Though he received his start in entertainment as a dancer and music video performer, actor Michael K. Williams established himself as a bona fide talent with his breakthrough performance as Omar Little, the openly-gay stick-up artist who roams the streets of Baltimore robbing drug dealers and selling the pilfered wares to other pushers on the critically acclaimed series, "The Wire" (HBO, 2001-08). Though originally slated to be on the show for seven episodes - the writers said they wanted to kill off Omar in season one - Williams instilled his character with a magnetic charm and sense of humor that elevated him beyond anything the creators envisioned. Prior to his star turn on "The Wire," Williams was seen in supporting parts on television and in film, mostly as street thugs and drug dealers; roles he got, thanks in part, to a long facial scar received in a bar fight. But nothing compared to his stint on "The Wire."
Born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY, Williams was the youngest of 10 children and the only person in his family to have a career in entertainment. Though supportive, Williams' family was at first skeptical of his decision to go into showbiz - they expected him to be more practical, to learn a trade or go into the U.S. Army. He always had talent as a dancer, but never pursued it as a career until his early 20s. At the time, he had been working at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and attending school for business management, when he saw Janet Jackson's video for "Rhythm Nation" - a video that inspired him to take his dancing seriously. In the early 1990s, he began taking classes in New York and promoting himself in the underground dance scene, where he got noticed in clubs like Sound Factory and Traxx, landing his first gig for $50 dancing background for a local artist. Williams went on to tour as a dancer and choreographer with major recording artists like Missy Elliott, Ginuwine and Jay-Z.
At age 25, Williams got into a drunken altercation at a bar and was cut with a razor blade from the middle of his forehead down the bridge of his nose and onto his right cheek, giving him a thuggish look and changing the direction of his career. Up to that point, he had been dancing background in music videos, but producers liked the scar and decided to cast him as a gangsta or dealer instead. His career took another fortuitous turn when he was cast for Madonna's video "Secret," which kept him from going on her tour to Europe with Crystal Waters as her choreographer. He jumped off the tour, did the video and got called up by director Julien Temple for a small part in "Bullet" (1995), a straight-to-video crime melodrama about a Jewish ex-con (Mickey Rourke) who rips off a powerful drug dealer (Tupac Shakur) after being released from prison. Though Williams went on to do a few more tours as a choreographer, he began focusing more on acting. He did his last tour on Maya's first in 1998.
Williams began making appearances on television and in features with more frequency. An episode of "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-10) in 1997 was followed by a bit part as a drug dealer in Martin Scorsese's misguided black comedy, "Bringing Out the Dead" (1999). He had a more substantial part in the independently made "Broke Even" (2000), playing the impatient bookie of a down-and-out gambler (Mick Cunningham) who, along with his two hapless pals (Kevin Corrigan and Michael Lowry), stumble upon a get-rich scheme that brings nothing but trouble. Williams returned to "Law & Order" in 2001, playing the drug dealer of a basketball star accused of murder. He continued to land small roles, including those on "The Sopranos" (HBO, 1999-2007) and "Third Watch" (NBC, 1999-2005). But his landing the role of Omar on "The Wire" - which he got after only one audition - propelled the young actor into a realm of critical adoration he had never expected.
Though his character was openly gay, Williams never expressed any reservations about playing the part. In fact, he relished the challenge of doing something that would help make him stand out from the rest of the cast. He did, however, experience some hostility towards his portrayal when he was being interviewed by DJ and MTV personality Sway on New York's Hot 97. Sway confronted Williams about a love scene he had with costar Ernest Waddell - the prolonged kiss "repulsed" the DJ, who called it "morally outrageous." Williams felt blindsided by the accusations, which were complicated by several callers echoing the host's homophobic remarks. But Williams handled the situation with grace and ease, and later learned that Sway was duly reprimanded for his remarks. Aside from Sway, Williams received kudos from all corners for his electrifying characterization, even to the point of generating some Emmy buzz.
He continued appearing in a series of guest spots while enjoying the longevity of his time on "The Wire." After an episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999-2010), he had a small role in the award-winning made-for-television movie, "Lakawanna Blues" (HBO, 2005). A role as an angry, gun-waving methamphetamine addict on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS, 2001-15) was followed by a three episode arc as Vaughn's informant on "Alias" (ABC, 2001-06) and an episode of "Boston Legal" (ABC, 2004-08). He returned to features with "I Think I Love My Wife" (2007), playing the frightening ex-husband of a stunningly sexy woman (Kerry Washington) who reenters the life of an old friend (Chris Rock), a businessman bored with marriage after his wife (Gina Torres) has gone cold in the bedroom. The same year, he appeared in the gritty crime drama "Gone Baby Gone," and his work on "The Wire" got him nominated for an NAACP Image Award. In 2008, the sprawling show ended, marking the next phase of his career.
Williams was remarkably busy during the following year, turning up in a wide variety of projects including the short-lived drama series "The Philanthropist" (NBC, 2009), the bleak post-apocalyptic film "The Road" and the controversial indie dramedy "Life During Wartime." It wasn't long before he found another regular role, appearing as gangster Albert "Chalky" White on the period crime drama "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO, 2010-14) with other character-actor luminaries such as Steve Buscemi and Michael Shannon. Outside of "Boardwalk Empire," Williams continued to take on featured parts in a variety of productions, joining the cast of the eccentric sitcom "Community" (NBC, 2009-14; Yahoo, 2015) for a brief stint as a professor and playing a supporting role in the acclaimed historical drama "12 Years a Slave" (2013), based on the published account of a true story and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Was handpicked by Tupac Shakur to play High Top in "Bullet"
Played the Baltimore crime figure, Omar Little, on HBO's highly-acclaimed drama "The Wire"
Played Dax Vahagn on "The Philanthropist"
Played the 1920s community leader, Chalky White, on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"
Appeared as Professor Marshall Kane on "Community"
Nabbed a supporting role in the Oscar-winning historical drama "12 Years a Slave"
Appeared as Jack Bee in "Bessie"
Landed a supporting role in the crime-thriller "Triple 9"
Had small role as a federal agent in Paul Feig's "Ghostbusters" reboot
Played the lead role of Leonard Pine on the crime-fighting series "Hap and Leonard"
Appeared as Freddy Knight on "The Night Of"