Michael K Williams’s life consisted of more than playing Omar Little in The Wire. But Omar was so magnificently captivating and singular that any account of Williams needs to account for him. Many people consider The Wire the greatest TV show of all time, and Omar its greatest character.
The actor, who was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment on Monday at the age of 54, was born in New York in 1966 to a father from South Carolina and a mother from the Bahamas. The cause of death is as yet unconfirmed, but law enforcement officials found drug paraphernalia near his body, and he had spoken openly about his struggles with substance abuse.
After getting into trouble as a youth, he became a back-up dancer and actor and joined the National Black Theatre. He got his trademark facial scar during a drunken altercation with a group of people on his 25th birthday. He had a minor role in Martin Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead, another in an episode of The Sopranos, and a couple of appearances on Law & Order. But his first big break came in David Simon’s The Wire, which debuted in 2002.
The show was rooted in a place, the city of Baltimore, and explored, among other things, urban crime, police incompetence and political corruption. The writers were not from the world of television: Simon was a former journalist, Ed Burns a former cop and school teacher.
To say there were no good or bad characters in The Wire would be an oversimplification: there were some clearly very bad people. But it never became a morality play. Instead, it provided the narrative pleasures of a 19th-century novel: complex plotting, rich characterisation, and a tone that modulated between tragedy and comedy, the mundane and the dramatic.
Simon based the character of Omar Little on a stick-up artist he knew, ie someone who robs other criminals for a living. Omar never targeted innocent bystanders, he only went for drug dealers, but this noble code did not detract from his fearsome reputation. Throughout the show, he had the aura of an urban legend: little children shouted “Omar coming!” or “Omar did it!” as if he was the Grim Reaper or the Bogeyman haunting the streets of Baltimore.
He wore a long dark coat, a bulletproof vest, and carried a shotgun. When he killed, he did it at his own pace. One of his most celebrated scenes came in the first season. Wee-Bey and Stinkum, two members of a gang trying to kill Omar, are about to attack another rival. Omar shows up and kills Stinkum, but only shoots Wee-Bey in the leg, and whistles a nursery tune while the survivor hides behind a car. After he finishes whistling, Omar, speaking from a distance, has a simple message for the cowering Wee-Bey: “You come at the King, you best not miss.”
Omar was also gay. In a 2016 interview on the hip-hop radio programme The Breakfast Club, Williams was asked, as a black man from his generation and particular upbringing, whether he had any reservations about playing a gay character. He responded by saying: “Man, listen, I had reservations about not eating. I found something in life that I gravitated to, that kept my attention.” He added, “these cuts on my face did not come from me selling the newspaper. I was always getting into trouble, and could never got focused on nothing. And the arts gave me something to believe in, something I could believe in myself and feel good about myself.”
After The Wire, Williams had other critically acclaimed roles as Chalky White in the Scorsese-produced Boardwalk Empire and Montrose Freeman in Lovecraft Country. His last released film was Body Brokers, about a corrupt rehab clinic, and he had completed filming for upcoming Western Surrounded and thriller 892, alongside John Boyega.
But his true legacy will be Omar. Only an actor of considerable range could have conveyed the charisma, tenderness, charm and fearsomeness of such a character. Fifty-four is far too young to have seen the full flowering of his talent. The death of Michael K Williams is a wrenching loss.