“It is with deep sorrow that the family announces the passing of Emmy nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams,” a representative for Williams said in a statement. “They ask for your privacy while grieving this unsurmountable loss.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 22, 1966, Williams began his career in entertainment after quitting his temp job at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Inspired by Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” music video, he embarked on a career as a background dancer, landing roles in music videos for George Michael and Madonna.
At the age of 25, Williams’ face was slashed in a bar fight. The scar it left attracted filmmakers looking for gangsters. One artist was Tupac Shakur, who suggested him for the role of his younger brother in the 1996 film Bullet. It was his first acting job. Three years later, Williams would land a role in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead.
In 2002, he won the role of openly gay vigilante Omar Little after one audition. As written, the character would die after seven episodes, but he became a series mainstay due to Williams’ performance, appearing in 51 of the show’s 60 episode run. Still, despite loving his “thug roles,” Wire creator David Simon said, “Mike is a beautiful man, but a gangster he is not.”
The character quickly became a fan favorite, earning praise from then-future presidents. “Omar’s a great character,” said President Barack Obama in 2008. “That’s not an endorsement. He’s this gay gangster who only robs drug dealers, and then gives back. You know, he’s sort of a Robin Hood. And he’s the toughest, baddest guy on this show, but he’s gay, you know. And it’s really interesting. It’s a fascinating character.”
After The Wire, Williams became one of the most in-demand character actors on TV. In addition to puncturing his street-tough persona on Community, he starred in a string of HBO series, including four seasons on Boardwalk Empire as Chalky White and Emmy-nominated turns on 2017’s The Night Of and 2020’s Lovecraft Country. In 2019, he earned an Emmy nomination for Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five mini-series When They See Us.
He is survived by his son Elijah Williams.