How the Late Michael K. Williams Almost Gave Up on Acting
Michael K. Williams’ struggles and triumphs, as an up-and-coming actor
(by Carmichael Phillips)
(Michael K. Williams)
In honor of the late, great Michael K. Williams, we’d like to tell the story of how he almost gave up on acting. Fortunately, the actor held on to his dream just long enough to land what would become his signature role, Omar Little, on HBO’s The Wire.
On September 6, 2021, actor Michael Kenneth Williams was found dead in his Brooklyn penthouse. He was just 54 years old. He leaves behind a successful acting career and legacy that he nearly gave up on, as he wandered around in the same “dark place” that many actors find themselves in, when work is scarce.
“Don’t come to the set to get ready. Come ready!”
(Michael K. Williams)
Williams began his career in showbusiness, not as an actor, but as a background dancer, after being inspired by Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. He appeared in music videos and did some modeling work before trying his hand at acting.
One fateful day, Williams was involved in a bar fight. During the fight, he was slashed with a razor blade and was left with a huge scar on his face. For many screen actors, the scar might have been career-ending.
But for Williams, the scar only seemed to open the door to more opportunities. It gave him a distinct physical feature. It made him unique.
As with many actors, Williams’ career began to stall. For all intents and purposes, he had given up on his acting career.
“Directors and photographers found me interesting. And, before I knew it, I was being asked to portray darker characters.” said Williams.
A flood of new modeling and acting gigs came his way, thanks to his new facial wound, including a chance to portray High Top, the brother of the late Tupac Shakur’s character, Tank, in the movie Bullet (1996). He also appeared on an episode of The Sopranos.
But, as with many actors, Williams’ career began to stall. Money was soon in short supply. And, as Williams once told Vanity Fair, he was adrift. For all intents and purposes, he had given up on his acting career.
“I was in an extremely dark place. I was in debt, borrowing money from my family to pay my rent…in the projects. 9-11 had come and gone. And I was lost.”
One day, while drinking and smoking weed and wasting time with his cousin, Williams’ episode of The Sopranos came on. It was a pivotal moment for his acting career.
Williams couldn’t believe the contrast. There he was, in two places. One “Michael K. Williams” was a successful actor on television, on an iconic show. The other “Michael K. Williams” – the one in real-life – was broke, smoking and drinking, and being unproductive.
“I’m like, whoa! There’s something wrong with this picture,” Williams recalled.
“I went back to my mom and I said, ‘You know what? I think I need to give showbusiness one more shot.’”
“I went back to my mom and I said, ‘You know what? I think I need to give showbusiness one more shot.'”
Williams decided to put a marketing package together. He got new headshots. He also began sending out a new marketing tool that actors at that time had begun using – what we now refer to as a showreel or a demo reel. He then began searching for acting work.
What happened next? Nothing! Williams received no response at all, initially. No one was interested in what he was selling and soon he fell into an even deeper depression than before.
And that’s where the story of Michael K. Williams almost ended.
Then, one day, his mother received a fax. It was from Alexa Fogel, who wanted him to read for a new crime drama. After just one brief read-thru, the struggling actor, who just weeks before had nearly called it quits, became a star on one of HBO’s most important shows: The Wire.
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