Michael Kenneth Williams was a man you couldn’t take your eyes off. In both film and TV he was transfixing, conveying deep wells of emotion and a poetic gravitas. No matter the role there was an intelligence and innate sensitivity in him that shone through.

He was born in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and raised by his single mother Paula, a seamstress from the Bahamas. He became a model and dancer working with Missy Elliot, Ginuwine and Madonna before realising on the set of a 1993 George Michael music video that he wanted to act too. A few years later Tupac Shakur saw his photograph and immediately chose him to play his brother in the film Bullet (1996). When auditioning for Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead (1999) the director was so taken with him he declared: “Give him the part! Any part he wants!”

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

His rise to cultural icon came with the new golden age of television. He appeared in HBO’s pioneering mobster series The Sopranos (1998-2007) before being cast as Omar Little in The Wire (2002-08). The show, widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest ever made, received critical acclaim that continually singled out Williams. Omar Little was unlike anything that had come before – a fearsome, openly gay man with such powerful self-confidence that even strolling to the supermarket in a silk robe sent people scattering.

His signature line, “It’s all in the game, yo,” captured the simplest fatalistic truth about the tragedy he is forever entrenched in. Williams played Omar as part philosopher-poet, part superhero, clad in his long coat and carrying a sawed-off shotgun. Williams spoke of how blurring the lines between himself and Omar would make him feel powerful, saying in 2014: “I had low self-esteem. I was, like, Mike is corny. I’m gonna be this Omar dude. It was like that was my Spiderman suit.” 

It was a supporting role but it came to encapsulate the brilliance of The Wire. Barack Obama was a vocal fan of the show, declaring Omar his favourite character. Omar’s undignified death in the final season shattered the hearts of many; Williams had made you so believe in this deep and complicated man that he seemed immortal. 

His co-star Wendell Pierce stood by Williams on a red carpet in 2014 and told reporters that he was, “One of the great American actors, giving voice and giving flesh to characters that most people would have never given the same humanity to. Opening a window to a world of men we pass by or don’t know about. It was an honour for me to even share the screen with him.”

He reteamed with Scorsese and HBO for Boardwalk Empire (2010-14) to play racketeer Chalky White, a ruthless man with a rare capacity to love in a world where so many men keep their hearts closed off. He’s another character of mesmerising gravitas. He poked fun at this image with a hilarious season-long stint on Community (2011-12), playing a biology teacher who got his PhD in prison and spouts moving profundities. 

The Night Of (2016)

Alongside Riz Ahmed he starred in miniseries The Night Of (2016), as an inmate at Rikers Island prison who becomes a paternal figure to Ahmed’s wrongly convicted Naz. Then in When They See Us (2019), Ava DuVernay’s drama based on the injustice of the Central Park Five, he played Bobby McCray, who tragically convinced his son Anton to sign a false confession.

His roles often tackled political themes, and off screen Williams was committed to fighting injustice in his community, working with the American Civil Liberties Union to try to end mass incarceration. 

He made many appearances in film as well as television, including Life During Wartime (2009), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Inherent Vice (2014) and The Gambler (2014). Most recently he returned to HBO and received his fifth Emmy nomination for his role in Lovecraft Country (2020), playing Montrose Freeman, a secretive man in a Lovecraftian nightmare trying to repair his relationship with his son Atticus (played by Jonathan Majors).

He is survived by his son Elijah, having died in his New York home on 6 September 2021, aged 54. Having struggled much of his life with addiction, the news of his untimely death feels like a cruel defeat, but Williams’ life was still a triumph. He will be remembered as one of the great actors of his generation, whose work transcended and shaped the culture.