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Michael K. Williams was much more than an actor — he was a storyteller

  • From Omar Little to Chalky White to Leonard Pine, Williams "made you believe in every character, scene, line, and moment that he played," says Matt Zoller Seitz of the late actor, who died on Monday. "At 54, he’d gotten to the point where a generation of writers who grew up quoting his signature roles sat down at the keyboard and instinctively began crafting dialogue they wanted to hear him say. He was thrilling, funny, imaginative, and technically impeccable. He started out in showbiz as a dancer and brought lithe precision to every part, whether stalking through dark alleys on The Wire or teaching a biology class to adult learners on Community. But all of that craft and control was in service to a gift that adjectives could not capture. Williams was a beloved American artist, a man of the people. He spoke to viewers’ deepest longings and fears, moved them, and made them weep and feel seen. And he lived his life out in the everyday world alongside the same people who enjoyed his work, not as Michael K. Williams, an international star with a 'team' and a brand, but as Mike, just Mike, a gentle spirit who happened to be a great actor. His enduring power as an artist came from his belief in himself — not merely as an actor or a performer but as a storyteller. Williams used that word in interviews when describing himself: storyteller. He used it aspirationally, sincerely. In his mind, he wasn’t just hitting marks and saying lines. He was creating, incarnating, inhabiting, spell-casting. He believed that he acted in service to the individual story of his character as well as the wider tale told by the film or show that happened to cast him. He treated every role as an ethical journalist or biographer would, striving to capture the totality of his subjects with honesty and compassion. Williams believed he’d been called to the arts to tell his own story and the story of his community, and he believed in the force of his talent and work ethic to guide his choices in a white-dominated industry. He often played roles that let him mine his experiences with poverty, racism, colorism, addiction, and the entertainment industry’s lack of imagination in casting. Filmmakers and casting directors tended to look at his headshots and assume that a tall dark man with a long vertical scar on his face was best utilized in particular roles and no others. Williams confounded them, landing multidimensional parts in which criminal was one of a dozen adjectives that could describe his character, then turning around and playing gentle-souled men (like biology professor Marshall Kane on Community) whose presence amounted to a gauntlet thrown at the feet of viewers who needed their preconceptions questioned. At the same time, though, Williams couldn’t deny the weight of the many burdens placed upon his art, and over the decades he directly confronted those burdens even as he adopted a sunny demeanor."


    • The Wire's Omar was a fiction -- as fantastical as a Marvel character -- but he was beloved because his complexity made him seem real: "The beauty of the character that Michael K. Williams brought to life on The Wire was his extraordinary complexity," says Robin Givhan. "Omar Little was a Black man who stalked the streets of Baltimore wearing a swashbuckling duster and carrying a deadly sawed-off shotgun. He was a killer and a thief. But he was also funny and eloquent. His ebony-colored skin had the luxurious luster of velvet but its perfection was interrupted by a violent scar. Omar exuded the sort of stone-faced masculinity that for so long defined what it means to be a man, along with the threatening aura that has become associated specifically with Black men. Yet Omar also had a gentle touch for his boyfriend about whom he unabashedly expressed his affection. Omar sneered. Omar cried. The character of Omar was impossible to sum up in a few words, and it’s the impulse to use long, dense paragraphs to accurately describe the many conflicting aspects of his personality, his thinking and his soul that made him one of the most enduring elements of the critically acclaimed HBO series. Omar was a fiction, but he was beloved because his complexity made him seem real. Omar was beloved because he was a fiction. Williams, 54, was found dead in his Brooklyn home Sept. 6. And it’s a testament to his talent and sensitivity that he was able to bring so much depth to Omar. This character, who made it his mission to steal from the drug dealers who ruled whole swaths of Baltimore, could also be lauded for chipping away at stereotypes about gay men. In Williams’s rendering of Omar, there was a broader story about stereotypes and prejudices and our stubborn need to place people into either the darkness or the light. We want to sort folks into categories: good or bad, innocent or guilty, deserving or undeserving, perfect or canceled. White or suspicious. Within Omar, a Black man could be many things. He could be hated and loved. He could terrorize, but he could also be tender. And the public not only accepted all those contradictions, it luxuriated in them when it reflexively shuns nuances in real life. In an imaginary space, it’s easier to see the humanity in others. We’re primed to suspend disbelief, which means that we’re ready to put away our assumptions and prejudices. It’s a relief to slip off those burdens that weigh us down despite our best efforts to stay light and free. Omar’s angels and demons made him multidimensional, and that made him seem real in a fictionalized universe. But Omar was also an aberration. Because as real as his failings and strengths might seem, the truth is that he was as fantastical as a Marvel character. The likelihood that such a flawed but compelling Black man — one with his own moral code — might actually walk unimpeded among us is on par with the Hulk living next door."
