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The first time casting director Alexa Fogel saw actor Michael K. Wiliams, he was auditioning for a small role in the HBO drama “Oz.” He did not get the part.

But his image stuck with her. And years later, when she began casting a new HBO show, “The Wire,” Fogel found herself thinking of him, recalling the actor with the long scar running down his face, the remnants of a razor blade attack. She had made a note of it.

“He made an impression,” Fogel once told me. “I knew I wanted to see him again.”

Fogel had Williams in mind to play Omar Little, a character that David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators of “The Wire,” had conceived of as a composite of several real-life stickup artists within Baltimore’s criminal underbelly. At first they envisioned Omar as a robber of robbers, a character who would have a six— or seven-episode arc and would then quickly meet his demise.

Burns, a longtime Baltimore homicide detective, originally questioned whether Williams was up for the role after watching him awkwardly handle a prop shotgun. Williams once confessed to me that he had felt intimidated by all the great actors on the show, and sometimes wondered if he could hold his own among them.

HBO executives initially asked for the scene introducing Williams as Omar to be cut. To them, it seemed irrelevant to the show’s greater arc. But the scene stayed in, and Williams, whose death at 54 was announced on Monday, gave a performance that helped make Omar one of the most memorable characters on a show that was full of them, presenting his vast array of complexities and contradictions.

He ended up appearing in all five seasons.

Williams did hold his own, and he managed to stand out in an ensemble show full of breakout performances by actors including Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, Wendell Pierce and Dominic West. Omar evolved into one of television’s most dynamic characters — former President Barack Obama once called him his favorite — built from the life that Williams breathed into him.

Omar carried a sawed-off shotgun the way others might carry a wallet and maintained a dying, yet unyielding, code — he could strike fear while fetching cereal in his bathrobe. (His beloved Honey Nut Cheerios, of course.) But the character had depths: He accompanied his grandmother to church, possessed an enviable knowledge of Greek mythology and could outwit a seasoned lawyer on the stand.

And Williams, who could deftly toggle between gentle tenderness and steely menace from scene to scene, gave his lines authenticity and depth, ensuring that some of Omar Little’s catchphrases would enter the pop-culture canon.

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”

“All in the game, yo. All in the game.”

“A man got to have a code.”

It was Williams who read the scripts and picked up the subtle clues that hinted at Omar’s homosexuality, and who decided that it should not remain a subtext or hidden component of his character.

“They kept writing,” Williams told me. “I knew that dude was gay. All they kept doing: Omar rubs the boy’s lips. Omar rubs the boy’s hair. Omar holds the boy’s hand.

In one Season 1 scene, Williams and Michael Kevin Darnall, who played one of Omar’s early stickup partners and love interest, decided that the two should share an unscripted passionate kiss.

It caught the director off guard. But the scene stayed in, adding a new layer of complexity and realism to an early 2000s show that was initially focused on pitting cops against drug dealers. And it fit seamlessly into “The Wire,” and Omar’s story.

Williams also put his stamp on “The Wire” in another way: He discovered Felicia Pearson, known as Snoop, at a Baltimore nightclub, brought her to the set and insisted that the show’s creators find a role for her.

Pearson had never acted before. Her character — a ruthless foot soldier — shared her real name. And her ability to depict a killer with a detached personality once led horror writer Stephen King to describe her as “perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series.”

Finding Pearson, and changing the trajectory of her life, Williams later told me, was one of the most fulfilling things he ever did on “The Wire.”

“When I looked at her, I instantly knew that she was the quintessential Baltimore,” he said.

Williams brought the same level of intensity and expansiveness to many of his subsequent characters. Most recently, he received his fifth Emmy nomination for his role as Montrose Freeman, a conflicted patriarch in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.”

But it was Omar Little who provided Williams with his breakthrough, and it may be the role that he will be best remembered for. Williams dealt with personal addiction throughout his life, even throughout his time on “The Wire.”

(What follows will be a spoiler for those who have never watched “The Wire.”)

Omar was always destined to die in “The Wire.” The character’s growing popularity never altered that trajectory.

Williams was pragmatic about taping his final scene.

“No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room, which in my opinion, was no one wanted to deal with the reality that it felt like mourning a fictitious character,” Williams later told me. “I don’t think no one was able to go there that day.”

On Monday, his colleagues on “The Wire,” who had been a close-knit group on and off the set, found themselves mourning the real Williams.

© 2021 The New York Times Company
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