Earlier this month, the Emmy-nominated actor Michael K. Williams unexpectedly passed away at the age of 54. His death shocked the film and TV industries, but perhaps nobody more than David Simon, the co-creator of The Wire. In a new essay, he opened up about the undeniable impact Williams had onscreen, calling him “one of the most careful and committed actors of our age.”
For its Sunday issue, The New York Times gave Simon space to pen an article reflecting on his memories and time spent getting to know Michael K. Williams. The two worked together on The Wire, where Williams starred as Omar Little, a gay stickup man who robbed drug dealers in inner city Baltimore. Every season saw Williams pushing his character to new, impressive lengths — and, in the process, earned him an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Actor and the honor of then-US Senator Barack Obama naming Omar his favorite character in television.
In his essay, Simon calls Williams a “magnificent actor” who turned his role as Omar in The Wire into an “exquisite creation” that was as “vibrant” as he was “gentle, self-effacing, and utterly committed.” In his eyes, the most “astounding gift” Williams gave his coworkers was his ability to go above and beyond in seeing the broader picture: “Mike bent his beautiful mind to a task that even the best writers and show runners often avoid. He thought about the whole story, the whole of the work. Perhaps more than any other person in that talented cast, I came to trust Mike to speak publicly to our drama and its purposes, to take personal pride in all that we were trying, however improbably, to build.”
According to Simon, one of the biggest impressions Williams ever made on him — and arguably the story that speaks loudest about Williams’ undeniable talent as an actor — was early on before they began shooting Season 2 of the HBO drama. As the co-creator tells it, Williams walked into The Wire writers’ offices, script in hand, and asked why they were shifting the story to focus on a predominantly white working-class section of Baltimore. “I’m not here about my screen time. I just want to know why we are doing this. Why is the show changing?” said Williams. “There are all these shows on television, and we made the one that was about Black characters and written for a Black audience. And now, it’s like we’re walking away from that.”
Simon explained his vision for The Wire — a drama series about how power and money are routed in an American city, as drug culture isn’t about racial pathology, but rather economics and the collapse of the working class — and Williams sat quietly for a long moment to process the new direction for the show. He asked one more question (“So what is this stuff at the port about? What are we going to say?”) and then realized what had to be done.
“He had done marvelous things with Omar — his smile and the cavernous barrel of a high-powered handgun were the closing moments of the first season — and he was maybe one more good story arc from elevating his character into a star turn,” wrote Simon. “Mike left the writers’ office that day and went to work, weaving more depth and nuance into a character that he ultimately made iconic and timeless. And from that moment forward, his questions about our drama and its purposes were those of someone sharing the whole of the journey. It became something of a ritual with us: To begin every season that followed, Michael K. Williams would walk into the writers’ office and sit on the couch. ‘So,’ he would ask, ‘what are we going to say this year?'”