The life and career of The Wire star Michael K Williams - after death at 54

Tuesday, 7th September 2021, 9:30 am
Michael K. Williams poses for the 2021 Critics Choice Awards on March 07, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for ABA)

Michael K Williams, best known for his role as Omar Little on the acclaimed HBO crime drama The Wire, has passed away at age 54.

This is everything you need to know.

Who was Michael K Williams?

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Williams was born in Brooklyn on 22 November 1966, and grew up in the Vanderveer Projects in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2011, Williams said “it was a very turbulent time to grow up in that neighbourhood” and that “it was a West Indies and Caribbean mixture; you had a Jewish community surrounding it; and that just made for a lot of violence, a lot of bloodshed”.

For a while, Williams worked for Pfizer pharmaceuticals as a temp, but eventually left school and quit his job to pursue a career as a dancer after being inspired by Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.

“When I saw that, I realised — I got this light bulb — that I could earn a living, or I could pursue the possibility of earning a living, dancing. And I quit school, I quit my job, and I went on a quest to find Janet,” he said.

Williams eventually got a job as a background dancer, which led to work appearing as a dancer in music videos and on tours with the likes of George Michael and Madonna.

On his 25th birthday, Williams got into a bar fight that left him with a large facial scar which became his signature feature. After getting the scar, he went on to get modelling opportunities and performing in music videos before eventually getting into acting.

Off camera, Williams established the charitable organisation Making Kids Win, with the primary objective of building community centres in urban neighbourhoods that are in need of safe spaces for children to learn and play.

Throughout the course of his career, Williams openly talked about his struggles with drugs.

In a 2012 interview, he said: “I was playing with fire.

“It was just a matter of time before I got caught and my businesses ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail - or worse.”

What roles is he best known for?

Williams was best known for his portrayal of Omar Little, a gay, morally ambiguous criminal who frequently targets drug dealers, on The Wire.

He is also known for the role of Albert “Chalky” White in the TV series Boardwalk Empire, produced by Martin Scorsese.

Williams additionally starred in the likes of Bessie, The Night Of, When They See Us, Hap and Leonard, Lovecraft Country, F is for Family, When We Rise, 12 Years a Slave, The Road and The Spoils Before Dying.

Prior to appearing in The Wire, Williams also enjoyed a guest appearance on The Sopranos as Ray Ray.

His first acting role was alongside Tupac Shakur in the 1996 film Bullet, playing High Top, the brother and henchman to drug kingpin Tank.

Williams said Shakur offered him an audition for the role after seeing him in a polaroid picture.

He said: “[Shakur] said he could see my scar, and he said, “Yo! Go find this dude — this dude looks thugged out enough to play my little brother!” And he had Julien Temple’s production company, like, look for me all over New York, and then, you know, I got a call to come in, and I read for it, and, yeah, the rest is history.

Williams received a number of awards and nominations for his acting, including five Primetime Emmy Awards for his work as Jack Gee in Bessie, Freddy Knight in The Night Of, Bobby Cray in When They See Us, Montrose Freeman in Lovecraft Country and documentary series Vice.

When did he die?

Williams passed away at age 54, and was found dead at his home in Brooklyn on Monday, NYPD police have said.

Longtime representative of Williams, Marianna Shafran, confirmed the news, saying: “It is with deep sorrow that the family announces the passing of five Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams.

“They ask for your privacy while grieving this insurmountable loss.”

A statement from HBO said: “We are devastated to learn of the passing of Michael Kenneth Williams, a member of the HBO family for more than 20 years.

“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.”

No cause of death has been officially given yet, but according to the New York Post, law enforcement sources have said that a heroin overdose is the suspected cause of Williams’ death.