Until fairly recently, “diversity” on the air often amounted to an overweight wisecracking black guy or an Asian forensics investigator. Then came “The Sopranos,” “Lost” and “The Wire,” which features — perhaps most memorably — a shotgun-toting gay homeboy named Omar Little, who robs drug dealers for a living.
In a television ad for the final season of “The Wire” — which begins Sunday on HBO — Tony Kushner calls Omar the greatest gay character ever written for American television. Which is high praise, but a little misleading, since Omar is less a gay character than a very tough guy who happens to roll with the boys.
Michael Kenneth Williams, the actor who plays Omar, is not gay or a gangster, but he never had any doubt as to who he was playing on the show. “When I read his character, I quickly understood that he walked by a code,” Williams, 41, says in a telephone interview on Thursday. “He had morals, a method he didn’t go against.”
The actor also knew a thing or two about living on the street. He grew up in the Van Der Veer Projects in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 10th child of a father who wasn’t around. “He had kids with four different women,” he says. “They all knew each other and had a camaraderie.” His mother, who raised him, struggled to make ends meet as a seamstress.
“She had me at Kings County Hospital and then took the bus home,” he says.
By ninth grade, he’d lost interest in school, so he dropped out. For the next decade, he worked odd jobs and floundered around. “I was more interested in going to nightclubs,” Williams recalls.
On his 25th birthday, he was involved in a barroom brawl that left him with a giant scar on his face. “The guy was hiding a razor in his mouth,” Williams says, nonchalantly describing a tried-and-true street/prison technique in which tough guys (or gals) wrap sharp objects in cardboard or plastic, before inserting them into one of three orifices to avoid detection from the police or nightclub security guards. (They’re stashed inside for safekeeping and removed as necessary.)
“He was a street dude,” Williams continues. “He had that edge up on me because I never walked with weapons. It just wasn’t where I was at. But I’d been drinking, my perception was a little altered and he got me. It was a wake-up call. At the end of the day, I’m glad to be alive.”
With a new sense of purpose, Williams plunged into a dancing and acting career.
As it turned out, his recently acquired souvenir had some uses. “I became the boy with the scar. People knew how to identify me.”
First came parts in music videos, among them Madonna’s “Secret” and George Michael’s “Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” then a couple of episodes of “Law & Order.” Martin Scorsese tapped him for a bit part in “Bringing Out the Dead.”
Still, Williams wasn’t exactly raking in cash. At the time he got “The Wire” in 2001, the struggling actor was paying the bills by working for his mother at a day care center she’d opened. “I was still living in the projects,” he says. “I had no money. 9/11 had just come and gone. I really didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
Omar felt like a ticket out and a role he was born to play, in spite of some obvious differences between the two. “I identified both with his being in pain and his ability to be so focused,” Williams says. “It was a chance for me to shine.”
Which he did. Critics at USA Today and Entertainment Weekly all but proclaimed him the best thing on the show.
Of course, it would’ve been even sweeter if the show’s ratings had come out of the basement, but Williams’ career is on the ascent, nevertheless. He just finished work on Spike Lee’s next film, which he shot in Tuscany. And he has a part in “The Incredible Hulk” and an indie flick with Matthew Broderick called “A Wonderful World.”
Understandably, he’s having a tough time saying goodbye to Omar (“The Wire” wrapped its final season before the writer’s strike). “I don’t think I’ll ever have something to make me feel like that again,” he says. “It was just an amazing experience.”
And his new colleagues aren’t helping. “Every time I’d walk on Spike’s set he’d just yell, ‘Omar’s comin’, Omar’s comin’!’ That’s just who I was.”