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Michael K. Williams, the mesmerizing actor and five-time Emmy nominee best known for his role as Baltimore stick-up man Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire, has died, his rep told The Hollywood Reporter. He was 54.
“It is with deep sorrow that the family announces the passing of Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams. They ask for your privacy while grieving this insurmountable loss,” his longtime rep, Marianna Shafran of Shafran PR, said.
Williams was found in his Brooklyn home on Monday afternoon, a New York Police Department spokesperson told THR. No cause of death was available.
More recently, Williams portrayed Montrose Freeman on HBO’s Lovecraft Country — for which he received a 2021 Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series (the awards are Sept. 19) — and Bobby McCray, the father of Antron McCray (Caleel Harris), who convinced his son to sign a false confession, in Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five, When They See Us. The gravelly-voiced Williams also starred as angry Vietnam veteran Leonard Pine for three seasons (2016-18) on the SundanceTV drama Hap and Leonard, racketeer Chalky White on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire from 2010-14 and inmate Freddy Knight in 2016 miniseries The Night Of, also for HBO.
“We are devastated to learn of the passing of Michael Kenneth Williams, a member of the HBO family for more than 20 years,” a statement from the network said. “While the world is aware of his immense talents as an artist, we knew Michael as a dear friend who was beloved by all who had the privilege to work with him. We send our deepest condolences to his family for this immeasurable loss.”
Williams was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 22, 1966. His mother was from the Bahamas and his father from South Carolina. He was raised in the Vanderveer housing projects in East Flatbush and attended George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School in the borough.
“Growing up, I got picked on a lot,” he told Time magazine in 2017. “I was the corny one. I was not popular with the ladies. In a very alpha-male community, being sensitive is not considered a quality.”
He excelled in street dancing and danced on tours fronted by the likes of George Michael and Madonna before pursuing acting with the National Black Theatre in New York City. He made his onscreen debut in Bullet (1996), starring Mickey Rourke and Tupac Shakur.
The rapper had seen a photo of Williams — who by then had a prominent facial scar as a result of a fight on his 25th birthday — and helped him get hired to play his brother.
Williams guest-starred on episodes of such shows as The Sopranos, Alias and Boston Legal before landing on David Simon’s The Wire in 2002. He would appear on 42 episodes before Omar met his end in the fifth and final season.
“Omar became an alter ego,” he said. “A gay man who doesn’t like fancy clothes or fancy cars, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t even curse, and robs the most gangster drug dealers in the community. He’s an outcast, and I identified with that immensely. Instead of using it as a tool to maybe heal myself, I hid behind that. Nobody was calling Michael in the streets. Everything was Omar, Omar, Omar. I mistook that admiration. It felt good. But it wasn’t for me. It was for a fictional character. When that show ended, along with that character, I was clueless about how to deal with that. I crumbled.”
In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama called The Wire his favorite TV series and Omar his favorite character. “That’s not an endorsement. He’s not my favorite person, but he’s a fascinating character,” Obama said.
Williams responded in a 2012 interview with The Guardian, saying, “Doing something that warrants the attention of the president of the United States is super-cool” before acknowledging that his most well-known character was “a standard dude” who lived by codes. “That was one of the things that Obama loved about him, that he lives by his codes.”
Wrote Simon on Twitter: “Too gutted right now to say all that ought to be said. Michael was a fine man and a rare talent and on our journey together he always deserved the best words. And today those words won’t come.”
Williams also received Emmy noms for his work in the 2015 telefilm Bessie, The Night Of, Vice — he explored the issue of young people in jail in 2018 — and DuVernay’s When They See Us.
His big-screen résumé included Gone Baby Gone (2007), Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest (2009), The Road (2009), Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), The Gambler (2014), Assassin’s Creed (2016), SuperFly (2018) and Motherless Brooklyn (2019).
Working on Lovecraft Country, he told co-star Jonathan Majors in a conversation arranged by THR, “changed me for the better.”
“I understand now the importance of therapy, which I am in,” he continued. “I understand that I have trauma, that we have trauma that affects us that we were not even alive to see — blood trauma. I was clueless to all of that prior to the Lovecraft journey.”
During a SAG-AFTRA “Conversations at Home” interview in 2020, Williams became emotional while discussing how much his role as Montrose Freeman in Lovecraft County personally affected him.
“Lovecraft Country took me on an emotional and mental roller coaster that I was not prepared for, personally. Thank God I had the cast and these amazing angels around me to hold me up,” Williams said before breaking down into tears, causing other castmembers to do the same.
Courtney B. Vance, who plays George Freeman in the series, immediately offered support to his co-star, emphasizing to the actor, “We are with you.”
In a 2011 interview with soon-to-be THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg, Williams was asked how he would like to be remembered.
“Man, I just want people to remember me as one cool-ass dude, you know? Someone who cared,” he replied. “And I would never want anyone to say, ‘Oh, he forgot where he came from.’ That would hurt me the most.”
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