in memoriam

Death of a Storyteller

Rare is the actor who can locate the specific in the universal and vice versa. Michael K. Williams was that actor.

Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images
Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images
Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images

Michael K. Williams made you believe.

Michael K. Williams made you believe in Omar Little, a legendary Baltimore stickup man so fearsome that when he strolled to the bodega in a silk robe to buy Honey Nut Cheerios for his boyfriend, kids shouted “Omar comin’!,” their elders scattered like pigeons, and drug dealers tossed stashes from windows to save him the bother of taking them. Michael K. Williams made you believe in Leonard Pine, a Black gay conservative Vietnam veteran in a cowboy hat whose lethal temper is leavened by a laid-back Steve McQueen cool in Hap and Leonard, and that he would be friends with a white liberal ex-hippie in the American South. Michael K. Williams made you believe that Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White, a ruthless and worldly gangster and a leader in Atlantic City’s Black community, could fall instantly in love with a young nightclub singer and become so intoxicated by her talent and beauty that he’d jeopardize the power he had amassed and the bourgeois homelife he had built.

Williams, who was found dead of a suspected drug overdose yesterday in his Brooklyn apartment, made you believe in every character, scene, line, and moment that he played. 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.

A 2017 Atlantic video finds Williams conversing with different screen versions of himself, but the one that dominates the room is an Omar type with a headscarf and a shotgun whose default tone is a wounded growl. Williams used to joke that Omar’s long coat, sawed-off shotgun, and habit of announcing himself to terrified foes by whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” was his equivalent of putting on a Superman suit. Omar’s aura had a similarly electrifying effect on Williams’s fans; he used to say that he knew he’d finally made it when he went for a walk and people yelled “Omar!” instead of his name. But what’s most fascinating about Williams’s career is the way he used that iconic character as a foundation for a series of performances that seemed to be in conversation with one another, the society that consumed them, and the actor’s complex, contradictory psychology. Expanding viewers’ minds was his superpower.

Williams often cited Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as comparisons for his own work in the crime genre. Were their characters stereotypes because they were gangsters and the actors were Italian American? No, Williams concluded, because the best were as vivid and specific as characters from more respectable types of fiction. More important, they were Trojan-horse vehicles that let storytellers explore milieus rarely shown by Hollywood, where the default vibe was vague, bland, middle-class Wasp suburbia even when the actors and characters didn’t fit the description.

“I will not allow Hollywood to stereotype or to desensitize my experience growing up in the ’hood,” Williams told Esquire last year. “This is my job as an actor, to show the integrity, to show the class, to show the swagger, to show the danger, to show the pain, to show the bad choices. Those things exist in everyone’s community. But no one’s asking those actors if they’re afraid of being typecast.”

Williams grew up in East Flatbush in the Vanderveer Estates, now known as the Flatbush Gardens. His father, Booker T. Williams, an absent presence, grew up in the Jim Crow South, and his mother, Paula, is a seamstress from the Bahamas. “When I was around 12 or 13, the ice started to really crack in the foundation of my family structure,” he told Men’s Health. “My dad relocated back to the South. There was a lot of trauma I was left to deal with in his absence. You know, it was hard for [a] Black woman raising a Black boy in an aggressively violent neighborhood. That was not easy to navigate through alone. But my mom is so stable, so grounded, such a foundation. She created such a foundation for me in the middle of the jungle. But there were certain things that I normalized, the violence, and the murder. And how much [police] criminalize adolescent behavior.”

Williams often talked about the deprivations and dangers of his youth. His mother was still traumatized by the short life of her brother, a boxer who went to prison for beating a man to death with his fists. Williams’s mother regularly beat him, he said, as a way of scaring him away from the street life. The lesson didn’t take. It was part of the cycle of violence that Williams would explore in so many films and TV series later. Many of his peers never got out of the neighborhood, and an unfortunate few did it through incarceration or violent death. Williams got a job in his 20s managing pharmaceutical blueprints for Pfizer and around the same time deepened the drug habit he would wrestle with throughout his life. “I can’t say I came out of the neighborhood unscathed,” he told Men’s Health. “You’re either using or selling. I was a user.”

His political consciousness came much later, after his stint on the politically charged HBO drama The Wire made a folk hero of Omar Little. Then-President Barack Obama named it his favorite show and Omar his favorite character. Williams often spoke of how insular his upbringing seemed once he took a harsh look at it. He grew up worldly about localized matters but naïve about the world. He didn’t follow the news unless the stories were world-shaking.

