Michael K. Williams was always the most compelling person on the screen

The best thing I can think of to say about Michael K. Williams is that he made you take notice.

The actor was found dead on Labor Day (Sept. 6) in his Brooklyn apartment. Though a cause of death wasn’t announced, Williams died from an apparent drug overdose judging from heroin found nearby and no foul play in evidence.

If he was on an HBO series, it had to be taken seriously. And Williams could be called Mr. HBO. Of course, he broke out on The Wire. Omar LIttle was Batman, Paul Kersey, and Robin Hood, striking fear in the hearts of criminals with lethal fury. But he also had a tender side which was revealed in his personal life, making him sympathetic and resonant.

“A-Hunting We Will Go” would never just be a kids’ folk song again.

He was excellent on Boardwalk Empire as Chalky White, the Atlantic City crime lord and informal leader and benefactor of the area’s Black community. Freddy Knight on The Night Of was a smaller part, but who else could have played the role of a prison overlord with such credibility? On Lovecraft Country, his Montrose Freeman was an influential, almost mythical figure in the life of his son, Atticus.

Looking at Williams’ face, you just knew there was a story. That signature scar from a slash down his forehead, dangerously close to his right eye, suffered in a brawl outside a bar. How could he not be mean, nasty, and hardened from an experience like that? He could bring such intensity to any role.

Maybe that made his smile even brighter. When he lightened up, it was dazzling.

Williams could also be funny, though he was admittedly playing off the mainstream perception of him when he appeared on Community.

I’m long overdue to watch Hap and Leonard on Netflix. It was already on my radar because of director Jim Mickle’s involvement. But Williams had a starring role in that series, which makes it even more intriguing. A “gay, Black Vietnam vet, burdened with major anger issues”? Sold!

Though somebody’s death shouldn’t make me more interested in watching something…

Unfortunately, movies don’t often let supporting roles shine the way TV does. Williams was always relegated to sidekick parts, squandering his talent.

I’ve grown to appreciate Joel Kinnaman, but how much more interesting could the 2014 reboot of Robocop have been if Williams had played Alex Murphy instead of his partner? Would Solo: A Star Wars Story have been better if Williams had remained as the villain instead of getting recast when scheduling conflicts kept him from reshoots?

Whatever Williams was going to do next warranted attention because he was sure to make it interesting. Yet what made him such a compelling actor may have been some flaws and weaknesses that he could never quite overcome.

Williams was forthright about his past drug addiction, telling Marc Maron earlier this year that “relapse to me is part of my story.” In a Fresh Air interview five years ago, he explained that during the third season of The Wire, “I was on drugs… I was in jeopardy of destroying everything I had worked so hard for.”

Fifty-four years is far too young to die. What else did Williams have to offer? Where else would he have gone in his career, especially as he got older? Williams also started his own production company, Freedome Productions. With docuseries like VICE’s Black Market and Raised in the System, he showed he was a storyteller.

Unfortunately, that career, that life is now cut short. We’ll never know…

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