- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
My favorite scene in The Wire is partially built on a lie. It’s the second-season sequence in which Omar Little is put on the witness stand and shady lawyer Maurice Levy tries to assault his credibility. Omar turns the tables on Levy by declaring that they’re both part of the same hypocrisy, famously declaring, “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?”
Were Omar Little merely a gangster with a code, he’d be one of a half-dozen characters fitting that description on The Wire alone. He’d be an archetype. And yes, there’s a rigor to the way Omar approaches his interactions with the various characters in his sphere, different rules applying to dealers and civilians. But in a show that’s about capitalism and the way the American Dream and the drug game intersect with deadly consequences, Omar is driven by more than the almighty dollar. Most of Omar’s decisions in the series stem from the violent torture and murder of his boyfriend Brandon. For all his calculations, it’s clear that revenge and love — love for another man in a milieu in which Omar’s sexuality makes him even more of a threat to his adversaries — and impetuous desire are Omar’s real motivations.
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. 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.
Look at Boardwalk Empire, where, in a series populated by some of the most colorful and larger-than-life mobsters in actual and fictionalized history, Williams’ “Chalky” White was generally the most compelling counterpart to Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson. Chalky, like Omar, was a tremendous character not necessarily because you rooted for him (though you did) or ever wanted him to become the focus of the series (which you often did), but because in all his work Williams gave the impression that even when he wasn’t onscreen, his characters were living interesting and emotionally rich lives. He did it in The Night Of. He did it in When They See Us. He did it most recently in Lovecraft Country, where, once again, he built a portrait of nuanced Black queer masculinity within a genre that hasn’t traditionally been a vehicle for such stories.
But merely looking at Williams as a great actor who was integral to great ensembles is reductive. In SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard, Williams more than proved his ability to be a leading man, to be an action leading man, to be a romantic leading man, to be a protagonist. He should have had the opportunity, in the past 15 years and in the next 30 years, to do more of that. He should have played more heroes and more villains, should have had the chance to menace James Bond and take down nemeses of his own.
He should have played more lovers. Somebody should have built a part that let him dance (and sing, if that distinctive gruff, urban drawl of his was melodic). He should have had the chance to star in a CBS sitcom and make that CBS sitcom money, because Michael K. Williams was always funny as hell. He should have been able to play the father of a superhero and to also play a superhero (and his part in The Incredible Hulk should have been a real part, not just an edited-out semi-cameo). He should have been able to work with Vice News on more investigative reporting into the causes that interested him. Every writer in Hollywood should have had the chance to put words in his mouth, and he should have had time to come up with more words that he wanted to say.
Williams never won an Emmy in his lifetime, and he was never even nominated for The Wire or Boardwalk Empire. There’s a strong chance, though, that he’s going to be victorious in two weeks for Lovecraft Country. If he does, it will be entirely deserved and entirely heartbreaking.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day