ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim LaMotta is one of Pittsburgh’s premiere wrestling announcers, as well as a great writer. I’m really happy that he chose to write this and share it with the site. This article originally appeared on Steel City Underground. You can follow Jim on Twitter.
I was shocked to read the news earlier this week that Micheal K. Williams, the actor known for his iconic roles in HBO’s The Wire and Boardwalk Empire was found dead of a suspected drug overdose in his New York apartment at the age of 54. Sadly, Williams’ struggled with addiction the majority of his life, and the authenticity that he brought to the screen seemed to be based on much of the real-life trauma from his youth. Growing up in the East Flatbush housing projects in Brooklyn, his youth provided somewhat of a preview for that roles that eventually made him famous when he dropped out of high school as a troubled teen. Thankfully, he found a level of stability at the National Black Theatre in Harlem, where he studied dance and stage performance. Through the hustle and showing up at enough studios, he landed work as a back up dancer for various artists, including Madonna for tours in the early-90s. He landed a break when he was cast for a minor role in 1996’s Bullet, a film that brought together Mickey Rourke and Tupac Shakur.
Random chance brought Williams the opportunity, as his photo was noticed during the production of the film, which led to an offer for a role. A few years earlier, Williams attempted to stop a fight outside of a club and was slashed across the face with a razor blade, leaving a massive scar. That scar not only got him noticed for Bullet, it became one of the notable trademarks throughout his career. While the healed stitches got him on set with Tupac, it also had him typecast in generic roles throughout the rest of the 90s.
The defining mark on his face was quite literally proof of life on the streets, and in many ways, it was just too easy to cast him as a generic thug because the visual was already there. However, Micheal K, Williams had much more to offer to the art of acting than anything just skin deep. Thankfully, David Simon, writer of The Wire, and later The Deuce for HBO as well, was willing to take the usual street drama the entertainment world saw before and allow for more depth than the usual superficial presentation. Simon’s gritty and unrefined look at the hardships of poverty and the effects of corruption within society were almost too much for some critics. Despite being critically-acclaimed and nominated for a myriad of awards, The Wire never won an Emmy, and when the show was broadcast in Britain, it was relegated to a late-night time slot based on the subject matter.
The Wire, a saga about Baltimore’s drug trade and the police that were tasked to stop it, quite literally was the subject of academic materials. Entire essays can and have been written about the topics that Simon explored with the production that was filmed in Baltimore on the same streets that its narrative chronicled. On a basic level, Simon allowed the audience to question just who are “the good guys?” and what measure determines it. As the tales of the street unfolded on HBO when the series ran for five seasons, drug dealers sometimes had more of a moral code than elected officials. Those that were deemed hopeless or a lost cause flourished, while others squandered their opportunities.
Any form of art, regardless of the media used to create it, often evokes an emotion within the audience and makes them think deeper about its subject matter. Simon’s work through The Wire certainly did that, but the main catalyst that made it possible was the series’ anti-hero, Omar Little, a role that will probably define the legacy of Micheal K. Williams. His career wasn’t limited to just Omar’s adventures on The Wire, but it left such a legacy on a number of levels that it must be discussed to truly sum up the impact of Williams acting ability.
Omar Little, a shotgun-welding gangster, made his living on the streets of Baltimore by robbing the city’s drug dealers, those that were responsible for much of the drug epidemic that ravaged the city. In many ways, those that lined their pockets by exploiting the addiction problems of the citizens were the villains, while Omar would even the score with Robin Hood-style justice. The philosophies of the moral gangster were staples of the anti-hero and can be seen throughout film for those that landed in similar roles. The primary focus of the anti-hero is the difference between legal and moral justice. We’ve seen so often in society that sometimes liars or con artists can manipulate the system and get away with it. In real life, there’s not always moral or even legal justice, we all know OJ did it. Along with a way to even the score, the anti-hero always had a code, even if it’s not legal. This set of rules lets the audience know that the anti-hero has a moral compass, which allows them to cheer for the anti-hero under different circumstances.
