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Michael K. Williams, Dead at 54, Was the Shining Star of Television’s Golden Era

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

There’s a scene in season one of The Wire that sticks out to fans as a rare moment of tenderness for its most tender character, Omar Little. Little sits with his lover Brandon in the projects of West Baltimore, dimly saturated in front of a rotting brick wall and, with a stack of loose bills in hand, he leans over and kisses his head.

This gesture wasn’t scripted; rather, it was improvised by Little’s actor, Michael K. Williams. He stated, “I would say the most fearless thing that I was able to pull off and portray as Omar on television was his openness with his sexuality and not have that go over the top…you know, to me, to, you know, to have these two dudes kiss, and then for him to pick up his shotgun to put his bullets in and click, click, let’s go hunting, it just was the ultimate contrast to me. That’s why I decided to put it.”

On Sep. 6, 2021, Williams was found dead in his Brooklyn penthouse, with his death being investigated by the New York Police Department as a potential drug overdose. Williams was most well-known for his role on The Wire, but he also appeared in the television shows Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos and Lovecraft Country, as well as the films 12 Years a Slave and The Road.

Williams’ death was met with an outpouring of grief from fans on social media, particularly from African American queer fans who were personally impacted by Williams’ portrayal of blackness and queerness onscreen. Doreen St. Félix of The New Yorker called Williams a “defender of Black fictions,” and stated of his death, “I am angry that Williams is gone…He was the calibre of actor for whom scripts should have been written. We should have had more of him. What he gave was more than enough.”

A New York native, Williams was an active member of his community, with many fans noting his remarkable efforts at combatting Black youth incarceration and gun violence. In 2011, Williams founded the nonprofit program Making Kids Win, which provides free mentorship and arts programming to young people in poor communities.

“Adolescent’ is a nice, pretty, scientific word for ‘dumb sh*t.’ You are expected to do dumb sh*t in your adolescent stage,” Williams stated in a 2019 interview with The Daily Beast. “Your brain ain’t fully developed. You’re supposed to be forgiven for your adolescence. But in my community they criminalize that.” Williams was also an ambassador for the ACLU and The Innocence Project.

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/ Unsplash

During his career, Williams received five Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including one upcoming Emmy award for his role in Lovecraft Country. His most famous role, however, was that of Omar Little on The Wire. Little remains one of the most beloved characters of American television’s purported “golden age,” in the same ranks as The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano and Mad Men’s Don Draper. Obama famously called him his favorite character. “What a combination,” he said of Little, an intense stick-up robber who is mutually violent and tender – an African American gay man who first appeared onscreen over a decade before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

Williams openly drew from his own life experiences to play Little. A distinct scar across Little’s face – one of the character’s defining physical characteristics – is Williams’ own, gained in a bar fight years earlier. “He was positioning the razor in his mouth to get between his middle finger and his ring finger, and then he just … swiped me down my face … we managed to escape with our lives, barely, that night,” Williams told NPR in 2014.

That scar is what convinced The Wire co-creator Ed Burns to hire Williams. “I’m just hopping, dipping and spinning my a** over from the dance club, and next thing you know I’m Omar from f**king The Wire,” Williams told The Daily Beast.

Behind the scenes, Williams struggled with the characters he was portraying, especially Little. Williams himself was an addict with a criminal history, and during the filming of The Wire, he would sometimes disappear on days-long cocaine binges. “Am I telling the truth or am I perpetuating the problem? I suffered with that on The Wire, you know, and that weighed on me,” he told NPR in 2016. “And even though it’s fake, where I go in my psyche, it – trust me, it is very real.”

Michael K. Williams was 54 when he died.

His nonprofit is currently accepting donations.

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Sofia Lavidalie is a sophomore Editing, Writing, and Media student at Florida State University. She is a playwright and nonfiction essayist from Louisiana, though she currently lives in Tallahassee. She enjoys dramatics, theatrics, and the occasional hysterics. Her work has been published in The Kudzu Review, Ellipsis, and Bridge.