be remembered as the king of the HBO That Guys, and no show featured as many HBO That Guys as Boardwalk Empire, the somewhat underrated period crime drama from various alumni of The Sopranos. Among stellar performances from Steve Buscemi, Michaels Shannon and Stuhlbarg, and Shea Whigham, Williams stands above as Chalky White, a bootlegger essential to the Atlantic City underworld of the Prohibition-era 1920s. One side effect of Williams’s particular gravitas is a sense of timelessness. That scar looks, and that low rasp sounds, as natural in the New Jersey of a century ago as it does in contemporary Baltimore. Boardwalk Empire is partly a show about marginalized groups, many of them immigrants, taking assimilation into their own hands. Chalky represents how that struggle looks to someone born knowing American law isn’t on his side. His final seasons on the show pitted him against Valentin Narcisse, an elegant rhetorician to Chalky’s plainspoken criminal. Boardwalk Empire wasn’t a great show, but it made room for some great performances — including Williams, in a role less iconic than Omar but no less finely wrought. —Alison Herman

Ray Ray, The Sopranos

Ray Ray, who agrees to hide Jackie Jr. in his apartment in a public housing complex during the third-season finale “Army of One,” isn’t exactly an essential Sopranos character. But Williams, then still a relative unknown, managed to make him memorable. In just a few minutes of screentime, Ray Ray squeezes in a handful of great lines, first welcoming Jackie to “the Boonton Holiday Inn” and then dubbing the anonymity-seeking, mobbed-up failson “Mr. X.” Later, he relishes watching his young daughter kick the clueless Jackie’s ass in a chess match. “Yo, I think you’re done for,” Ray Ray says to Jackie, predicting the wannabe gangster’s doom both in the game and in the series.

Williams steals his short scenes, deadpanning his way to several laughs. The actor may have become famous for playing a legendarily intense stick-up man, but he was damn funny, too. –Alan Siegel

Omar Little, The Wire

A significant number of TV viewers will tell you that Michael K. Williams played the best character on the best show ever made. Perhaps more of them would go for The Wire’s Omar Little than any other character. He was a superhero—a skilled and unrepentant killer, a man fearless enough not just to be a robber or a gangster but a robber of gangsters, who went and did as he pleased.

In a lesser actor’s hands, Omar could have read as cartoonish. In Williams’s he was calculating, imposing, and impossibly charismatic. While the show’s protagonists were repeatedly made and unmade by their own hubris and self-deception, Omar viewed the world with an unrivaled practical and moral clarity. Yes, moral, you all know the quote.

The Wire isn’t even remotely about Omar. He’s just one of the multitude of characters who inhabit one corner or other of the show’s city-sized stage and carry out its dozens of intertwined plots.

But because Williams played Omar with such cool, such hypnotic nonchalance, he became the most recognizable character on the show. He was so good he transcended his character’s position in the story, like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter—a character who shares little with Omar other than hometown, profession, and menacing allure. Such characters are only onscreen for a few minutes here and there, but are always front of mind. Hopkins won an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs. For The Wire, Williams had to settle for the voluminous praise of critics and the everlasting devotion of fans. Maybe, though probably not, as much praise and devotion as he deserved. —Michael Baumann

Omar knows something other people don’t. Every scene he’s in, every time he meets another person, you see him sizing them up, calculating: Do they get it? They don’t.

It would have been so easy for Omar Little to capsize The Wire. Think about it: Here’s a show about the structural evils of the American city, a show whose drama is designed to make you confront the lethal injustice built into our notionally democratic society. How does that show get away with introducing one of the most magnetic folk heroes in the history of television? I mean, you don’t watch Omar and think about the social tragedy of the war on drugs or the brutality of American policing. You watch Omar and think, This dude is so fucking cool. And that visceral response is one slippery fraction of an inch from turning The Wire into just another escapist fantasy for the upscale HBO audience. Westeros is fun because it has dragons. If The Wire’s Baltimore is fun because it has Omar, then the game is over and David Simon has lost. That’s the existential tightrope the show walked, in large and small ways, for five seasons. How did it get away with it?

It’s because of what Omar knows. It’s because of what he sees, which is to say, it’s because of what Michael K. Williams makes us see in him. All of Omar’s magnetism comes from living inside the American nightmare, seeing it for what it is, and refusing to be cowed by it. He says: The institutions we’ve been told to trust are poisonous and dishonest, so I will find my own code of honor. The world would rather punish me than understand me, so I will love who I love. The world would rather kill me than save me, so I will live as fiercely as I can while I’m alive.

The charisma, in other words, becomes the protest. We don’t accept the twistedness of the world because it gives us Omar, a fun character; rather, the thrill of watching Omar gives us no choice but to confront the twistedness of the world. Every minute Williams is on screen, he’s challenging us: I see what’s really happening here; do you? This is how I respond to it; how will you? It’s not an exaggeration to say that Williams’s ability to turn his intensity, his intelligence, and his wounded, colossal charm toward this end—so that you, the viewer, get to experience the kick of escapism, but the escape is into the problem, not away from it—is what keeps The Wire up on its tightrope. There may have been equally accomplished performances in the history of television, but I don’t think there’s another example of a seemingly peripheral character defining the essence of a series to this degree.

Oh, and it’s the greatest series ever made. That’s what Michael K. Williams did. May he rest in peace. —Brian Phillips

Dr. Marshall Kane, Community

Michael K. Williams built much of his brilliant career on the back of dramatic, prestige performances, so it was a delight when he popped up in a whimsical university sitcom that was struggling for ratings but had developed a cult following.

Community opened its third season with “Biology 101,” in which Williams played Dr. Marshall Kane, a reformed felon turned PhD tasked with teaching Jeff Winger and Co. In an interview years later, Williams admitted to the episode being his first-ever comedic role, adding that the show’s cast “made me look funny.” But within moments of his character’s introduction, Williams’s instincts for humor were on display for all to see: “I know who Sean Penn is, I seen Milk. Now get out,” Kane sharply replies to Jeff’s critique of the professor’s melodramatic lecture.

Williams would return twice more in the season, including the series’ classic Law & Order spoof in which Jeff (Joel McHale) and Annie’s (Alison Brie) biology project is mysteriously sabotaged. It’s in this episode that Williams delivers his same iconic line from The Wire: “A man’s gotta have a code,” hilariously reminding viewers of his incredible accomplishments in drama while also showcasing a newfound knack for comedy. —Aric Jenkins