Melvin Williams, whose life as a West Baltimore drug kingpin in the 1960s and post-prison redemption earned him a place in HBO's "The Wire," died Thursday at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Friends said Mr. Williams, 73, told them he had cancer.
Known as "Little Melvin" — or Slim or Black, for his preference for dark clothing — he once ruled the illegal drug trade along Pennsylvania Avenue. He served many years in federal prison for drug and gun convictions, and was one of the first criminals profiled on the BET program "American Gangster."
In later years, he said he had undergone a personal redemption. He spoke out against drug use and counseled young men to steer clear of the gang culture.
"He became the symbol of crime problems in the city, whether he wanted to or not," former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said. "In his later years, he tried to improve himself and help the community."
Mr. Williams explained his epiphany to U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis during a court appearance in 2003.
"Sometime in my fifties I became aware that there was a God in charge, and not a Melvin," he said. At that point, he had served nearly four years on a handgun conviction.
David Simon, who co-created "The Wire," covered Mr. Williams as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.
"Melvin did a lot of damage — and he'd be the first to admit it," Mr. Simon said Thursday. "He was a fascinating man in terms of Baltimore and what the drug war was going to do to this country."
Federal prosecutors said Mr. Williams presided over a drug trade that grossed $1 million a day.
In a video posted on YouTube in 2012, Mr. Williams said he had sold $1 billion worth of illegal narcotics in his lifetime. He spoke against drug use and trafficking.
Mr. Williams was born in Baltimore and raised on Madison Avenue. His father drove a cab; his mother was a nurse's aide. He attended Garnet Elementary School and spent some time at Frederick Douglass High School before transferring to City College. He dropped out in the 11th grade.
At age 26, as Mr. Williams was gaining notoriety, he was asked by authorities to help quell the riots ignited by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He appeared with Maj. Gen. George Gelston, the commander of the Maryland National Guard, on the front page of The Baltimore News American.
Mr. Williams left prison in 2003 after attorney Michael E. Marr had argued successfully that he didn't meet the technical requirements for the federal career criminal laws that prosecutors had used to send him to prison for what could have been the rest of his life.
"He was one of the most unusual clients because he was so straightforward and honest with me, the courts and police," said Howard L. Cardin, another attorney who represented him. "He would say, 'You can trust me.'"
Mr. Williams told Mr. Cardin he would not return to his former ways.
"He expressed that in a couple of reasons: 'What I did was wrong. And the kids who are out there today selling drugs are just killing one another. There is no honor. No way would I go near that,'" Mr. Cardin said.
"Melvin was determined to become a mentor and a role model. He had been through it all because he had grown up on the streets," he said.
Mr. Williams suffered personal tragedy. In 1990, the body of his 27-year-old son, Donald A. Williams, was found near the 10th tee of the Forest Park Golf Course. At the time, Mr. Williams was serving a 35-year federal sentence for drug distribution.
Mr. Williams began attending services at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church more than two decades ago.
"I am proud to call Little Melvin a friend of mine," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, the church's senior pastor. "As a teen I had heard about him and one day, years later, I mentioned from the pulpit there were people selling drugs on Etting Street. After the service, Melvin went and talked to them. They stopped selling drugs."
Mr. Reid said Mr. Williams was "a man's man who had a serious religious conversion while he was behind prison bars."
Most recently, Mr. Williams operated an indoor flea market on West North Avenue near Smallwood Street.
"He had Saturday training sessions for young people in his building on North Avenue," said Dr. Philip Leaf, director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "He told them to take their assets and do something personally and do something for your community."
He also brought in lawyers to talk about the criminal justice system and procedures, Dr. Leaf said.
"He had a civic pride and was concerned about people getting hurt."
Former gang member Ted Sutton remembered Mr. Williams as a mentor.
"Melvin took me under his wing and helped me to see things different," he said. "He spoke to young men and would teach them self-respect and the law. He came with me to Chester, Pa., and Atlanta to help people get out of gangs. They would listen to him."
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm spoke with Mr. Williams often.
"I knew of his notoriety and his antics on Pennsylvania Avenue," Mr. Hamm said. "We became acquainted and we talked of his life. He was matter-of-fact. He was not a bragger. He was not proud of it. He was trying to go on a different route. I respected him as an individual. ... It was his life and what he chose to do."
He said Mr. Williams shared with him that he had been diagnosed with cancer.
Mr. Simon recalled a meal with Mr. Williams at Moe's Seafood in the Inner Harbor. They met with Edward Burns, a former homicide detective who had built a successful case against Mr. Williams — and was collaborating at the time with Mr. Simon on "The Wire."
"Melvin was polite to Ed, if not cordial," Mr. Simon said. "They shared some very funny moments."
He said they came away from the meeting and offered Mr. Williams the role of the deacon on "The Wire."
Fans of "The Wire" have long speculated that Mr. Williams was the inspiration for the drug dealer character Avon Barksdale.
Mr. Simon addressed the question in 2004: "Avon Barksdale? He is not Melvin Williams, or Warren Boardley, or Linwood Williams, or Peanut King. He is in a sense, all of those kingpins from Baltimore's criminal past — and therefore none of them."
He offered a slightly different answer on Thursday.
"There's a piece of Melvin in 'The Wire,'" Mr. Simon said. "We used a lot of different people. There's the DNA of a half-dozen people we used."
The Wylie Funeral Home, 701 N. Mount St., is making funeral arrangements.
Survivors include his wife, Mary Williams; and two daughters.
Baltimore Sun reporter Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.