David Zurawik

Michael K. Williams builds his own TV empire

“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,” Michael Kenneth Williams says.

Michael Kenneth Williams is feeling lucky these days.

The 44-year-old performer known to fans of HBO's "The Wire" as fearless stickup man Omar Little says there is nothing he's wanted more since the Baltimore-based drama ended than to "just continuously stay working" as an actor. And as the new TV season rolls out, evidence of his eminent employability is hard to miss.

Williams returns to HBO tonight as a 1920s African-American community leader named Chalky White in the critically acclaimed drama series "Boardwalk Empire." And last Thursday, he made his debut as a biology professor at a community college in the NBC sitcom "Community."

"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," the Brooklyn, N.Y., native says.

"The character of Chalky White is iconic — he's historic, really," Williams adds. "For me to portray a prominent, strong black man who's successful in 1920 is such an homage to my ancestors and to the struggle and pain of my family members who walked before me. To get to portray this character with class and dignity and strength is a humbling experience, and I'm really grateful to be given the opportunity."

Williams portrayed Omar with strength, class and dignity, too. While the shotgun-wielding killer who inspired fearful calls of "Omar comin'" from the corner boys every time he stepped onto the streets of Baltimore might not have been everyone's idea of a role model, he did become a breakout character. Omar is still considered one of the most compelling TV villains ever — certainly no actor has done it better since Omar and the series departed prime time.

He was even a TV favorite of President Barack Obama, who offered this politically cautious confession to Politico: "He's not my favorite person, but he's a fascinating character."

But as much as the gunman's imprint on the popular imagination is a testament to the quality of Williams' work on "The Wire," such an epic character can be a burden, too. Some actors find themselves being typecast for the rest of their careers as a result of having played such a lasting character, while others have a hard time once their series goes off the air determining where their character ends and their real identity begins.

"I'm totally comfortable today with the success that Omar and 'The Wire' have brought me — living with that character, being recognized and remembered for that character," Williams says. "I have to say, in the beginning, it was difficult for me. 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."

There was also some self-analysis.

"On a personal level, having played such a dark character, I had to purge myself of that and redefine myself basically," he explains. "But today, man, I am so grateful for having been given that opportunity. If I never did anything else, to have that under my belt is a huge compliment."

And the gift of Omar keeps giving — often in surprising ways, like the invitation to play Marshall King, a biology professor, this season on "Community."

The ensemble sitcom, which features an over-the-top comedic tone and such performers as Chevy Chase and Joel McHale, might seem an unlikely home for someone steeped in the grit of "The Wire" and the real-as-death Omar. But series creator and executive producer Dan Harmon says he watched all five seasons of "The Wire" recently and came away convinced he wanted his series to have more of a sense of the groundedness that "The Wire" and Omar oozed.

"I wanted Omar," Harmon told The Hollywood Reporter when the casting of Williams was announced. "This is one of those rare things where the casting is the idea, and the character was then created."

If his contract with "Boardwalk Empire" didn't limit his participation to only three episodes, Williams would be a full-time member of the "Community" cast, according to Harmon.

"Coming to 'Community' is a real opportunity to do something different, like laugh at myself for a change," Williams says.

"But Professor King, he got his degree in prison," Williams says, offering a bit of back story. "And he's very intense, to say the least. So it's really cool that Dan and the rest of the producers gave me a chance to do what I do and to have it be funny. I mean, the role doesn't take me too far off of my mark. What I'm saying is that I don't feel like a fish out of water in this role."

And best of all, along with "Boardwalk Empire" and roles in several feature films, it allows him to work, work, work as an actor.

"My only plan after 'The Wire' was to just continuously stay working — that was my goal," he says. "The fact that I have been getting offered different roles and the chance to portray different kinds of characters is just like a cherry on the cake. My only goal is to stay focused on my craft and make sure my life is as sharp as it can be to attack any character that is given to me."

One of those film roles, in the Baltimore-based indie "Learning Uncle Vernon," brought him back to the city where he spent five seasons.

"I've been back several times since 'The Wire' ended — some for work and some just for fun," he says. "I have friends there from 'The Wire,' and I love that city."

One of those Baltimore friends is Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, whom Williams met in a local nightclub and introduced to the producers of "The Wire." That introduction opened the door for Pearson to play an equally chilling and memorable villain on the series.

In August, Pearson pleaded guilty to distribution of heroin and was sentenced to seven years in prison with all but the five months she had already served suspended. She told The Baltimore Sun she was moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

"That situation with Snoop to me was just a big misunderstanding," Williams says. "It's unfortunate that she got caught up in the wrong situation. But it was a wake-up call for her that you have to change the surroundings sometimes."

Williams says he knows what she is going through.

"She had been given a second lease on life coming out of prison, much as we all have coming from the 'hood and being thrust into this world of entertainment, being able to make good money and put out good work and do something that we love to do," he says.

"That's a second lease on life that I definitely can relate to. And I had to learn this lesson myself: When you get that second lease on life, you have to remove yourself from those old things. You cannot continue to do the same things that you were doing before. I'm not saying you can't have love for your old people, but a new life won't grow from the old soil. I know."

Williams says he's "happy" that Snoop has decided "to take a chance on herself and go out to L.A. and roll her dice."

As he sees it, "She has nothing to lose and everything to win. So my dollar's on her. I think she's going to be all right."

And that's from a man who's feeling lucky these days.


"Boardwalk Empire" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

"Community" airs at 8 p.m. Thursday on WBAL-TV (Channel 11).