Actor Michael K. Williams, who as the rogue robber of drug dealers Omar Little on “The Wire” created one of the most popular characters in television in recent decades, died Monday.
Williams was found dead Monday afternoon in his Brooklyn penthouse apartment, New York City police said. He was 54. His death was being investigated as a possible drug overdose, the NYPD said.
Little, a “stick-up boy” based on real figures from Baltimore, was probably the most beloved character among the devoted fans of “The Wire,” the HBO show that ran from 2002 to 2008 and is re-watched constantly in streaming.
The Brooklyn-born Williams was also a ubiquitous character actor in other shows and films for more than two decades, including roles on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” and “Lovecraft Country,” and in the films “12 Years a Slave” and “Assassin’s Creed.”
As Little, he played a criminal with a strict moral code, known for taking advantage of a reputation for brutality that wasn’t always real.
A cigarette in his mouth, he would whistle “The Farmer in the Dell” to ominously announce his arrival. And he spoke many of the show’s most memorable lines, including, “a man gotta have a code” and “all in the game yo, all in the game.”
The character also broke TV ground as an openly gay man whose sexuality wasn’t central to his role. Williams appeared in all five seasons of “The Wire,” his character growing in prominence with each season.
As Omar, the Brooklyn, N.Y. native fascinated even then-president President Barack Obama, who once described him as his “favorite character”: “He’s not my favorite person, but he’s a fascinating character.”
But the mania for Omar at times could be overwhelming for Williams, he said in interviews. In a 2011 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Williams said he felt the need to “purge” himself after playing such a ruthless character.
“I have to say, in the beginning, it was difficult for me,” he said. “I’d never been exposed to celebrity or that level of acknowledgment for anything I had done as an entertainer before. So there was an adjustment period.”
Williams spoke in interviews of his struggles with substance use disorder. In 2012, he told NJ.com that during his period of drug using, people called him “Omar” on the streets instead of “Mike.” “That mixed with my identity crisis and my addiction — and it was not a good mix. I had to stop trying to be Omar and just be Mike.”
In 2011, Williams returned to HBO in the series “Boardwalk Empire,” playing a 1920s community leader named Chalky White.” “Coming from ‘The Wire’ and going to work on ‘Boardwalk Empire’ is like lightning striking in the same place twice— I’ve been so fortunate to have these roles,” he told The Sun.
He also appeared in HBO’s “The Night Of,” in which he played Rikers Island inmate Freddy Knight, and later in “Lovecraft Country,” a role for which he was nominated for an Emmy.
Williams continued to tackle new roles. One was in the Baltimore-set flick “Learning Uncle Vernon,” which brought him back to Charm City for filming. “I’ve been back several times since ‘The Wire’ ended — some for work and some just for fun,” he said at the time. “I have friends there from ‘The Wire,’ and I love that city.”
Baltimore activist and community leader Jerel Wilson said he first met Williams years ago, while the actor was researching his role of Omar Little. At Faidley’s Seafood in Lexington Market, Williams devoured crab cakes and observed the local accent.
“He loved our crab cakes, Baltimore crab cakes, that was his favorite meal in the world,” Wilson said. Even after “The Wire” ended, Williams often went out of his way to get a crab cake while passing through the area.
In person, Wilson said, Williams’ personality couldn’t have been more different from the aggressive characters he played on-screen. “He came across humble, grateful — very shy,” Wilson said. “Behind the scenes he was down to earth and low key.”
Williams began his entertainment career as a professional dancer — he went on tour with Janet Jackson during her “Rhythm Nation” tour while taking work as an extra. His notable scar helped him catch the eye of Tupac Shakur — who said he wanted Williams to play his brother in an upcoming movie called “Bullet.”
“The rest was history,” said friend, Baltimore activist Dominic Nell.
His love for Baltimore wasn’t just about friends and food — Williams, called “Mike” by his friends — was committed to uplifting Black communities throughout the city, those who knew him said. He frequently worked to raise awareness of issues ranging from lead poisoning, police reform and access to healthy food.
Williams returned to the city this year. He passed out hugs and pep talks to neighborhood kids while promoting a store called BeMoreGreen, which he wrote in an Instagram post gives out free groceries and also sells Black-made products. “This is what rebuilding our community, and doing it ourselves, looks like,” Williams wrote.
A video shared to social media shows the actor leading a group of youngsters in a chant.
“I am — somebody,” he repeated to them. “I say that every day when I wake up.”
His “Wire” colleagues expressed their condolences on social media Monday.
“The depth of my love for this brother, can only be matched by the depth of my pain learning of his loss,” wrote Wendell Pierce, who played Detective William “Bunk” Moreland in the show, in a series of posts on Twitter. Williams, he said, had “the ability to give voice to the human condition portraying the lives of those whose humanity is seldom elevated until he sings their truth.”
Isiah Whitlock Jr., the actor who portrayed politician Clay Davis, wrote that he was “Shocked and saddened” by Williams’ death, calling him “one of the nicest brothers on the planet with the biggest heart.”
David Simon, the show’s Baltimore-based creator, simply tweeted a portrait of Williams on Monday evening. He added in a follow-up post: “Too gutted right now to say all that ought to be said. Michael was a fine man and a rare talent and on our journey together he always deserved the best words. And today those words won’t come.”