erik lundegaard


Saturday September 18, 2021

Michael K. Williams (1966-2021)

They gave him Malcolm X's original surname, Little, and set him out on an eight-episode arc in the first season of a show about the tragedy of an American city, Baltimore, called “The Wire.” But as with Malcolm, there was nothing little about Omar. He got big, and they kept him on, and they ended that first season with him robbing drug dealers again with his shotgun and a smile. He was everyone's favorite character—even the president of the United States. He was Robin Hood, beloved, feared, arriving out of nowhere in trenchcoat and shotgun, whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” People scattered but they watched. The kids imitated him. We loved him. He was personable. And the man had a code. He never put no gun on no citizen. The best gangsters have codes. Most of Cagney's gangsters seemed better men than his private citizens, who stayed within the law, within the boundaries, and thus didn't need a personal code to orient themselves. They didn't have the honor the gangsters did.

To the suits, initially, he seemed irrelevant. Add Omar to the list of great movies, TV shows, characters that excecutives wanted to quash. From Jonathan Abrams' oral history, “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire”:

Early on, HBO executives asked David Simon to cut a seemingly pointless scene featuring a shadowy figure named Omar, who robbed drug dealers. His presence did not seem relevant to them in moving the story along. Simon asked them to wait.

Then they wanted nothing but Omar. If it had been a network show in the '70s, rather than an '00s HBO show, he would've gotten a spinoff (“The Omar Show”; “The Chronicles of Omar”; “Indeed”), but there was no way creator David Simon was going to go there. In the same book, Simon likens the audience to a child. “If you ask the audience what they want, they'll want dessert. They'll say they want ice cream. They'll want cake. ... 'You like Omar?' 'Yeah, I love Omar. Give me more of Omar.' No, I want to tell you a story, and the characters are going to do what they're supposed to do in the story, and that's the job of the writer.” Which is why Omar died the way he did, ingloriously, in the fifth and final season, just some kid at a market when his back was turned, and in the larger world, the whiter world, no one knew or cared. In our world, the opposite: people howled their protests but to deaf ears. Hell, maybe to pleased ears. But it was the right way to send him out.

After Michael K. Williams' death last week at age 54, people kept posting favorite scenes or mentioning favorite lines: Come at the king, best not miss, etc. I immediately thought of him sparring with Avon Barksdale's attorney, Levy, from the witness stand, leaning back, playing all the while with the odd tie the prosecution made him wear, and getting the best of him: “I got the gun, you got the briefcase. It's all in the game, though, right?” I thought of his interactions with Bunk. I saw Williams in a lot, “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Night Of,” “Lovecraft Country,” and it's a testament to his acting that nothing hit as hard as Omar. These others were different roles, different characters, and he played them as what they were. Omar's playfulness wasn't there because they weren't Omar. It would've been so easy to go back to that, to what made him a star, but Williams had a code, too. He created one of the most indelible characters in television history and moved on. Rest in peace.

Posted at 07:36 AM on Saturday September 18, 2021 in category TV