    • Michael K. Williams elevated Black identify onscreen: "Arguably the most memorable character on a show full of them, Omar became, in Williams’s hands, a transcendent portrait of complicated Black male identity. He was a beloved breakout character, a victory for both Black and queer representation in an era when the complexities of queer identity, and Black identity, let alone queer Black identity, were rarely shown on TV," says Aja Romano, adding: "Perhaps because he never sought to be likable or relatable, Omar arguably became The Wire’s most beloved character — a glorified everyman who functioned as a relatable point of contact in the middle of a world with which very few HBO viewers had direct experience. Crucially, while Omar’s sexual orientation was a huge part of his character, it was never a central focus of the show: He was the rare queer character onscreen who was allowed to be three-dimensional, to fall in love, to grieve, to have a range of positive and negative qualities, without being limited to plots that revolved around his gay identity. Williams would go on to play other queer characters, most notably Montrose Freeman on Lovecraft Country, but he strove to showcase his characters as full, complete people despite the panoply of social issues they faced. Another notable example was Williams’s five-season run as Chalky White on HBO’s Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014), in which his character — a racketeer in Jazz Age Atlantic City — frequently faced not only racial prejudice but colorism and classism. In response, he became a ruthless, fearless gangster who exacted vengeance against, for example, white supremacists, while still evincing deep loyalty to his friends and his community. Then there was Williams’s powerful turn in Netflix’s 2019 miniseries When They See Us as Bobby McCray, the heartbroken father of one of the wrongfully incarcerated Black teens who became known as the Central Park Five. Tasked with portraying a man who lived through an extraordinary human tragedy, Williams wore weariness and grief in every moment he was onscreen. For that performance, he received the third of his four Emmy nods for acting."
    • Williams was an iconic actor born for an iconic role: "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," says Rob Harvilla. "(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."
    • Williams built his career as an indispensable part of some of the greatest ensembles in TV history -- while being an actor who you couldn’t look away from: "In all his messy glory, Omar Little is the creation of David Simon, but he was embodied by Michael Kenneth Williams in a way that it’s hard to imagine any other actor achieving," says Daniel Fienberg. "He’s malevolent and mythic in size, yet he’s instantly empathetic, and human to his tortured core. The call of 'Omar’s coming,' uttered by corner boys whenever Omar, with his trademark trench coat and shotgun, came around — sometimes whistling 'A-Hunting We Will Go' like a self-styled Big Bad Wolf — was a warning to scurry. For viewers, it becomes a more eagerly anticipated pronouncement. If Omar was coming, that meant badass swagger, clever one-liners that never felt forced, and some of the most consistent emotional through-lines in the series. Williams, who was found dead Monday, age 54, built a career on the complicated task of being an indispensable part of some of the greatest ensembles in television history, while at the same time being an actor who you couldn’t look away from. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. A great ensemble is a complex network of meshing pieces. Sure, you might have favorite characters within an ensemble, but anybody who’s too dynamic runs the risk of pulling focus from the collective to the individual. Williams didn’t do that. Maybe it was his early tenure as a background dancer that taught him how to execute his moves, without upstaging anybody, and then make the most of any time he was given to solo, to freestyle, to take a brilliantly written scene, like that back-and-forth with Michael Kostroff’s Maurice Levy, and add the shading that made Omar simply funnier and more thoughtful than anybody around him. Do it once and maybe people think you’re just an expertly cast part of one of the best shows in television history. Do it over and over and over again and … Well, that’s you. And that was Michael K. Williams. It isn’t always complimentary to say that somebody steals scenes, but Williams was a complementary scene-stealer, somebody who made the most of whatever they were given and, at the same time, enhanced the whole."
