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Michael Kenneth Williams Was a Master of Blending In While Standing Out

Every TV fan knew Michael Kenneth Williams. But when it came to each new role, that never stopped him from making us forget.

Michael K Williams and Jonathan Majors in "Lovecraft Country"

Michael K Williams and Jonathan Majors in “Lovecraft Country”

Eli Joshua Ade / HBO

When my friends and I first watched “The Wire,” we’d call each other by the characters’ names. If you said something dumb, you’d be Prezbo. If you were smart enough to guess what happened next, then you got to be Lester. And whenever someone had a few too many sips of whiskey and fell asleep before the episode ended, well, they knew they’d be McNulty until the next viewing. But one name was never shared: Omar. No one was Omar Little because, even in jest, no one could be.

So commanding and ominous, yet vulnerable and charismatic, Michael Kenneth Williams would come to imbue each of these traits into an array of inimitable characters across film and television. Few TV fans will forget his work as Chalky White on “Boardwalk Empire,” Freddy Knight in “The Night Of,” Bobby McCray in “When They See Us,” or Leonard Pine in “Hap and Leonard,” especially. And while he would nod to his iconic breakout role, in jest or remembrance, Williams never let Omar define him. He continued to stretch his grip over audiences and enrich his distinct spirit all the way through his Emmy-nominated turn in “Lovecraft Country,” which many expect to be honored during the ceremony later this month. (Voting closed August 30, so the results will not be swayed by his death.)

In a way, it’s fitting that what may be his last Emmy nomination comes in a Supporting category. (Williams completed much of his Vice TV unscripted series, “Black Market,” as well as other TV projects, before his untimely passing September 6.) While he played the lead a number of times (the aforementioned “Hap and Leonard” retains a deserved cult fandom), Williams’ was the consummate character actor — his arrival always triggered smiles from those watching, while his performance always served the story being told.

Take his brief, thankless role in Ben Affleck’s 2007 film “Gone Baby Gone.” As Devin Amronklin, an experienced officer trusted by Casey Affleck’s private investigator, Patrick, Williams is mainly there to drop exposition. He says hello, sits down for lunch, tells the P.I. a critical piece of information, and ducks off camera, never to be seen again. As an actor, it might have been two days’ work, and that’s only if the initial greeting had to be lumped in with another day’s setup. It’s a nothing part, but a more selfish performer (or simply a showier one) could have easily hit those lines harder, dialing up the drama around what Devin knows, in order to amplify the lines’ importance — as well as their own.

Williams doesn’t go there because he understands what the role calls for; he knows who he’s playing (a good cop who’s been around the block) and why he’s there (to help out an old friend — plus a free steak). The actor doesn’t inflate the character into anything he’s not; Devin isn’t even given a last name in the credits; we only know it’s Amronklin because “Gone Baby Gone” is based on a novel. Had Williams come striding in like Omar — or like the man everyone knows as Omar — it would’ve blown up a minor moment that only becomes major later on, after Devin is out of the picture.

That Williams was able to inhabit average, everyday people like Devin, again and again, despite his pronounced early work as Omar (and Chalky White, to be fair) is a testament to his craft and talent. He understood his characters, his assignment, and his presence — each one, uniquely. Anyone with that scar across their face is going to be memorable, but it takes work to be both indelible and invisible at once.

Williams was many things. An advocate for criminal justice reform. A dancer. An underrated comic actor. A groundbreaking voice for Black masculinity. A son, brother, and uncle. That he was so many things in life helps explain how he became so many people onscreen, and it hurts all the more knowing how much more he could’ve brought to this world with a few more decades in it.

No one will ever be Omar, and no one can ever replace Williams. His deference and dexterity ensured that, as much as his towering talent and open heart.

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