Michael K. Williams: When You Come At The King

I’ve been staring at the blank page on my computer screen for several minutes. I simply don’t know where to start. If you write enough celebrity obits, you develop a formula of sorts. Usually I go one of two routes: I’ll either create a sort of travelogue through a performer’s career or I’ll focus more narrowly on one or two roles that I think are most representative of that actor’s peak.

Either option should work perfectly fine for Michael K. Williams, as the width of his too-short career is remarkable, and the depth of his performances, bottomless. Yet, I still find myself hung up on how to begin to talk about this remarkably empathetic actor.

Williams started out as a dancer. He appeared in numerous music videos and shared the stage with Madonna. That scar that split his face in two (Williams was once  victim of a “wilding”) should have been a barrier to an onscreen career, but it was not for Williams. In fact, he made it into an asset.

Nowhere is this more clear than in his portrayal of Omar—the gay, drug-dealer-robbing street criminal with “a code” on David Simon’s all-time great inner-city drama The Wire. I had seen plenty of crime series and films about drug dealers and the cops who try to catch them, but I had never seen anyone like Omar before. Unlike so many characters that preceded Omar in crime stories, Omar was gay, but he was not weak. His portrayal absolutely shattered that stereotype, and in doing so, forever upended our notion of onscreen masculinity. Williams fit into the role so naturally and so fully-formed as an actor that you could have almost believed that he was just playing a version of himself.

But he wasn’t playing himself. Michael K. is nothing like Omar when you hear his interviews. He was simply a great actor given the perfect role and was able to imbue a tremendous script with more than what was even on the page. Oh sure, Omar could menace, but there was always some sly bit of humor attached to his depiction of the hard-knock life, whether it was him whistling “the farmer in the dell” while robbing a dealer’s stash house, or just a little extra emphasis on certain vowels in his lines. Think of his perfectly delivered line after a shootout, “…you come at the king, you best not miss.” Amidst the violence and the bloodshed, here was Williams speaking his dialogue in such a way that you couldn’t help but laugh. 

Omar was unforgettable, but so specific that you wouldn’t be blamed if you might have thought (like many members of The Wire’s amazing ensemble cast) that he wouldn’t find a role nearly so great again. And while nothing could ever top Omar (a thing you could say about any actor who so perfectly melded with a great part), a couple times he came damn closer than you would have ever expected.

He was perfect as the old-school gangster Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire, wonderful as the long-term prisoner in The Night Of… who takes Riz Ahmed’s character under his wing, impossibly heartbreaking as the failed father in Ava Duverney’s landmark miniseries When They See Us, and in the chaotic Lovecraft Country, he grounded a show that was seemingly everywhere at once with remarkable gravitas.

I think of the small parts he had in projects that were both grand (12 Years A Slave), and dismissible (The Gambler) and the one thing I never forgot about those films and shows was that Michael K. Williams was in them. 

Hell, I can remember almost nothing of the ill-fated remake of The Gambler (starring a miscast Mark Wahlberg as a degenerate odds-player by night and college English professor by day), but I do remember Williams walking down a long dingy hotel hallway with a girl on his arm doing a playful little two-step as his character exits the film.

As odd as it may seem, that little moment in that otherwise forgettable film says everything you need to know about Michael K. Williams.

Nothing was wasted. Everything was memorable.

I learned that Williams passed today via text from a friend. It was one of those moments you’re glad to be sitting down, because the message felt like a one-two to both the gut and the head. The kind of thing that takes your wind and makes your brain buzz—stealing your equilibrium.

Michael K. Williams was a gift. One that I think we will spend many years getting our heads around because he was so singular, so unique. It can be a pat statement to say that “there was no one like him.”

I don’t think it’s pat here, though. Not now. Not with Michael K. Williams. He was truly one of a kind.

Death came for the king today. And what a shame it did not miss.

Michael K. Williams died today. He was 54 years old.

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