“I have family who were sharecroppers,” he told Esquire, describing his household’s tendency to avoid discussing its shared cultural and multigenerational pain. “It wasn’t that my family sat at the dinner table and talked about it. Like most Black people do, we act like we are over it, past it. Never dealing with the trauma.” He later recalled watching coverage of the Central Park Five case on TV with his family and believing the state’s version of the case because the media had embraced it. “I remember hearing what they were being accused of, having only to go on what I was being fed,” he told CBS News. “I heard that they confessed, but when I looked at them, I saw myself: This easily could have been me. I also felt the fear of not wanting to be generalized or lumped in, whatever it was they said these kids were doing.”

He was inspired to switch careers after seeing the video for Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and being moved by its message: “With music by our side / To break the color lines / Let’s work together / To improve our way of life / Join voices in protest / To social injustice / A generation full of courage / Come forth with me.” He watched videos on MTV religiously, studying and memorizing the steps, and through sheer persistence booked gigs as a background dancer and choreographer, working with the likes of Mark Wahlberg (then known as Marky Mark), George Michael, Missy Elliott, Crystal Waters, Ginuwine, and Madonna.

The change opened up new worlds for Williams and made him aware of an existence beyond the one he’d known. “I was in my 20s,” he told Men’s Health, “and I had become a dancer. I was in rooms with different walks of life. Young people, Black and white from New York City. We would go out for lunch after rehearsal. And they would be like: ‘Oh yeah, you know, so my dad’s gonna, like, lend me the car for the weekend.’ And I was like, ‘You have one of those?’ They said, ‘What a car?’ I said, ‘No, a dad? And he lives in the house? And he gives you the car? Like, I don’t understand.’”

From that point on, Williams tried to redefine perceived liabilities as strengths. The philosopher in him always considered them to have been assigned by the universe as randomly as his scar — a feature that, to his delight, established him as an actor. Williams got his first film role in 1996’s Bullet after co-star Tupac Shakur saw his headshot pinned to a corkboard and flipped out over the scar that Williams got from being sliced with a razor during a bar fight on his birthday. He said Williams had the right look to play his character’s younger brother, High Top, and instructed producers to bring him in for a reading.

In a 2020 Vanity Fair video breaking down key roles in his career, Williams said that after the razor attack, “directors and photographers found me interesting-looking” and began posting Polaroids of his face “all over town … and before I knew it, I was being asked to portray a much darker array of characters.”

From Bullet to Martin Scorsese’s 1999 New York fable, Bringing Out the Dead, through The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Hap and Leonard, and The Night Of (which cast him as a convict who mentors a young prisoner in Rikers Island penitentiary), Williams kept adding new portraits to a growing gallery of terse, hard men who treated violence as a tool, becoming part of a long tradition of tough guys who weren’t really tough. Humphrey Bogart, who like Williams had a defining facial scar, built his fame on crime-thriller parts even though he was far from that offscreen; the studios claimed Bogart got his scar in the Navy in World War I when a prisoner he was transporting to jail hit him across the face with handcuffed wrists, but according to Bogart, he got the scar as a child in a medical-malpractice incident. James Gandolfini, a burly poet whose forehead was dented during an unexpectedly bloody dormitory roughhousing accident, likewise got typecast as assassins, henchmen, and mobsters but dreamed of playing cowboys and explorers in wilderness adventures. Williams, a fan of both actors, similarly broke through playing underworld figures, even though he found machismo constraining and would rather dance than fight.

He described his younger self as “… sensitive, vulnerable. I’m not alpha. And so I got picked on a lot.” Williams had to spend time with a Brooklyn drug dealer to learn how to handle firearms believably on The Wire because the first time he picked up the character’s signature sawed-off shotgun, said series creator David Simon, he “didn’t know which end was which.”

The Wire was the Role, the game changer, the part that lifted him out of the ranks of struggling character actors. Omar’s signature line, “It’s all in the game, yo,” expressed a tragic certainty that the system was both rigged and entrenched, and the only way for a marginalized outsider to succeed was to play it cleverly and ruthlessly but without forgetting another piece of Wire wisdom: A man’s got to have a code.

“It was in season three when I started to realize, Oh, this isn’t about me. This is not about my career, or how much screen time I thought I should have gotten, or how I thought the show should go. It had nothing to do with me,” Williams told Vanity Fair. “In fact, it had everything to do with the fact that I was a small part of something great — this great tapestry, this great narrative, of social issues, of things that were wrong in our country. Not just in the Black community. This is not just a Baltimore story. This is going on in every hood in every city in every state around these United States. The Wire was a love letter to our nation, like a blueprint to show where we are broken in hopes of fixing what is wrong.”

