The tragic death of actor Michael K. Williams reminded me of a one-on-one interview I did on Jan. 10, 2017, in Los Angeles with the star of “The Wire” during one of my trips to preview TV shows.
Things got busy and I never wrote about it. But I keep everything.
After learning about Williams’ death, I re-listened to the 11-minute recording of the interview conducted at an ABC party. The cause of death is pending, with multiple outlets reporting it was from a possible drug overdose.
For that reason, I found part of my conversation with Williams four years ago chilling.
Williams was at the party as one of the stars of an ABC miniseries, “When We Rise,” which chronicled the gay rights movement.
We bonded over our mutual appreciation of basketball star Carmelo Anthony, with the Brooklyn-born Williams enjoying Anthony's play as a New York Knick and me celebrating Anthony for leading my alma mater Syracuse to its only national title in 2003.
Of course, I asked Williams about his breakout role in “The Wire” playing Omar Little, an anti-hero in Baltimore who robbed drug dealers and was openly gay.
But I began the interview by asking about Williams’ memorable narration of an ESPN promo for the 2017 wild card NFL games in which he discussed some wild card upsets.
“The lesson here is never ignore the wild card,” Williams said in the promo.
The line meant something deeper to Williams.
“When I got the script about the wild card particularly it resonated with me and I decided to internalize it and make it about myself,” said Williams. “In my mind, I’m a bit of a wild card. In my mind, I wasn’t talking about the NFL; I was talking about myself.”
Naturally, I asked him how.
“By being an uneducated black male from an underserviced community to be able to be alive is a blessing,” he said. “But to be able to have a career and doing something I love to do I feel like I’ve been given a second chance at life through the arts. Statistically, I should not be here talking to you.”
He explained he was born and raised in East Flatbush.
“I am grateful to have survived what I went through but I do recognize the fact I am not the norm,” he explained. “The norm of my lifestyle I should have been deceased. Long story short, drug addiction. I am a recovering drug addict.”
He said he started “self-medicating at the age of what 11, 12 or 13.”
He said his first role was in a 1996 movie “Bullet” with Tupac Shakur and Mickey Rourke, was introduced to Off Broadway theater and the National Black Theater in Harlem and was mentored by acting coach and director Mel Williams of Philadelphia of the Theater for a New Generation.
“He taught me the art of the craft and storytelling and creating character. And it started to click,” he said.
He had some reservations about being cast as Omar Little.
“I was happy to have a gig. I was concerned about being judged in my community for his sexual orientation. … I know that couldn’t let that stop me. I knew there was something special here.”
He was proud to play activist Ken Jones in “When We Rise.”
“I call him an American hero,” said Williams. “He is a Black man who fought on the frontlines in America in the Navy, fought in the war. He was there for the civil rights war, he was there for the gay rights war. He was also there and witnessed AIDS and HIV rip through his community. He survived a genocide. I told his story. I was blessed and fortunate.
“I had no clue of who he was or his story because he was a very private person. ... He fought for gay marriage. It is a moving and honest American story. I love him, I more than met him. He is my big brother.”
It wasn’t before long that Williams talked about some darkness in his past.
First, he addressed playing Omar. He acknowledged “The Wire,” which ran for five seasons on HBO from 2002-2008, received more attention years later due to the arrival of binge-watching and now is viewed as one of TV’s best series.
“It was before its time. It was the beginning of novel TV when things moved slow and characters were introduced. ‘The Wire’ was the first of a lot of things. It didn’t use music to push or provoke emotion; what you saw was what you got. If you heard music, it was because the radio was on the table and not because they were trying to manipulate your emotions.”
Soon, he grew philosophical talking about the darkest point in his life.
“I have had many dark points in my life,” he said. “The darkest point in my life was when I didn’t realize it was the darkest point in my life. That close to death. You don’t realize it is the darkest point until it is gone. The darkest point probably looks like good times.
“I look back. I’m not going to tell you what the situation was, it is my private life, but I will tell you the darkest point in my life I thought I was having a good time. I was never closer to death.”
He said that made “The Wire” resonate more with him.
“Absolutely,” said Williams. “Omar was in pain. So was I.”
When “The Wire” ended, Williams said he had to make adjustments.
“I had to face me. I had to go back to being Mike. The drug was gone. Omar was a drug for me. It was like my ego got fed through the character.”