The Wire actor, Michael K Williams, dies aged 54

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Actor Michael K Williams, best known for his role in The Wire, has died. He was 54.

His death is being investigated as a possible drug overdose.

"It is 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," his long-time representative Marianna Shafran of Shafran PR told The Hollywood Reporter.

Williams, who was 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 Gone Baby Gone.

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.

Filmmaker James Gunn paid tribute to Williams, describing him as among the "most gentle souls I've ever met".

He tweeted: "Michael K Williams, in addition to being one of the most talented actors around, was also one of the kindest, sweetest, most gentle souls I've ever met. This is heartbreaking. My thoughts are with all those who loved him."

Last week, it was announced Williams had joined the cast of Sony's untitled biopic of famed world heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman.

He was set to play Doc Broadus, who was Foreman's trainer and mentor.

The comedian Travon Free described Williams as a “Goddamn 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”.

David Simon, creator of The Wire, posted a picture of the actor to Twitter and wrote: "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."

In its statement, HBO described Williams' death as an "immeasurable loss".

Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, 64, who like Williams grew up in Brooklyn, shared a picture of himself and Williams.

He wrote on Instagram: "Our Brother Passed Away Today In His Home, Da People's Republic Of Brooklyn. I'm Shook. Drinking A Bottle Of Italian Red Wine-Brunello Di Montalcino By Myself. Our Greats Are Leaving Us Left And Right. GOD BLESS."

About Michael K Williams

Born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to a Bahamian mother and an American father. After getting into trouble as a youth, he became a back-up dancer and actor and joined the National Black Theatre.

Williams worked 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.

He got his trademark facial scar during a drunken altercation with a group of people on his 25th birthday.

When Williams auditioned for three different roles in Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), the director was so impressed by his versatility that he cried: “Give him the part! Any part he wants! You’re a great actor.”

His first big break came in David Simon’s The Wire, which debuted in 2002.

The show was rooted in a place, the city of Baltimore, and explored, among other things, urban crime, police incompetence and political corruption.

Work followed on television series including The Sopranos and Law and Order. But when The Wire came along, Williams was in debt, suffering from depression and on the verge of quitting acting.

“Omar was life-changing for me,” he said in 2014. “I went so deep into his psyche that the lines of reality as to who was Michael and who was Omar got blurred. I had low self-esteem. I was, like, Mike is corny. I’m gonna be this Omar dude. It was like that was my Spider-Man suit.”

Simon based the character of Omar Little on a stick-up artist he knew, in other words, someone who robs other criminals for a living. Omar never targeted innocent bystanders, he only went for drug dealers, but this noble code did not detract from his fearsome reputation. Throughout the show, he had the aura of an urban legend: little children shouted “Omar coming!” or “Omar did it!” as if he was the Grim Reaper or the Bogeyman haunting the streets of Baltimore. 

He had already been using cocaine while the show was running but it was once it ended that his addiction intensified. “I don’t know how I didn’t end up in a body bag,” he reflected in 2012.

The actor had recently completed work on films including 892 with John Boyega.

He is survived by his son, Elijah.