Yesterday actor Michael K. Williams was found dead in his apartment in New York City. He was found surrounded by drug paraphernalia and initial reports indicate his cause of death was a drug overdose. Williams had a history of substance abuse and had spoken openly about his struggles with addiction.
Michael K. Williams appeared in many television shows and movies, including but not limited to Boardwalk Empire, Lovecraft Country, Community (one of my personal favorite appearances of his, by the way), 12 Years a Slave, R. Kelly’s music video/drama series Trapped in the Closet, and Gone Baby Gone. Of course, his best known role was as Omar Little, the stick up man with a strict moral code from The Wire, which happens to be the best television show ever made.
In honor of Williams’s life, let’s take a look at his most famous role.
Omar was a great character and likely one of the two or three best characters on The Wire. He carried a shotgun, smoked Newports, and was openly gay in the very homophobic projects of Baltimore. Unlike many other characters from the projects, Omar was not a drug dealer, not affiliated with any drug gangs, and not immediately recognizable as a good guy or a bad guy. In fact, that’s the draw of a show like The Wire. Sometimes good people do bad things, bad people do good things, and people do things they simply need to do and are therefore neither good nor bad but just a victim of their own circumstances. Omar likely falls into this last category, but really could probably fall in all three. You see, Omar is so enigmatic because he makes his money by robbing drug dealers. He doesn’t touch “civilians” or “taxpayers” as the non-criminal population of the drug-riddled projects are called by Baltimore police. He only robs drug dealers because he knows the drug dealers are at least partially responsible for the bleak conditions in the poorer Baltimore neighborhoods.
His very name incited fear. He would calmly whistle “The Farmer in the Dell” as he rounded corners on his way to stash houses. His overcoat, certainly too hot in muggy Baltimore, concealed the shotgun he used to rob the drug dealers. And his small but devoted crew would do whatever they needed to do to ensure the stash houses could fall without a shot being fired. Sometimes this involved creating a diversion, other times it just means surrounding the stash houses and manning points of ingress and egress. For such a violent character on a violent show, there really weren’t that many gun battles involving Omar. One shootout at a stash house, one quick exchange with Brother Mouzan, one confrontation with Stringer Bell, and that’s really about it.
When children (and adults) would hear “Farmer in the Dell,” a chorus of “Omar comin’!” would ring out, letting others know that the baddest man in the baddest neighborhood was there to conduct his business.
I mean, just watch that video. It’s only 48 seconds long. And he only says four words, five if you count the slightly guttural “yeah.” But it’s immediately clear that this dude is confident and means business. But he also had a code. He famously even said “a man got to have a code” when talking about how he didn’t commit crimes against people who weren’t in the Game—that is, drug dealing and it’s associated criminal activities. This was also hilariously spoofed when he was on Community, playing a professor who had recently gotten out of prison.
Omar also cared deeply for the members of his crew. In fact, one of the things that leads to Omar’s five-season vigilante streak is how a local drug lord has Omar’s crewmate and boyfriend tortured to death. When a different crew member is killed a couple of seasons later, Omar takes the death especially hard and even considers getting out of the Game for good. Another time Omar is fired upon on a Sunday, which violated a longstanding tradition to not engage in gang warfare on Sundays so people could go to church. That particular Sunday Omar was going to church with his grandmother, something he does to comfort her even though he doesn’t seem to have any actual interest in religion.
The close call with his grandmother ensures Omar dives back in to the stick-up business, and he redoubles his efforts to make the drug dealers pay for the havoc they wreak on the neighborhood. Omar knows that the drug kingpins, namely Avon Barksdale and Marlo Standfield, are menaces to society who are making life in the projects worse and even helps the police with their investigations on occasion. In one of the more famous Omar moments, he points out how even the criminal defense attorneys representing the drug dealers are in the Game. “I got the shotgun,” he says, “you got the briefcase.”
Of course, Omar was no saint. He definitely robbed drug dealers, but he also sold the stolen drugs back to the drug dealers at a markup, increasing his profit while not removing the drugs from the streets. He lied to police but expected their help on at least one occasion. He used extreme violence and criminal activity, and notwithstanding his motives he still put people, some innocent, at risk of serious bodily injury or death. But he was consistent. He adhered to his code, flawed though it may have been at times. I can respect when someone treats everyone equally under a certain set of principals. I might not agree with the principals, but there’s something to be said for not discriminating, and Omar didn’t discriminate.
Omar Little didn’t quite make it the whole series. I won’t give you the circumstances, but I will say his death was a brilliant example of how the Game changes for no one and glory in death is something very few people experience. Omar’s development is mimicked by the storyline surrounding Michael Lee, another example that the Game doesn’t change. The message is that for every Avon Barksdale, there will always be an Omar Little, and for better or worse that’s what life in the drug-dealing projects of Baltimore is like.
One of the brilliant things about Michael K. Williams was that he was unafraid to play on his role as Omar. This was on display in Community, where over three episodes he played professor Marshall Kane, a prisoner-turned-biology professor who butts heads with Jeff Winger. After an intense episode (at least by Community standards) Professor Kane is talking about one thing that has really bothered him since he got out of prison: Legos.
Look, I know this is just one moment of one stupid show, and I know that no one is going to nominate Michael K. Williams for a Primetime Emmy based on that, but that is some brilliant acting. Just superb. Well-written and perfectly executed.
Of course, I didn’t know Michael K. Williams as a person. In looking through his filmography on IMDB, I bet I saw less than 50% of the things he was in, so I’m not sure I even really knew him as an actor all that well. Obviously he was battling some demons in the form of substance addiction, but then again we all have our battles. But he was clearly respected and loved by other actors. Idris Elba, Spike Lee, Wendell Pierce, Mariah Carey, Ken Jeong, and Edward Norton all turned to social media to share their sadness.
He was also philanthropic. He came from a rough background and used his influence to found Making Kids Win, a 501(c)(3) charity that aims “to provide the community’s underserved young men and women with education and opportunities that impedes and impacts their risk in gun violence gun actives.” They accomplish this primarily by building community centers in poorer areas of urban neighborhoods, which provide a safe space for children to gather and play. In this way the real Michael K. Williams was a bit more like Cutty from The Wire rather than Omar.
The point is this: the world lost a talented actor over the weekend. But more importantly, the world lost a man who had his own demons and who, through his acting, helped bring some of the issues facing poor urban areas (drug use, lack of police funding, rampant homophobia, etc.) to the attention of those of us fortunate enough to live outside those areas. If you haven’t watched The Wire, why are you still reading this? Just go watch it. It’s on HBO Max now, and I’m sure there’s some sort of free trial or something. It’s only five seasons, so you could knock it out in a week if you were really determined. Watch it and then see for yourself how Omar Little is one of the best characters on the show and one of the best television characters in my lifetime.
Rest in peace, Michael K. Williams. You will be missed by many, and I hope your family knows the limitless joy you brought to so many people through your excellent work. I hope in death you serve as an example that no man is above struggle, just as in life you served as an example for vigilance in winning that struggle.