When our beloved entertainers and athletes transition, we take to social media to mourn. Such is the case with the effusive Instagram and Twitter posts following the death of actor Michael K. Williams, who was found deceased in his New York City apartment on Labor Day.
But while we’ve lost too many entertainers over the last couple years, the outpouring of grief for Williams seems to be the most concentrated and widespread arguably since the death of Kobe Bryant in early 2020. Sure, there are plenty of “R.I.P.” captions accompanying the requisite glossy photos of Williams that anyone with Google can access. But there are quite a few Instagram tributes from entertainers sharing personal moments not captured by a professional photographer.
Everyone from Storm Reid to Ghostface Killah to Ava DuVernay have shared photos in which they’re simply kicking it with Williams in seemingly casual environments. Tributes are pouring in from the unlikeliest of folks, including Jeffrey Dean Morgan, John Leguizamo and, rather oddly even, Pee-Wee Herman.
Williams never had a starring role – the supporting actor gig was his bread and butter. As such, he exuded relatability as a working actor, never giving off the aura that fame elevated him above everyone else. On the contrary, he appeared to be quite accessible in his native Brooklyn, with a feet-to-the-ground ethos that was perhaps most obvious in his civic work.
Yet, Williams’ oeuvre is more robust than I’d imagine most people realize. He’s been at this acting thing since the mid-1990s, getting his big break when Tupac Shakur saw a photo of him with his signature forehead-to-cheek scar and asked him to play a role in his 1996 film Bullet. From then until his death, Williams popped up in more than 100 film and television roles, ranging from Oscar-winning projects like 12 Years a Slave to straight-to-video faire like Belly 2: Millionaire Boyz Club to a guest role on The Sopranos. He even voiced a character in the popular Battlefield video game franchise.
Of course, Williams will always be most remembered as the charismatic drug-dealer-robber Omar Little from HBO’s The Wire. Williams portrayed the most memorable character in the best television show of all time. The fact that he’s most beloved for his portrayal of an openly gay Black male at a time when they weren’t at all omnipresent in media is a testament to the nuance and gravitas Williams brought to that character.
Omar, along with other memorable roles – the shot-calling Rikers inmate Freddy Knight in the excellent HBO limited series The Night Of, Atlantic City gangster Chalky White in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire – was borne of Williams’ personal experiences growing up in Brooklyn. Even as he attempted to walk a narrow path, the streets were always there with a hand on his shoulder: A fight he got into just before his 25th birthday is perhaps the closest he came to losing his life.
Ironically, that fight gave him the face scar and unique appearance that precipitated his career success. But that blemish was offset by Williams’ brilliant smile, which was certainly more disarming after meeting him in person, considering the effect it had on those of us watching on the big and small screens. He refused to be typecast as the tough guy, portraying vulnerable characters including the conflicted Montrose Freeman in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, real-life HIV-positive vet Ken Jones in the ABC docudrama When We Rise and a transgender prostitute in the mostly-forgotten 2016 film Triple 9.
Unfortunately, like so many brilliant and beloved entertainers, Williams suffered for his art, battling an ongoing drug addiction that dogged him throughout his career, and which may well have ultimately claimed his life. (As of press time, his cause of death has not been released, but his death is being investigated as a possible drug overdose.)
“The characters that mean the most to me are the ones that damn near kill me,” he told New York Times in 2017. “It’s a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make.”
Williams, like DMX, (whom, eerily enough, Williams embodied during the tribute to the late rapper during the 2021 BET Awards) leveraged his demons to create now-immortal content. If it was drug addiction that made Williams a solid Hollywood bet but also took his life, it makes the material he left us with that much more bittersweet. It also serves as a sobering reminder to not take entertainers, or their content, for granted.