Yesterday, the actor Michael K. Williams, best known for his roles in “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” was found dead in his home at age 54. The news came as a blow to fans worldwide who’d grown up with Williams as a familiar face. He was, without a doubt, one of the finest actors of his generation, lending depth, grit, and honesty to every character he played, from “The Wire’s” Omar Little to Freddy Knight on “The Night Of” to Bobby McCray on “When They See Us.” He is, and will continue to be, deeply missed.
For the queer community, Williams’ death came with a special sting. As an actor who brought to life one of the first truly realistic, lived-in queer characters of the prestige TV golden age, he meant a lot to us. For many viewers, Williams’ portrayal of Omar Little was the first time they’d seen a queer character of color who didn’t feel like a sloppy afterthought. In a time when realistic queer characters were few and far between onscreen, Williams offered viewers a glimpse into a chaotic, painful world in which queerness must be publically hidden even as it is privately embraced.
Earlier this year, Williams spoke to the comedian and podcaster Marc Maron on “WTF” during a press tour for the film Body Brokers, about drug treatment fraud. In that interview,
“I’m not shy about it.” He said. “Relapse is a part of my story.” It was far from the only part of his story, however. Williams worked hard his entire life to become something the world kept insisting he couldn’t be: a great actor. Low self-esteem and a need to fit in made him “lose [his] identity” very quickly. He attributed the ability to “chameleon” himself to his success as an actor. “By age 9, I was completely addicted to fantasy,” he told Maron of his journey toward acting. Before his big break with “The Wire,” he made a living as a backup dancer for acts like Crystal Waters and Technotronic. He taught himself choreography by watching Janet Jackson videos, gaining him a 7-year career before taking on his first film in 1996 with Bullet, for which the actor was hand-picked by none other than Tupac Shakur. It was the actor’s distinctive facial scar that caught Shakur’s notice. From there, other directors started noticing. When Hollywood came calling to cast Williams in bigger roles, he “wore it like a badge of honor.”
“These are my people,” he told Maron, “and this is my community. I’m going to do everything possible to make sure that people who don’t know this lifestyle or this community will leave feeling empathy, compassion, and understanding.”
The world is heartbroken today. Here are some of the most thoughtful tributes to Williams from queer fans and allies:
“I thought, ‘Why me? Why did I get spared?’ I should’ve been dead. 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.” https://t.co/vxRkVC5nNf
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) September 6, 2021
without exaggeration: Michael K. Williams was one of the greatest character actors of our time. Omar Little. Albert “Chalky” White. Neville Baraka. Montrose Freeman. Jack Gee. Bobby McCray. He was more than just a stick-up man on The Wire. Thank u for everything u gave us 🙏🏾💕
— Tyler R. Tynes (@TylerRickyTynes) September 6, 2021
This Michael K Williams news is crushing. Played one of the greatest television characters ever created, but his catalogue was so much bigger than just Omar. An incredibly talented actor. Above all – if you saw him anywhere he would always give his time and words. Rest In Peace.
— Taylor Rooks (@TaylorRooks) September 6, 2021
From Omar, to Chalky, to Montrose, and every character in between…you put your heart and soul into every role. RIP Michael K. Williams. pic.twitter.com/Z1jxhalG8h
— Andrew Hammond (@ahammFreePress) September 6, 2021
Here’s his tribute to DMX at this year’s BET awards:
Michael K. Williams Tribute to DMX at the 2021 BET Awards. Rip to both legends ❤️🙏 pic.twitter.com/qt1dSTNLYP
— DatPiff (@DatPiff) September 7, 2021
A sweet tidbit:
Omar was Michael K. Williams’s breakout role, but he said his greatest reward from “The Wire” was meeting Felicia Pearson and helping her change her life by landing the role of Snoop 🥲 pic.twitter.com/MIBA49sCvD
— dan nguyen (@dancow) September 6, 2021
Folks remembered how important Williams’ portrayal of Omar Little was to them, and how important it continues to be:
let it not go unsaid that omar’s relatability and vulnerability come from being queer. boldly, loudly, avenging his lover’s murder queer. michael k. williams gave us one of the most unapologetically queer characters ever on tv, especially for his time. pic.twitter.com/79HjkNapgV
— tj 🌹 (@timmyjules) September 7, 2021
Omar Little one of the great queer representations of all time! Farewell to the great Michael K. Williams. pic.twitter.com/F32Nfi28bT
— Seth (@SethAbramovitch) September 6, 2021
We mourn the loss of Michael K. Williams. His brilliance and work to redefine Black masculinity and Queer representation as Omar Little is something that won’t be forgotten. https://t.co/kPItblwgzi
— Lambda Legal (@LambdaLegal) September 7, 2021
But Williams was so much more than one character or one story:
Michael K Williams made my name cool. The only recognition I ever got before that was from old people, sometimes, who would say, ‘ah like Sharif!’ Omar Little changed the whole game, changed how people heard my name and seeing that bad ass queer man live and love changed my life.
— Omar Sakr (@OmarjSakr) September 6, 2021
Michael K Williams was an inspiring guy who once saw me alone and feeling awkward on a shuttle from the Treme premiere screening to the party and talked to me. Beyond being one of my favorite actors and an honest to god queer icon, he was so kind and warm. Today sucks.
— Jaclyn Moore (@JaclynPMoore) September 7, 2021
Michael K. Williams was a god damn genius, a black queer icon who challenged the ideas of black masculinity at a time when it wasn’t easy and a truly great dude. A huge loss.
— Travon Free (@Travon) September 6, 2021