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Michael K Williams

TV’s troubled tough guy

Williams with Dominic West in The Wire. Massimo Insabato/Shutterstock

Michael K Williams, who died this week of a suspected drug overdose at the age of 54, was the gay, “shotgun-wielding” antihero in The Wire. He had all the best lines, says Harrison Smith in The Washington Post. “You come at the king, you best not miss,” said his character, Omar Little. The youngest of 10 children, Williams grew up in Brooklyn, then became a dancer and model. He was so good that in his twenties he performed alongside Madonna, George Michael and Missy Elliott.

Days before his 25th birthday, Williams tried to stop a robbery outside a club and was slashed from forehead to cheek by a razor. He said he owed his career to that scar. Rapper Tupac Shakur cast him in the 1996 film Bullet after taking just one look at his Polaroid.

For the role of Omar, Williams found a drug dealer who taught him how to use firearms: “Best acting lesson I ever had.” He also “tenderly kissed” his on-screen boyfriend in an early episode, unscripted, startling the director but adding an extra layer to an early 2000s show. Then the lines “blurred”, says The Times. People called him Omar on the streets. He became addicted to cocaine, lived out of a suitcase and sometimes went to work high. He’d forgotten playing a part was “what I do, not who I am”.

At a presidential rally in 2008, Barack Obama hailed Omar as his favourite character. Williams met Obama afterwards, but was too high to talk. That scared him enough to go straight for a while, with the help of his church. Of his violent upbringing, he said: “It wasn’t until the arts found me that I found something I was good at that held my attention. The arts saved my life.”