Even in the greatest ensemble dramas, there’s usually one character who stands out and defines a series. For HBO’s The Wire, that was Omar Little. But that’s no surprise—Michael K. Williams’ performances, throughout his career, have each been lightning in a bottle. For Omar, he brought a depth and humanity that made a good character immediately iconic, as his excellent co-star Wendell Pierce (who played Bunk Moreland) describes here.
Williams died on Monday in his home at the age of 54, and the loss is keenly felt by those moved by his incredible talent on screen.
In addition to the larger-than-life Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire (also HBO), one of Williams’ most soulful performances was in Sundance TV’s Hap and Leonard. Based on the Joe R. Lansdale book series, Williams starred alongside James Purefoy as a gay, conservative East Texan with a chip on his shoulder and a huge heart.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time on the Atlanta set of Hap and Leonard and observe a day of filming a few years ago (you can read about it here). Most press junkets like this mean that you are one of a gaggle of journalists being ushered like ducklings to and from various locations, ultimately stationed in one place where actors are brought in and whisked away as you interview them as a group. But Hap and Leonard was a small show that I had very vocally supported, and so that day it was just me. I was not only able to watch their shooting process from start to finish, but was able to interview the cast in their individual trailers as they hung out between scene changes.
For all of his on-screen bombast, Williams was a quiet and exceedingly humble man in person. He was kind and thoughtful, not providing long and rambling answers (to my long and rambling questions), but rather, he would pause and consider them probably longer than they deserved to be, and then would say something wise—always with a big smile. What was even more striking, though, was how much his co-stars Purefoy and Louis Gossett Jr. spoke about him during their interviews. They praised him and his process, and Gossett in particular spoke about his mentorship of Williams and their closeness. It was a very special day, and those testimonies to Williams’ stayed with me. (The series is currently streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already).
From The Wire to The Night Of, 12 Years a Slave, When They See Us, Lovecraft Country, and countless others… no matter what role you remember the most, if you’ve seen anything Michael K. Williams has been in then you will remember it. The fullness with which he embraced these characters and what he gave to us through them cannot be forgotten. Sir, you will be missed.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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