One of the first things you noticed about Michael K. Williams was that scar. It ran down the right side of his face, from his brow to his cheek, deep and impossible to cover with makeup. It was one of the most distinctive aspects of the late actor, who passed away last week, to the shock and horror of anyone who knew him or simply loved watching him perform. It was the result of a youthful fight, and he spoke about how he worried it would cost him roles. But it was that scar that helped get him the role that made him famous.
In a new op-ed in The New York Times, The Wire creator David Simon wrote about his experiences working with Williams. Simon and his writing partner, Ed Burns, were desperately searching for someone to play Omar Little, the flamboyant stick-up man who loves to rob drug dealers in Baltimore. It was Burns who remembered seeing him in an audition tape a year before he was cast.
“There’s this one guy on there with this amazing scar all the way down his face, and his presence is just extraordinary,” Burns told Simon.
Hoping to use Omar’s arc to lure a well-known actor with an established following, I checked his credits and frowned: Not much there. But when Ed would not relent, I watched the audition tape with care, and Mike was hired.
Simon also wrote about a time, a few years after The Wire ended, when he asked Williams to visit New Orleans and play Omar one last time for a charity event.
For a few hours, I watched him inhabit that character one last time. When it was over, we stood outside the club, and I watched a weight descend as he slipped back into Michael from Flatbush, the gentle, self-effacing and utterly committed professional who never gave a camera the wrong moment, but who somehow never took enough comfort from that great skill, who was always, I came to understand, looking for it to mean more.
“Was that what you wanted?” he asked. “Did that go OK?”
Williams was 54 years old.