    • Williams used Omar to revive a Black, queer identity: "From Gladys Bentley and Ethel Waters to James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, the contributions of open Black LGBTQ people are present to this day, even though their sexual orientation and gender identities were shoved in the closet decades ago," says LZ Granderson. "Over time, this whittling away of queer visibility filtered the work of Black LGBTQ artists solely through a heterosexual lens. It took something like Hughes’ poem 'Mother to Son' and assumed the line 'life for me ain’t been no crystal stair' was solely about the impact of racism and not homophobia or a combination of the two. That’s what made Williams’ work on the show as transformative as it was urgent. In bringing the character of Omar to life, Williams resurrected aspects of Black queerness that had largely gone missing in Black artistry outside of theater and comedians such as Martin Lawrence and Jamie Foxx doing drag on TV. And while I loved Foxx’s Wanda and Lawrence’s Sheneneh, there is a difference between 'laughing with' and 'laughing at.' Considering the lack of Black queer visibility in Black spaces, it certainly felt like the latter. But Williams’ Omar was menacing. A stick-up man with street cred who also had boyfriends. Beautiful boyfriends who would appear naked in bed with him, making it impossible for viewers not to see his sexuality as part of his identity. Seeing Omar on a hit show, being an out and proud gay Black man living in the Black community, was on par with seeing Will hang out with Grace in their all-white one — an experience that Joe Biden once said contributed to changing attitudes toward gay people. Barack Obama, on the other hand, not only called The Wire 'one of the best shows of all time,' but also highlighted Omar as his favorite character. This was a big deal. The country learned that the leader of the free world was watching a television show with same-sex love scenes. That may inspire a shrug today, but considering the president before Obama tried to ban same-sex marriage, this represented a dramatic cultural shift. This is why Omar, and Williams’ portrayal of him, are so important: After decades of erasure, Black queerness was able to coexist with queer Blackness within the same television character. Just as Black queerness and queer Blackness have always existed in everyday life."
    • Williams understood the weight of his roles -- and made sure we saw the everyday working-class Black men with whom he grew up as he saw them himself: larger than life: "In a memorable scene in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, a sullen, swollen-eyed Montrose Freeman stands alone in a crowded underground ballroom as his lover, Sammy, in drag, beckons him to the dance floor," says Salamishah Tillet. "Wearing a red silk shirt, Montrose, played by Michael K. Williams, glistens as his character, a queer Black man, struggles with his sexuality and his race in 1950s Chicago. Montrose slowly begins to move from one dance partner to another, at first reluctantly and then with such revelry that he is soon drenched in his own sweat and swept up in the air by a group of drag queens. Freed, at least temporarily, from the trauma of his past and the restrictions of his present, Montrose goes on to hug, hold and finally kiss Sammy on the lips for the first time. I’ve watched that scene many, many times. In an era in which Pose, Legendary and RuPaul’s Drag Race put Black queer ball culture front and center, Montrose’s story line might not stick out. But when it first aired last September, after the summer of Black Lives Matter, Williams’s intimate portrayal of a man both lost and ahead of his time was so transformative, so transfixing, that I found myself clinging desperately to Montrose’s moment of exhaling and exaltation. It offered respite to viewers still reeling from George Floyd’s final words: 'I can’t breathe.'" Tillet adds: "Playing such original, sensitive, vulnerable characters not only expanded our universe of Black masculinity but also bled into Williams’s own life, making it hard for him to separate the craft from its creator. He had said that the pressures of playing Omar helped bring on an existential crisis, and a relapse. Perhaps his empathy became expressed as addiction, his talent its own form of torture."
