Michael K. Williams, one of the most mesmerizing actors of this generation or any other, was found dead in his New York City home on Monday. An all-time great ensemble team player who nevertheless stood out in every role, he’ll undoubtedly be remembered for his scene-stealing turns on shows like Boardwalk Empire, The Night Of, 12 Years a Slave and, of course, The Wire, where his iconic portrayal of Omar Little was one for the ages. He is currently nominated for an Emmy for his role in Lovecraft Country.
Williams was born in Brooklyn, the son of a South Carolina father and a Bahamian mother. He got his start in entertainment as a backup dancer for the likes of Missy Elliot and Ginuwine, but got his break into acting when Tupac Shakur identified his headshot as the only actor he could find that looked mean enough to play his brother in a movie. Williams struggled on the acting circuit for a few years before getting cast by David Simon in The Wire, the role that would make him a star.
But though Williams’ career would soar, he wanted to be remembered for his service and activism. In a 2015 conversation with RELEVANT, Williams said that he hoped his legacy would be his real life. “I would hope people remember be for the work that I do off camera,” he said. “I do wanna go back to my underserved community and ease the pain a little bit that I grew up in, that I grew up seeing, you know? I hope to one day use the platform that’s been given to me to shed light on certain walks of life. To show people in pain and to help and to be a voice.”
Writer and activist Sage Young wrote that he was as good as his word in that regard. “I used to be on staff at one of the many organizations Michael K Williams supported, and he was the one celebrity you could always count to show up,” she wrote. “He shared his time, talent, and spirit with those kids, and the impact of that cannot be overstated.”