Yesterday (September 6), the world lost one of its most unique actors, Michael K. Williams. His death is a tragedy to the art of acting, as he was a master of subtle emotions, and although widely respected, one would argue he deserved more credit in his lifetime. Maybe, after his passing, his work might gain a new lease life and will cause audiences to revisit his roles and accept what a master he was.
Born on November 2nd, 1966, Williams first left school and quit his temp job at Pfizer with the hope of becoming a dancer. This was not an easy choice, and he had intermittent spells living homeless. Around the same time, he would frequent dance studios and record labels looking for a job, and for a long period, this was to no avail.
Finally, though, he landed his first break as a backing dancer for singer Kym Syms, which opened the door to more work in the mid-late 1980s. He appeared in music videos and toured with huge artists such as George Michael and Madonna, and even scored a side hustle as a model. With his fortunes slowly turning around, in 1994, Williams choreographed the video for Crystal Waters’ house classic ‘100% Pure Love’.
One of the most iconic features of Williams as an actor was the large facial scar. This gave his on-screen personas an extra dimension, a more human and believable feel. He received it in a bar fight on Jamaica Avenue in New York City on his 25th birthday when he was slashed with a razor blade. Showing the peaceful nature of Williams, he didn’t fight back. Speaking about the incident, he once commented: “It’s why people look at this (scar) and see a thing of beauty. Had I taken the other route, I think it would have made me ugly — from the inside.”
Ironically, in the early days of his acting career, the scar resulted in numerous offers to play a ‘thug’ in music videos but also marked him out as different aesthetically, which led to more modelling opportunities with iconic photographers such as David LaChapelle.
One of his first roles came alongside the late rapper Tupac Shakur as the character High Top, the brother and key henchman to Shakur’s crimelord, Tank, in Julien Temple’s largely forgotten 1996 thriller, Bullet. Allegedly, Shakur had a key part in choosing Williams for the role when he spotted a polaroid photograph of him in a production studio.
Williams would then get his first major break in 2002 with the iconic HBO series, The Wire. He played one of the most defining characters of the show, the complex Omar Little, and this truly set him on his path to greatness. He would go on to give us roles in films such as Twelve Years a Slave, Gone Baby Gone, Inherent Vice and was even said to have been Quentin Tarantino‘s first choice to play the titular hero in 2012’s Django Unchained, but this never came to fruition due to other commitments.
In addition to memorable roles on the big and small screens, he also served as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador to the Campaign for Smart Justice. A champion of human rights, Williams was loved by all who knew him, celebrity and otherwise. A man as complex as his characters, he will continue to live on through the brilliant, varied characters he gave us over his career.
Michael K. Williams’ best characters:
Omar Little – The Wire
Where else to start than with the moment that kicked it all off? A mainstay across The Wire’s five seasons, Omar Little was one of its defining characters. A duster coat wearing, shotgun-wielding menace to street-level drug dealers, this Robin Hood-esque character was delivered with wit, humour and steel-eyed cool in equal parts. The interesting thing about Omar was that he was a complex character, one of the densest on the show.
A homosexual, and a privately tender character, Little was a stark juxtaposition to the stereotypical notion of criminals being machismo straight guys. Williams knew that this was a great thing and that this element of Little’s character was critical in challenging attitudes towards homosexuality in America.
His whistling of the nursery rhyme ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’ is one of the most iconic traits of Williams’ character. In 2005, Williams explained that he thought Omar was well-liked because of his honesty, lack of materialism, individuality and adherence to his strict moral code. He was so well-liked that even ex-US President Barack Obama was a fan.
Tariq Khalil – Inherent Vice
One of the coolest mfer’s to have ever graced the big screen. In the film for less than five minutes, Williams portrayal of the Thomas Pynchon character is classic. The afroed Khalil is a member of the Black Guerilla Family who hires Joaquin Phoenix‘s P.I. Doc Sportello to find Glen Charlock, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood whom he met in jail and who owes him money. This sets of the film’s bizarre chain of events.
Khalil is an embodiment of the more proactive side of the ’60s civil rights movement, and Williams’ delivery of the line: “Some of us say, ‘insurrection.’ The Man, he just waits for his moment…” is a cutting take on the oppressive nature of government, particularly towards minorities.
Montrose Freeman – Lovecraft Country
The final television appearance of Williams, Montrose Freeman, makes a case for being Lovecraft Country‘s standout character. The narrative centres around Atticus Freeman, a young black man who travels across a fictionalised version of the segregated ’50s United States in search of his missing father. Along the way, he learns of dark secrets that consume a town on which racist horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was said to have based many of his fictional stories.
When Atticus finds his father, Montrose then slowly becomes a more central figure in the narrative. A survivor of the ultra-racist Tulsa race massacre of 1921, and a closeted homosexual struggling with internalised homophobia, he gives the plot it’s emotional grounding. A tragic character, Williams’ performance is delivered with subtlety and grace and duly, is one of his best ever.
Albert ‘Chalky’ White – Boardwalk Empire
HBO’s Boardwalk Empire was brimming with unforgettable performances and characters, and one of these was Williams’ Albert ‘Chalky’ White. A gangster and the leader of the African-American community in Atlantic City, White is one of the show’s most unique elements. Another complex character, full of internal contradictions, he shows a defiant spirit amongst the corruption and racism of 1920’s America but also does his bit to add to the former.
A morally bankrupt individual, his death was one of the show’s saddest scenes and was marvellously acted out by Williams, and his lip trembling as the camera pans in is classic. Also, the line, “For every drop that’s spilt from these here bottles, I’ma take a drop out of one of y’all asses“, is just plain hilarious.
Leonard Pine – Hap and Leonard
Hap and Leonard are two fictional amateur investigators and adventurers created by American author Joe R. Lansdale, and who made it onto the small screen for three seasons across 2016-2018 by SundanceTV. Leonard Pine is one of Williams’ most hilarious characters, and unsurprisingly, he is a walking contradiction.
Pine is a black, gay, Vietnam veteran with serious anger issues and a penchant for terrible headwear. He burns down a crack den that is his next-door neighbour and gets into all manner of hilarious exploits alongside his peace-loving partner in crime, Hap Collins. If you haven’t already, you should watch the show, it is seriously underrated.
Jack Gee – Bessie
Williams’ role as Jack Gee, the husband of ‘The Empress of the Blues’, Bessie Smith, is undoubtedly one of, if not the, finest role the late actor gave us. A former security guard who later became her husband and manager, Gee is a central figure in the tale of the blues icon. Brilliantly displaying the endemic and deeply entrenched racism and misogyny of 1930’s America, Bessie is a must-watch.
William’s expertly plays Gee, who becomes more villainous towards the end of the tale, and he carries off the man who left Smith destitute and kidnapped her son. He called it a “monumental” role and an honour to star alongside his old friend Queen Latifah, and their on-screen chemistry carries the film. It is the key reason why the film was so widely acclaimed when it was released in 2015.