After Michael K Williams’ tragic death, LGBT+ fans are remembering his star turn as gay character Omar Little in The Wire.
The acclaimed actor, who was nominated for five Emmys throughout his illustrious career, was found dead at his Brooklyn apartment by family members at 2pm on Monday (6 September). He was just 54 years old.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) told the Associated Press that it is investigating Williams’ death as a possible drug overdose – however, a medical examination has not yet been carried out.
As fans reflected on his incredible legacy, much discussion focused on his turn as Omar Little in The Wire.
The Wire debuted on HBO in 2002, when public attitudes towards homosexuality were still stuck in the dark ages. Williams landed on television screens as a gay character just four years after Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom was cancelled following her momentous coming out.
Playing an LGBT+ person on screen was still a risky endeavour – but Williams wasn’t afraid to play a radical character. In fact, he relished the opportunity.
Michael K Williams’ gay character on The Wire was called ‘repulsive’
Though Omar Little wasn’t defined by his sexuality, the fact that he had on-screen boyfriends and shared kisses with other men was groundbreaking at the time.
Speaking to After Elton about the character in 2006, Michael K Williams said: “It is what it is, and he is fine with his bottom line.
“It is not about him being gay. He has accepted his lifestyle, and the causes and effects it has had on his life.”
But playing a gay character wasn’t always easy for Williams. He told The Advocate that he received significant backlash following his passionate kiss with Dante (Ernest Waddell) in season two.
Williams recounted an interview he did with DJ Sway Calloway on the New York radio show Hot 97 after that kiss aired. Calloway told Williams that the scene “repulsed” him, adding that it was “morally outrageous”.
But Williams didn’t let his detractors get to him. Instead, he felt that it was “a job well done”.
“It is my job to get emotion and controversy, you know, possibly a little change,” he told After Elton.
“So the fact that I got him thinking and talking and judging, whatever the hell you want to call it, I did my job… I welcome all the controversy. It is part of the job.”
It wasn’t all negative either. Williams also said he had been approached by “a lot of young gay men” who had thanked him personally for his work on The Wire.
“It has had a very positive aspect on me, knowing that someone who is really in the lifestyle, telling me thank you – that meant… a lot to me,” he said.
Critics also loved Williams’ powerful performance as Omar. USA Today named his character as one of the 10 reasons they still love television, while the Baltimore City Paper called his character “arguably the show’s single greatest achievement”.
The love for Omar Little didn’t stop there – Barack Obama even named him as his favourite character on The Wire in 2008.
“That’s not an endorsement. He’s not my favourite person, but he’s a fascinating character,” Obama said.
Fans have praised Michael K Williams for his empowering queer character
Fans of The Wire rushed to social media to share their memories of watching Williams on the series in the hours after his death, with many singling his character out as one of the best LGBT+ television characters from the era.
An adult gay black man who didn’t have a shred of insecurity and was totally comfortable in his own skin and was also the coolest and most feared outlaw character in the entire show. The early 2000s weren’t prepared.
— Richard (@RichardOcelot) September 6, 2021
A gay stick-up man, who jacks drug dealers for a living has to be one of the best and most complex characters ever created. Sad news, RIP Michael K Williams. pic.twitter.com/5TAQYypfEK
— Rory Jennings (@Chelsearory) September 6, 2021
It’s interesting, and another credit to Michael K Williams, that none of the tributes and obits I’ve read mention that Omar Little was queer. It was groundbreaking: a gay character whose sexuality was the least important thing about him.
— Peter Sagal (@petersagal) September 7, 2021
This is heartbreaking. Michael K. Williams’ portrayal of Omar in The Wire was a tour de force, and his was one of the first unapologetically gay, Black characters I saw depicted on screen.
Rest in Power, King. https://t.co/36DAJuqC0B
— Mondaire Jones (@MondaireJones) September 6, 2021
Michael K. Williams always impressed me with his work, but the scene at the gay club in Lovecraft Country absolutely shattered me into pieces- in the deepest, realest way that art can do. If he had done only that one scene- what a gift. What a gift we got to see so much more.
— Natalie Morales (@nataliemorales) September 6, 2021
Important to remember what a *huge* deal Michael K. Williams’ depiction of Omar was back in 2002, while most politicians were making huge gains unapologetically attacking gay marriage and LGBTQ equality. pic.twitter.com/46yEmKbGUM
— Joshua Clark Davis (@JoshClarkDavis) September 6, 2021
Tragic news about Michael K Williams. Omar Little was the greatest character in the equal-greatest TV series of all time. A gay highwayman with a moral code. And Williams was magnificent in the role. R.I.P. pic.twitter.com/HN0RiChFKI
— Simon Price (@simon_price01) September 6, 2021
Numerous high-profile figures across the entertainment industry also paid tribute to Williams. Filmmaker James Gunn described him as being among the “most gentle souls” he had ever met.
“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,” he tweeted.
“This is heartbreaking. My thoughts are with all those who loved him.”
Wendell Pierce, who played Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire, tweeted: “The depth of my love for this brother, can only be matched by the deputy 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.”
Niecy Nash, who starred alongside Williams in When They See Us, praised him as a “beautiful soul” and “a talent beyond measure”.
“Thank you for the many times we traded energy and you made me feel like family,” Nash wrote on Instagram in the hours after his death. “You left us too soon… Praying for your loved ones.”
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