The Question Michael K. Williams Asked Me Before Every Season of ‘The Wire’
The second season of our fledgling HBO drama in Baltimore did not shoot its first frame of film before one key cast member was in the writers’ offices, scripts in hand, showing his disappointment.
“Why are we even doing this?” Michael K. Williams asked.
The initial season of “The Wire,” in which Mike had delivered his first magnificent turn as Omar Little, a freelance stickup artist and street warrior, had been largely set in Baltimore’s poorer Black neighborhoods. Now, with the new season, our story had shifted to the predominantly white working-class world of Baltimore’s port. Mike wasn’t the only actor of color distressed at the new scripts; he was simply the one with the gumption to walk into the show runner’s office.
At first, I misapprehended the depth of Mike’s complaint, assuming — as is often true — that an actor was simply counting his character’s lines and hoping for more screen time.
It wasn’t the first time I was late to Michael K. Williams, the man whose sudden death at the age of 54 on Monday deprived us of one of the most careful and committed actors of our age. To be honest, I misread the man from the start, and it was my writing partner, Ed Burns, who had first spotted Mike’s read for Omar on a tape of two dozen New York auditions a year earlier.
“There’s this one guy on there with this amazing scar all the way down his face, and his presence is just extraordinary,” Ed insisted. “Take a look.”
Hoping to use Omar’s arc to lure a well-known actor with an established following, I checked his credits and frowned: Not much there. But when Ed would not relent, I watched the audition tape with care, and Mike was hired.
Now, in the writers’ offices, I was underestimating the man again, assuming the complaint was all about professional hunger. I began to explain that, yes, Omar would be losing some screen time this season, but as the story expanded …
Mike interrupted. “I’m not here about my screen time. I just want to know why we are doing this. Why is the show changing?”
He pressed the point: “I’m saying, there are all these shows on television, and we made the one that was about Black characters and written for a Black audience. And now, it’s like we’re walking away from that.”
To Mike, at that moment, we were the white custodians of a rare majority-Black drama in the majority-white world of American television, and we might well be walking away from that unique responsibility.
He was asking a big question. To answer, I had to pause and regroup, and reach for an honest answer — the one less likely to please a hungry actor. I told him that we had never imagined “The Wire” as a Black drama, or even as a drama with race as its central theme. We were writing about how power and money are routed in an American city, and being from Baltimore, a majority Black metropolis, we had simply depicted our hometown.
And a bigger truth, I argued, is that if we don’t now expand the show’s field of vision beyond what happens on the streets of West Baltimore, then we stay a cops-and-robbers drama, a police procedural. But if we build the rest of the city — its fragile working class, its political world, its schools, its media culture — then we get a chance to say something more.
“We want to have a bigger argument about what has gone wrong. Not just in Baltimore, but elsewhere, too.”
Mike thought about this for a long moment. Waiting for him, I still worried it would come down to his character’s work. He had done marvelous things with Omar — his smile and the cavernous barrel of a high-powered handgun were the closing moments of the first season — and he was maybe one more good story arc from elevating his character into a star turn. With the leverage he had already acquired, Mike could have sat there and insisted on the writers gilding his every narrative arc.
Instead, he stood up, curled the early season two scripts in his hand, nodded, and asked one last question:
“So what is this stuff at the port about? What are we going to say?”
It’s about the death of work, I told him. When legitimate work itself dies in an American city, I argued, and the last factory standing is the drug corners, then everyone goes to a corner.
“If we do this season, we also make clear going forward that the drug culture is not a racial pathology, it’s about economics and the collapse of the working class — Black and white both.”
Mike left the writers’ office that day and went to work, weaving more depth and nuance into a character that he ultimately made iconic and timeless. And from that moment forward, his questions about our drama and its purposes were those of someone sharing the whole of the journey. It became something of a ritual with us: To begin every season that followed, Michael K. Williams would walk into the writers’ office and sit on the couch.
“So,” he would ask, “what are we going to say this year?”
He gave us an astounding gift — an act of faith from a magnificent actor who could have played his hand very differently. Television usually chases its audience — if they love them some Omar, you feed them more Omar. If they can’t stop looking at Stringer, you write more Stringer. Never mind story and theme.
Instead, Mike bent his beautiful mind to a task that even the best writers and show runners often avoid. He thought about the whole story, the whole of the work.
Perhaps more than any in that talented cast, I came to trust Mike to speak publicly to our drama and its purposes, to take personal pride in all that we were trying, however improbably, to build. He became increasingly political as the show aged, and in interviews took to addressing societal and political issues, his arguments ranging well beyond Omar’s arc.
“I started to realize that, oh, this is not about me,” Williams once told an interviewer, looking back. “It had everything to do with … just great tapestry, this great narrative of social issues … things that are wrong in our country.”
Watching Mike reflect on our work in such a way left me with the deepest pride in our collaboration, in the promises kept and purposes shared. “The Wire,” he told that interviewer, “was a love letter to our nation. Like a blueprint to show where we’re broken.”
Yes, there were some demons. Yes, there was cost to delivering himself so completely to a character as vibrant as Omar and then having to walk away from that exquisite creation after five years. All of us caught glimpses of his pain.
Once, in the years following, I found myself running another drama in New Orleans and came up with the notion of sponsoring a battle-of-the-bands for charity in which New Orleans and Baltimore musicians — brass bands, funk outfits, go-go ensembles — would try to cut each other on the stage at Tipitina’s. Wendell Pierce, an actor native to New Orleans, would hype the local acts in the guise of his “Treme” character. I asked Mike to fly down, on almost no notice, and intro the Baltimore acts in the persona of Omar Little. He was there at the asking.
For a few hours, I watched him inhabit that character one last time. When it was over, we stood outside the club, and I watched a weight descend as he slipped back into Michael from Flatbush, the gentle, self-effacing and utterly committed professional who never gave a camera the wrong moment, but who somehow never took enough comfort from that great skill, who was always, I came to understand, looking for it to mean more.
“Was that what you wanted?” he asked. “Did that go OK?”
I felt ashamed for having asked for one last, selfless favor from my friend. But he had my back. Always. Along with the talent, charm and honesty, I’ll miss that part, too.
David Simon (@AoDespair) is a Baltimore-based author, and television writer-producer currently filming a mini series for HBO. He created “The Wire” and “Treme,” among other shows."