    • The rest of Williams' work showed he was far more than Omar from The Wire: "It was Omar’s tenderness — the softness that never felt like a contradiction to the bandit’s outward hardness — that distinguished his character on The Wire and Williams’s wildly charismatic work on the series," says Inkoo Kang. "As with Omar, every subsequent role that the actor took — among them nattily dressed bootlegger Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, manipulative inmate Freddy Knight on The Night Of and, most recently, damaged patriarch Montrose Freeman on Lovecraft Country — exuded an aura of untold stories, aided by the facial scar Williams received on the night of his 25th birthday in a bar fight." Kang adds: "The images of Montrose on Lovecraft — drinking away the memories of his father’s homophobic abuse, pointedly ignoring the possibility that his son might have a different biological father, allowing himself to get immersed in a glittery mid-century ball with his drag-queen lover — intimate a more world-weary, middle-aged chapter of Williams’s career that will sadly never be. At least our first impression of him was the right one." 
    • Williams was very good in many good things, and he was the best in the greatest thing: "Omar commanded a different kind of attention because Williams was like no other actor," says Darren Franich. "That scar across his face was a special effect he wasn't faking. He was beautiful all the same, a dancer and a model, and he brought charismatic delight to a show honest enough for basement despair. Omar belongs to no side in the drug war America wages against itself. He's out there, unaffiliated, alone even when he's got allies — and he whistles while he works. Appropriately, you could never pin down Williams' performance on the show. He could be bigger than life or raw with unfiltered emotion, damn funny and then vengeful as a living myth." Franich adds: "He had done a bit of everything. Oncoming status as an elder statesman seemed to promise much more. The Wire made Williams a kind of icon, with a presidential seal of approval. But you'll still find plenty of people who haven't seen the show, and expensive movies could relegate him behind whatever white guy: RoboCop's pal in the Robocop remake, the lead assassin's pal in Assassin's Creed, Casey Affleck's pal in Gone Baby Gone. All in the game, of course — and HBO honored him as a regular player. Throw out all Boardwalk Empire's Irish or Italian psychos with hats and you'd still have a couple solid seasons of the Chalky White Show: Williams rocking dapper Prohibition dress, powerful, wounded, tough, ruined. He was mesmerizing as the least plot-essential character on The Night Of, and only just brought haunted grace to Lovecraft Country's melodrama."
    • What distinguished all of Williams’s work was the deep integrity he lent any role, big or small: "He played criminals, activists, professors; his characters were gay and straight, villainous and lovable," says David Sims. "But all of them felt rooted in reality, no matter how lurid the material. Williams seemed incapable of delivering a half-hearted performance; he was too fearless an artist for that. He would sometimes return to his old neighborhood in East Flatbush—to the Vanderveer Estates (since renamed Flatbush Gardens), where he grew up—in order to research roles. He candidly discussed his issues with drug addiction, which persisted through his time on The Wire and beyond, and hosted documentary series on topics such as the juvenile justice system and black-market trade."
    • Williams' Omar was a spectacular merging of actor and role, one of the most memorable figures in the long history of television as a medium: "Black, gay, and loquacious, with a flair for the dramatic and a rigid moral code, he felt at once wholly new, and yet so fully realized that it was a wonder we hadn’t seen the likes of him before," says Alan Sepinwall. "But every show and movie that employed Williams was made the better for it. In addition to his iconic HBO work, he gave searing recent performances in Netflix’s When They See Us (as a father who naively talks his son into the confession that will wrongly send him to prison for years) and ABC’s When We Rise (as gay activist Ken Jones). And he was dryly funny in guest appearances on Community and F Is For Family. Williams at once radiated star power while having the character actor’s gift for blending into scenes whenever necessary: Anytime his presence loomed over The Wire as a whole, it’s because it was meant to. Like everyone else, I was a sucker for Omar, but I also had a weak spot for Chalky White, the Black counterpart in Atlantic City to Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson."
    • Williams was a master of blending in while standing out: "So commanding and ominous, yet vulnerable and charismatic, Michael Kenneth Williams would come to imbue each of these traits into an array of inimitable characters across film and television," says Ben Travers. "Few TV fans will forget his work as Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, Freddy Knight in The Night Of, Bobby McCray in When They See Us, or Leonard Pine in Hap and Leonard, especially. And while he would nod to his iconic breakout role, in jest or remembrance, Williams never let Omar define him. He continued to stretch his grip over audiences and enrich his distinct spirit all the way through his Emmy-nominated turn in Lovecraft Country, which many expect to be honored during the ceremony later this month. (Voting closed August 30, so the results will not be swayed by his death.) In a way, it’s fitting that what may be his last Emmy nomination comes in a Supporting category."
