Michael K Williams, who has died aged 54 of a suspected drugs overdose, went from dancing in Madonna, George Michael and Taylor Dane music videos of the 1990s to acting in one of television’s biggest hits.
He lit up the screen in the American crime drama The Wire (2002-2008) as Omar Little, an openly gay gangster with a moral compass who steals drugs and cash from the Barksdale and Stanfield drug-dealing organisations to give money to the poor.
Williams cut an awesome figure as the sawn-off-shotgun-toting Robin Hood with a trench coat and a facial scar running down his forehead, nose and across his right cheek before ending near his mouth – the result of a real-life fight outside a bar.
The actor brought further depth to the enigmatic antihero in announcing his arrival by whistling the English folk tune “A-Hunting We Will Go”, ensuring his sexuality never defined him, taking his grandmother to church and going to the corner shop wearing his silk pyjamas.
US president Barack Obama revealed in 2008 that he found Omar “a fascinating character... a great guy... the toughest, baddest guy on the show”, adding: “That’s not an endorsement. He’s not my favourite person.”
The role brought worldwide stardom to Williams, who found recognition after a childhood that began in the tough streets of Brooklyn, New York.
“I had very low self-esteem growing up,” he reflected, “a high need to be accepted, a corny kid from the projects. So all of a sudden… I’m getting respect from people who probably would have took my lunch money as a kid.”
Michael Kenneth Williams was born in 1966 to Paula, an immigrant from the Bahamas, and Booker Williams, an African American from South Carolina.
When he was 12, his father left to return to the south and his mother, a seamstress, ran a day centre on the notorious Vanderveer Estates “project”, a Brooklyn housing complex now officially known as Flatbush Gardens.
He was surrounded by violence and murder and, on being cast in The Wire, returned to the area – which he had left years earlier as a drug user – to do his research in preparation for the role.
Williams’s education at George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School was followed by working in a Pfizer pharmaceuticals factory. He left at the age of 22 after seeing a Janet Jackson music video.
“It was ‘Rhythm Nation ’,” he said. “Then, my lightbulb went off. I was like, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna go become a back-up dancer for Janet Jackson!”
His belief in having the skills needed, he added, came from his knack for “starting the party” with his dance moves in clubs.
He landed his first professional job on tour with Kym Sims, who had dance hits in Britain and Scandinavia, then appeared with other artists both on stage and in promotional videos.
With Madonna, he was seen walking down a street, shirtless, in the video for “Secret”, a 1994 Top 10 hit single around the globe.
Williams even choreographed the dancing for Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love” (1994), but it was while filming for George Michael’s cover of the Adamski song “Killer” the previous year that director Marcus Nispel shouted at him to “emote, emote” and he came away with the realisation that he had the potential to act.
The scar resulting from his face being slashed with a razor on his 25th birthday helped Williams to move on from just dancing to taking roles in videos as directors also saw his potential.
After seeing a Polaroid picture of Williams, Tupac Shakur gave him his big break. The actor-rapper had him cast in the 1996 feature film Bullet as his brother, assisting his drug kingpin in settling old scores with his former cellmate, played by Mickey Rourke.
Williams then played a drug dealer in Bringing Out the Dead (1999), director Martin Scorsese’s screen version of Joe Connelly’s novel about a burnt-out New York paramedic (Nicolas Cage) cruising the streets at night.
A one-off role in The Sopranos on TV in 2001 saw him playing a more sympathetic character, a flat tenant giving refuge to a mafia figure.
Then, The Wire came along just as Williams was in debt and suffering depression. Despite the career boost and the fame that came with his role, Williams sank into drug-taking again.
He bounced back to put himself on the right side of the law as a police officer in Gone Baby Gone (2007) before returning to TV for his second standout role, as Albert “Chalky” White, racketeer and gangster leader of Atlantic City’s black community in the 1920s, in Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), produced by Martin Scorsese.
Williams took time out from the series, a winner of 20 Emmy awards, to appear in the film 12 Years a Slave (2013), in which his character is one of those who joins Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in making plans to escape from a slave ship – but he dies of smallpox.
Then came big-screen roles as a member of a Black Panther-style group in Inherent Vice (2014) and a loan shark alongside Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler (2015).
Returning to television, Williams played Freddy Knight, a convict mentoring a young fellow inmate, in The Night Of (2016) and Montrose Freeman, a gay alcoholic who beat his son Atticus after experiencing similar abuse from his own father, in Lovecraft Country (2020).
Shortly before his death, he was cast in an as yet unfilmed – and untitled – George Foreman biopic as the boxer’s trainer, Doc Broadus.
Williams is survived by his mother.
Michael K Williams, actor, born 22 November 1966, died 6 September 2021