He is on the list of actors we are lucky to have had at all. Wikipedia sums it up as “getting in some trouble as a youth.” Williams himself said, “I nearly lost my life that night.” His distinctive facial scar was a result of a drunken fight on his twenty-fifth birthday. He was cut with a razor. Where they agree is that Williams started acting after that. Within five years, he would be in his first movie; eleven years later, he played the iconic character of Omar Little on The Wire. Alas, how involved he got in playing that character seems to have led him down the path to his death.
As it happens, I’ve never gotten into The Wire. On the other hand, I really liked Boardwalk Empire. For those playing the home game of Real Or Fiction, Chalky White was a fictional character. I strongly suspect that there’s a lot less written about the black gangsters of Prohibition Atlantic City. Still, Chalky is another one of those characters with a barely simmering pot of rage just under their surface—rage at the fact that his position in life was determined before he was born, and no matter what he did, he was never going to be as good as the lowest white man.
And Williams was amazing in the role. Really, that’s what you have to say about everything he did in his career—Williams was amazing in the role. Alas, quite a lot of those roles were in movies of which I thought, “Wow, I wish I were likely to enjoy that.” Or “I wish I’d found this more enjoyable than I did.” Still, the problem was never him. It was the script, or my tastes. I wanted to like them more, and in no small part because I liked him.
Most of the characters of his that I’ve seen have dignity. Even if the situation they’re in is designed to prevent them from having dignity. Dignity with anger underneath, but dignity. They are strong, often noble men, or men who would be noble if they were in a situation that allowed for nobility. Often, however, they are limited by a world that is trying to keep them down, and they are not men who want to be kept down. They are men who want to be on top, and they are willing to do what it takes to be on top.
Unfortunately, Williams seems to have identified too strongly with Omar. He insisted on being called by the character’s name; he started using drugs. As of this writing, the cause is unknown; a drug overdose is considered possible. I suppose that’s at least in part also because it’s hard for us to believe that he has been taken from us so soon; Williams was just fifty-four. If it was a cocaine overdose, at least that’s something we can blame.