Michael K. Williams, who rose to fame playing iconic stickup man Omar Little in HBO’s The Wire, as well as starring in TV shows Boardwalk Empire and Lovecraft Country, has died, according to the Hollywood Reporter. He was 54.
“It is with deep sorrow that the family announces the passing of Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams. They ask for your privacy while grieving this unsurmountable loss,” his longtime rep Marianna Shafran of Shafran PR told THR.
The cause of death was not confirmed by the rep, but the Associated Press reports that the NYPD is investigating his death as a possible drug overdose. He was found in his Brooklyn penthouse on Monday afternoon, according to AP.
“We are devastated to learn of the passing of Michael Kenneth Williams, a member of the HBO family for more than 20 years, HBO said in a statement, according to Variety. “While the world is aware of his immense talents as an artist, we knew Michael as a dear friend who was beloved by all who had the privilege to work with him. We send our deepest condolences to his family for this immeasurable loss.”
The actor, who was born in Brooklyn, began his career as a dancer, going on tour and starring in music videos with notable performers like Madonna and George Michael. It was appearing in these music videos that led to his first big break—courtesy of rapper Tupac Shakur.
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Williams told the story Entertainment Weekly:
“It was a time in New York when music videos were really a big thing, at least in New York City. The right music video would make you a star,” he explains. “You would just go around to all these different production offices…and audition. And the way you would audition was, if it wasn’t a dance video, they’d just stand you up against the wall, polaroid you—‘Next!’—and if they liked your look, you’d get the gig.”
As it turns out, the right person saw Williams’s polaroid: Shakur. “He was like, ‘Yo, go find this dude, he looks thugged out enough to play my little brother.’”
He would go on to star in Bullet with Tupac. This led to others roles, including a drug dealer in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead before he would make his career-defining turn as Omar Little in David Simon’s The Wire. The character was also groundbreaking for being openly gay, and Williams brought complexity and nuance to the role; Little would become one of the most beloved and perhaps the most quoted character in the show.
He also gave powerful performances in several more HBO series, Boardwalk Empire (as mobster Chalky White) and Night Of , as well as Netflix’s When They See Us. He was most recently seen in Lovecraft Country, for which he received his fifth Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
Besides his incredible acting chops, there was one other feature that made Williams so compelling to watch: his facial scar. He got the scar on his 25th birthday while trying to help a friend during a fight.
Williams recalled the story to NPR:
“There was a popping party going on in Queens,” Williams says. “I went outside to get some air, and I saw that two of my other friends were being surrounded by some dudes I didn’t know.”
Thinking his friends were about to get jumped, Williams told them it was time to go home.
That’s when someone else approached Williams from behind.
“The dude wiped his hand across his mouth and ... smacked me,” he says. “What he did was he spit a razor. He was positioning the razor in his mouth to get it between his middle finger and ring finger. And then he swiped me down my face.”
That cut would leave a permanent scar.
Fans of the actor took to Twitter to express their shock and grief:
Rest in power, Mr. Williams. You will be missed.