The actor Michael K Williams, best known for his role as Omar Little in The Wire, has died at the age of 54.
Confirming his death to the Hollywood Reporter, Williams’s representative said that it was “with deep sorrow that the family announces the passing of Emmy-nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams. They ask for your privacy while grieving this unsurmountable loss.”
Williams, who is believed to have been found dead at his home in New York, was also known for playing Albert “Chalky” White in the series Boardwalk Empire from 2010 to 2014. He received an Emmy nomination earlier this year for the role of Montrose Freeman in the series Lovecraft Country, and had appeared in films including 12 Years a Slave and Inherent Vice.
As well as Lovecraft Country, Williams was nominated for three further Primetime Emmy nominations for his work on the HBO series The Night Of, the TV film Bessie and Ava DuVernay’s miniseries When They See Us.
Isiah Whitlock Jr, who played Senator Davis in The Wire, described Williams as “one of the nicest brothers on the planet with the biggest heart. An amazing actor and soul.” Wendell Pierce, who played Detective Bunk Moreland in the series, said: “The depth of my love for this brother can only be matched by the depth of my pain learning of his loss. An immensely talented man with the ability to give voice to the human condition portraying the lives of those whose humanity is seldom elevated until he sings their truth.”
The comedian Travon Free described Williams as a “God damn genius, a black queer icon who challenged the ideas of black masculinity at a time when it wasn’t easy and a truly great dude. A huge loss.” April Reign, the founder of the #oscarssowhite campaign, said that Williams had “a quiet intensity” and had “expanded the view of what a same-gender loving man looked like in the roles he played”.
Born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to a Bahamian mother and an American father, Williams started his career as a dancer, working with artists such as George Michael, Missy Elliot, Ginuwine, and Madonna. Among his first acting roles was a part in the 1996 film Bullet alongside Tupac Shakur.
“I was angry and I had a lot of energy,” he told the Associated Press in 2018. “It was such an outlet. I was not the best dancer, you know, by far, but I was definitely the most passionate. I always had this energy. You always felt me whether I was in sync or not with the other guys.”
However, it was as Omar Little in the Baltimore-set crime drama The Wire – which aired from 2002 to 2008 – that Williams would come to mainstream acclaim. As the openly gay stickup man, Williams embodied a character who had not been seen on television before, and who garnered the attention of then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who said that Little was “not my favourite person” but was his favourite character in the series. He was twice nominated for the NAACP’s Image awards for his role.
In 2015, Williams told the Guardian that he had struggled to adjust to life following the success of The Wire, and had used the role of Omar “as a means of escape. Now I don’t use my job as a way to define me: it’s what I do, not who I am. I have that understanding now.”
Williams also worked on reports for Vice News, including a special on incarceration in the US. He had also been been working with a New Jersey charity on a project to smooth the journey for former prison inmates seeking to re-enter society.
Members of the screen industry paid tribute to Williams on social media as news of his death broke.
David Simon, creator of The Wire, said on Twitter that he was “Too gutted right now to say all that ought to be said. Michael was a fine man and a rare talent and on our journey together he always deserved the best words. And today those words won’t come.”
Actor John Cusack said Williams was “an unbelievably talented artist” and that his portrayal of Omar Little was “among the greatest performances TV and film has ever seen”.
Actor Aisha Tyler said: “Michael K Williams was a beautiful, passionate, expansive soul. I felt so lucky to have known him, and we were all so fortunate to have enjoyed his incredible talent. He burned so very bright.”
The actor had recently completed work on films including 892 with John Boyega, and in August it was confirmed that Williams would play Charles “Doc” Broadus, the mentor to George Foreman, in an upcoming biopic of the former heavyweight boxing champion.
Williams is survived by his son, Elijah.