Michael K. Williams Was a Beacon for Lost Souls

If looks could kill, Michael K. Williams would’ve buried every audience six-feet deep upon first glance. His frigid stare, intensified by that trademark knife scar stretching across his face, pierced the screen and cut straight to your core. —and that glare was integral to some of his best work. In his breakthrough role as The Wire’s renegade stick-up man Omar Little, he murdered Idris Elba’s deceitful Stringer Bell with a look before dispatching him with the shotgun he kept on tilt. As the bootlegger Albert “Chalky” White on Boardwalk Empire, his stare nearly froze Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson in place during the former allies’ surprise reunion during the Prohibition-era drama’s final season. In Williams’s first appearance as powerful Rikers Island inmate Freddie Knight in The Night Of, the emptiness in his eyes bore the sheer inhumanity of prison. Williams brought a solemn intensity to the characters he portrayed. “Mike is a beautiful man,” The Wire co-creator David Simon told The New York Times in 2017, “but a gangster he is not.”

Williams, who was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment on Monday at the age of 54, was not a classically-trained actor. His gifts—a remarkable knack for finding the humanity in characters pushed to society’s margins; the ability to dominate a scene on the strength of his mere presence—were instinctive. He didn’t get his first role (playing High Top, the younger brother of Tupac’s Tank, in Bullet) until 1996, when he was nearly 30 years old. He spent years adrift in his native East Flatbush dabbling in petty crime, struggled with a drug addiction he was frank about, and was haunted by an upbringing marked by abuse and depression against the backdrop of institutional failure. Although Williams literally wore the wounds of his past on his face, he wasn’t defined by his trauma. There was a distinct warmth that radiated from him. Still, Williams strived to find beauty in the darkness of his own experiences and the characters he brought to life. Despite feeling lost at various points and engaging in battle with his own complexities for the duration of his existence, Michael K. Williams found himself on-screen.

Ben Watts, GQ, October 2010

Although Williams received no formal training, he learned the art of performance as a method of survival. Growing up in the Vanderveer projects, he attempted, unconvincingly, to imitate local criminals. In a New York Times profile, Williams explained that he was molested as a child, which left him confused about his sexuality and added to his mounting insecurity. Bullies saw through his cool pose, mocking him ruthlessly. Feeling like a pariah, Williams—who didn’t identify as gay—found a home within New York City’s gay community. The clubs, bars, and ballroom culture provided him sanctuary among fellow outcasts in addition to helping him develop a sense of empathy he’d exhibit in some of his defining roles.

Robbing drug-dealers was a bold and dangerous endeavor, but Omar’s open homosexuality was arguably his most audacious quality. He was an outlaw who terrorized others, but the fact that he was gay intensified their embarrassment and underlined the utter ridiculousness of homophobia. The concept of “redefinition” has become so mundane that it barely has any meaning, but Omar, in all of his multifaceted glory, added depth to how masculinity was perceived and discussed during the early 21st century.

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