Omar didn’t scare easily, and neither did Michael K. Williams.
Starting with his breakout performance in “The Wire,” the actor, who was found dead on Monday at age 54, tackled characters that allowed him to explore provocative intersections of race, crime, sexuality and masculinity. But he also wasn’t afraid to poke fun at his own tough-guy image.
Some of his best work is available to stream right now.
Former President Barack Obama often said that his favorite character in “The Wire” was the drug-trade vigilante Omar Little, and he wasn’t alone. Williams made Omar one of the celebrated series’s most fascinating characters — an unaffiliated free agent who stole from the drug dealers in his community and followed a strict code. Omar had swagger as he patrolled Baltimore’s back alleys with his sawed-off shotgun, but he was no two-dimensional gangster cowboy. He could also be witty, polite and clever, and he was openly gay within a homophobic world of cops and robbers. In his performance, Williams walked a fine line between representing what society condemned as well as much of what it aspired to become. The cry of “Omar’s coming!” is both a warning and a welcome. Stream it on HBO Max.
“Boardwalk Empire” was lousy with historical figures — Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano among them. One of the most intriguing was William’s bootlegger Albert “Chalky” White, the conflicted leader of Atlantic City’s Black community. White was a complex character, and the role allowed Williams to demonstrate an even wider range, especially as the show increasingly focused on Chalky and provided him with a worthy foil in the form of the slick Dr. Valentin Narcisse (played by Jeffrey Wright). Williams said he assembled Chalky out of characteristics borrowed from several relatives — his father’s swagger, his godfather’s snarl, and the softness, sarcasm and dangerous temper of various uncles. Whether Chalky was quietly threatening a local Ku Klux Klan leader or warning his daughter to marry a man less violent than himself, Williams radiated a rich emotional life beyond the usual limits of the mobster genre. Stream it on HBO Max.
(Season 3, 2011-2012)
Williams happily satirized his own image, and a guest stint on NBC’s “Community” wasn’t the only time he made light of his signature role (see the Funny or Die video “The Wire: The Musical”). Williams made several Omar references in his guest episodes in Season 3 — “Biology 101,” “Competitive Ecology” and “Basic Lupine Urology” — and he brought a dry humor to his part as a biology professor at Greendale Community College, Dr. Marshall Kane, a role written for him by Dan Harmon. An ex-convict, Kane got his doctorate by studying in the prison library, and he was somewhat perplexed by the ways life had changed while he was inside. (Don’t get him started about Legos.) Stream it on Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.
‘The Spoils Before Dying’
Williams displayed more expert comic timing in IFC’s sequel to “The Spoils of Babylon.” Both “Spoils” mini-series were supposedly written and directed by the fictional Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), who introduced each installment. But where “Babylon” was a parody of 1970s melodramatic mini-series, “Dying” was a satire of a genre that never really existed: 1950s jazz noir. Williams played Rock Banyon, a tormented jazz musician forced to turn detective when he becomes a murder suspect. Williams anchored the muddled mystery with intense gazes, a deadpan growl and occasional slapstick flourishes. He also made room for more exaggerated performances from Kate McKinnon, Michael Sheen, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig (whose singing of “Booze and Pills” was a highlight.) As it progressed, “Spoils” became less about potboiler pulp and more about artistic integrity, because Williams’s character — wouldn’t you know? — had a code. Stream it on AMC+ on Amazon Prime Video.
‘Hap and Leonard’
James Purefoy played the aimless draft dodger (and ex-convict) Hap Collins, and Williams played the grumpy, gay Vietnam vet Leonard Pine in this languid Sundance Channel series. Based on the books by Joe R. Lansdale, it’s a noirish buddy dramedy set in Texas in the late 1980s. On the surface, Leonard — a Republican who likes country music — would seem to be a stretch for Williams. But he has said that his friends considered the role to be closest to his actual personality. Plus, the backwoods drawl this Brooklyn native created for the character is surprisingly convincing. Stream it on Netflix.
‘The Night Of’
The route Williams took to get to the Yonkers set of this series was the same one he traveled to visit his then-incarcerated nephew, Dominic Dupont, at a maximum-security prison a little farther north, which inspired his portrayal. The actor’s character, charismatic Rikers Island inmate Freddy Knight, the prisoner in charge of the prison, has a nephew surrogate of sorts in Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), an innocent man awaiting trial. Freddy provides Naz with jailhouse protection, at a price. Williams’s intimate performance in this series earned him a second Emmy nomination (after a nod for “Bessie” the previous year). Stream it on HBO Max.
‘Black Market With Michael K. Williams’
After years of playing criminals, Williams took a real-life look at how crime pays in underground economies. As the host and executive producer of this unscripted documentary series, Williams found connections between the disparate worlds of New York gamblers, New Jersey carjackers, Southern gunrunners, London shoplifters, Mexican drug dealers and South African poachers. (His own experience with crime and addiction allowed him a more sympathetic take; he wasn’t trying to be a journalist.) Five years after the show’s debut, a Season 2 was finally in production — and much of it already completed — when Williams died. Stream it on DirecTV, Pluto and Vice TV.
‘When We Rise’
Before playing father and son on “Lovecraft Country,” Williams and Jonathan Majors shared the role of the real-life gay activist Ken Jones in this ABC limited series. (Williams was the older Jones, Majors played him as a younger man.) Williams lost 35 pounds to portray Jones, a Vietnam vet who had to fight to get proper health care after contracting H.I.V. — and who also had to battle homophobia, racism and drug addiction. Williams considered this heartbreaking portrayal to be a tribute to two of his nephews, Michael Frederick Williams and Eric Williams, both of whom died of complications from AIDS. Stream it on Disney+.
After years of playing variations on a theme of Black masculinity, Williams gave one of his most haunted and nuanced performances in this pulpy, allegorical horror series. His character, the closeted patriarch Montrose Freeman, lived the life society laid out for him — to be a father, with any luck to have a son — only to realize that he had never come to terms with his sexuality. Montrose’s coming out, in a burst of childlike energy, allowed him to experience, perhaps for the first time, comfort, acceptance and love. That Williams portrays all of this with grace within a genre that isn’t traditionally a vehicle for such stories was an impressive achievement. He earned an Emmy nomination for his performance, and he has said in interviews that the part changed him for the better. Stream it on HBO Max.