Speaking of a code, that was one of the many trademark lines that Omar made famous on the HBO series, “a man got to have a code” told the audience that Omar had rules for his way of life, and the pursuit of money, the entire objective of the hustle wasn’t enough to break them. Along with moral justice, the anti-hero in film can always be portrayed to do what’s right from the viewpoint of the audience. A prime example of this being when one of the drug cartel enforces shoots an innocent man that happened to witness a transaction because he was just doing his job as a security guard. “Snitchin'” might’ve been an unwritten rule of the street, but it didn’t apply to civilians. Omar, with a lengthy rap sheet himself, agreed to testify against the enforcer in an almost comical court room scene. “I ain’t never turn my gun on nobody that ain’t in the game,” he said as he confirmed the identity of the shooter. The point being, if anyone was involved in the hustle of the streets, they knew the risks so they are fair game, but that doesn’t apply to the general public or the security guard that was just trying to make an honest living.
It’s the same reason the audience can cheer for Tony Soprano, he might be a criminal, but there’s a code of ethics, as unconventional as they might be, to conduct business. A wise guy might end up with a pair of cement shoes, but women and children were safe because they weren’t part of it. Speaking of family ties, Omar might’ve robbed meth dealers on Saturday, but in a memorable scene, took his grandma to church on Sunday morning.
Obviously, the large facial scar enhanced the presence of the character, but it was Williams’ charisma and authenticity that really made the role iconic. Besides the cool anti-hero that Omar was, the character broke new ground on many levels with the portrayal of a gay gangster. David Simon, who used his writing style to push the narrative of The Wire in a more progressive direction, flipped the script on gay characters on television. When Omar strolled down the street in Baltimore in 2002, film and television had only begun to scratch the surface of prominent gay characters. Will and Grace put a spotlight on a gay character, but up until that point, while the presentation of gay figures on screen was positive, it portrayed a gay character as passive or defenseless. Omar Little blasted that stereotype away faster than the front door to a poker game he was going to rob. Omar was cool, dangerous, could defend himself in the streets, and he was gay. His sexuality wasn’t the defining factor of his existence or the narrative on the show. Williams’ work in this regard was really superb because Omar’s homosexuality was presented as any other type of relationship, which again emphasized that a character’s orientation doesn’t determine their narrative.
The character became so iconic with its unique style that President Barack Obama cited the stickup man as his favorite television character. Unfortunately, in the years after The Wire‘s 2008 series finale, Micheal Williams revealed that he continued to struggle with drug use during the production of the HBO show. Perhaps, that’s why The Wire is so revered and examined more than a decade after it wrapped, because it was a dose of reality that many weren’t ready for at the time. Aside from being filmed on the same Baltimore streets where the story was set, the level of authenticity associated with the show went beyond just skilled acting. While Williams’ Omar had such a charismatic presence on-screen, he was actually be responsible for bringing another certified aspect of Baltimore to the set. While at a club there, Williams spotted Felecia “Snoop” Pearson, who he introduced to producers, and eventually a role was written into the show for her. As she detailed in her autobiography, Grace After Midnight, Pearson was a real-life drug dealer in Baltimore that was convicted of second-degree murder at the age of just 15 and spent six years in prison. “Snoop,” similar to Williams, had an unique charisma and her authenticity was undeniable.
Williams went on to continue to work in a variety of roles in both film and TV, including his run as Chalky White on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, the Atlantic City saga set in the 1920s with the lead role brilliantly played by the underrated Steve Buscemi. The bootlegging days of Atlantic City were far away from the drug trade of Baltimore, but the character of Chalky White showed that Williams knew how to portray a powerful persona on-screen. More recently, he earned an Emmy nomination for his work on another HBO series, Lovecraft Country, and was reportedly set to be cast in an upcoming George Foreman film.
My sincere condolences to Micheal K Williams’ friends and family at this difficult time.