    • Remembering Williams as a comedic actor, from Community to F Is for Family: "Williams will always be known first and foremost for his scene-stealing turns as some of the most gripping characters in TV history, including Omar in The Wire and Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire," says Michael Schneider. "But even in his more lighthearted roles, Williams brought a sly intensity that instantly stood out — even in a sea of comedic actors."
    • Williams admitted that Omar gave him anguish despite it being his star-making role: "The darkness of the character weighed on my psyche so much that when the show ended, I was completely unequipped (to cope with that darkness)," he told the Los Angeles Times years ago. "I was hurting myself in every possible way you could imagine. And it wasn’t always about doing drugs; it was negative company, negative places. I was dark-minded, bad decisions one after another. But someone was looking out for me because I never stopped working.” Despite that, Williams said: “I love my characters. I play them with 100% honesty; there’s no holding back. I understand where they are coming from.”
    • Williams' Brooklyn neighbors recalled him being a "regular guy": “He was so special, always said hello, always smiling, hugs,” said Connie Agapie, 65, the concierge of the Williamsburg building where Williams was found dead Monday in his luxury penthouse apartment from what officials suspect was a drug overdose. "Even my granddaughter, she was turning 1, and he promised to come to the baptism. He would show me pictures of his family and I would show him pictures of mine. We were very close. He would never cross this lobby without saying hello."
    • Queen Latifah pays tribute to Williams, whom she has known since they were teenagers: "When I walked in this room and saw You…for a moment the world went away and it was just Mike and D," she wrote on Instagram. "Me and You my friend who knows me like no other and vice versa. Only We know the Ish we got into as teenagers while still Daring to be Great in Life! God Bless our Praying Mothers who would Never accept us being less than they knew God meant for us to be! Your Heart has always been So Big. Thank you for sharing it with so many. The world will miss your talent, but I will miss your silly laugh! I Love You Mike and I will Always be proud of you."
    • The Wire's Gbenga Akinnagbe remembers Williams: "​​He was just a huge, genuine heart — a bleeding heart — and then it was easy to love," he says. "He believed in helping others and helping others help themselves. He was constantly talking about different non-profits he was trying to support or start, different folks he was helping to shelter. He was always doing things for other people." 
    • In an emotional tribute, Tamron Hall recalls interviewing Williams last February: “Last season, Michael turned out to be one of the most powerful shows and interviews that I’ve done in my decades of reporting and interviewing,” Hall recalled before revealing she last saw Williams in the past few weeks. “I ran into Michael about a month ago in Brooklyn and I had my mask on and he said, ‘I know those eyes!’ We started talking and he said to me, ‘Thank you so much for allowing me on the show.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute, it was our honour to have you on.’ But on the show, we talked about his struggle with substance abuse and his life. He said to me, ‘Tam, you got me on this show and a lot of people don’t want me on their show to talk about my real life. They want to talk about characters, they want to talk about films but you and your team had me on to talk about my real-life.’ And he said, ‘Thank you.'”
    • Watch Michael K. Williams discuss typecast with different versions of himself
    • Looking back on Williams' many roles: From Community's Dr. Marshall Kane to Ray Ray on The Sopranos
    • From Hap and Leonard to When We Rise to Lovecraft Country: Where to stream Williams' best performances
    • Michael K. Williams' final Instagram post, from Aug. 31, was a video of Tracy Morgan: "I love u brother!!!" Williams wrote to the comedian. On Tuesday, Morgan tweeted: "I love you Michael. I always will.  Whenever we saw each other, it was sunshine.  Rest in Peace."

    TOPICS: Michael K. Williams, HBO, Community, Hap and Leonard, Lovecraft Country, The Night Of, The Sopranos, When They See Us, When We Rise, The Wire, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Queen Latifah, Tamron Hall, Tracy Morgan, African Americans and TV