When he read for Omar, Williams had been struggling with drugs again. He’d only recently done a guest shot on season three of The Sopranos, a drama he adored, but some part of him worried it was the end of it, the peak. He was doing drugs with a friend a few months later when a repeat of the show came on HBO. Watching himself operating at the peak of his creative powers onscreen while he was spinning his wheels off was a humbling experience, but one that addicts, and people who are close to addicts, know well. Williams played the coolest, most self-possessed character on The Wire, a man who robbed drug dealers but didn’t use drugs himself, but in reality he was closer to Bubbles, the sweet-souled user played by Andre Royo who does what he has to do to get through the day.

Looking back over Williams’s public appearances and interactions with the press, it’s notable that there never seemed to be a time when he wasn’t struggling with addiction, in a perpetual cycle of moving away from drugs and being pulled back in. The aforementioned moment of realization happened in 2001, when he was half out of acting and working at his mother’s retirement home. He’d already had many epiphanies in his 20s and 30s, but they didn’t quite take. He had another one after The Wire ended its run in 2008, Obama singled him out for praise, and he became more politically aware and active, ultimately helping found Making Kids Win (a.k.a. MKW), which “provides underserved young men and women with education and opportunities that reduce their risk of gun violence, incarceration, and gun activities.”

But the struggle never stopped. Williams booked the role of Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire months after relapsing again. He told Vanity Fair that when he got the call from HBO, he’d been “probably having a little bit too much of a great time” filming The Philanthropist, a 2009 NBC action drama shot in South Africa, and worrying that if the show got picked up, he’d “have to keep coming back down here. If I don’t change the way I’m living, I will probably die down here.”

In 2012, he sat for a long interview with the Newark Star-Ledger and spoke openly about his years using drugs (mostly cocaine, he said) in and around the city while The Wire was running on HBO. Williams wasn’t ashamed of what happened. He wanted people to know that it happened. He wanted people to know the struggle was real. “I thought, ‘Why me? Why did I get spared?’ I should’ve been dead,” Williams said. “I have the scars. I’ve stuck my head in the lion’s mouth. Obviously, God saved me for a purpose. So, I decided to get clean and then come clean. I’m hoping I can reach that one person.”

When Williams visited the offices of Criterion in 2011 and was invited to go into the closet and pick out DVDs to take home, one of the titles he chose was The Fugitive Kind, starring Marlon Brando as a deluded rebel in a snakeskin jacket. Brando was another actor whom Williams cited as inspiration, and with some distance, it should become clear that Williams was an actor in Brando’s weight class, even though his opportunities were more limited. Like Brando, Williams was remarkably free in choosing to play characters who weren’t monotonously heterosexual. His characters on The Wire, Hap and Leonard, and the recent Lovecraft Country (for which he is nominated for this year’s Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Emmy) were Black gay men whose sexuality was but one of many characteristics but never the defining one.

We take this sort of thing for granted now, in the supposedly enlightened year 2021. But when Williams first appeared in character as Omar 20 years ago, it was anything but common. He was constantly pulling the rug out from under viewers in his choice of roles and the decisions he made while playing them. It was the sorcerer in him, the poet, the storyteller.

He was a man of prodigious gifts. He had the ability to take a seeming throwaway moment and make it revelatory. Consider the scene in Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season in which Chalky, who has been put in charge of a Cotton Club–type segregated nightspot, playfully spars with a high-rolling white regular. The moment expresses the lie of American equality as pantomimed by these two men, who seem to be on equal footing until the white man asks if he can rub Chalky’s forehead “for luck,” and Chalky says yes because he has no other choice. The demeaning gesture neutralizes the warmth that had been expressed moments earlier. As the camera lingers on Chalky’s face as he turns and walks away, his aw-shucks grin melts and is replaced with fury.

Williams plays the scene not just as a moment of humiliation for Chalky but as a commentary on the era and on how things haven’t changed as much as they should have. His reaction foreshadows Chalky’s subsequent affair with Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham), a woman whose youth and light-skinned beauty stand in for the acquisitive tendencies in Chalky’s character, born in feelings of anxiety over his hard looks, dark skin, and poor upbringing. She is not what he needs, but she’s the symbol of what he thinks he needs. Williams gets all this and puts it across to the audience, not through dialogue but with his face. He was in such control of his instrument that he could tell you the story of Chalky’s past, present, and future with a change of expression.

It’s a rare actor who can locate the universal in the specific and the specific in the universal in role after role and scene after scene, with such assurance that the story of one man becomes the story of a people. Williams was that caliber of actor. He made a point to see himself in others, and that helped others see themselves in his characters. He carried that weight. And he made it.

That’s how the story should be framed: Michael Kenneth Williams made it. He made it into his 50s despite an overwhelming, sometimes paralyzing addiction. He made great shows, great movies. He gave some of the greatest performances in the history of television. He told his story by telling other people’s stories.

He made it.

Death of a Storyteller