AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Emmy-nominated actor Michael K. Williams has died at the age of 54. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says Williams, featured in series like "Lovecraft Country" and "Boardwalk Empire," was a consummate character actor. He's here to remember him with us.
And Eric, first, do we have any details about Williams' death?
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: We don't know much. The police - the New York City - or the New York Police Department released the information that he was found at about 2 p.m. in his Brooklyn home today - found dead. His - a representative - a PR representative for him also put out a statement saying, you know, the family was grieving and they're hoping that people will understand and respect their privacy. But no real details on cause of death or even specifically when he died. I'm assuming that, you know, we'll hear something from the medical examiner on that in the days and weeks to come.
CORNISH: We'll stay tuned for more detail there. As we mentioned, he was such a remarkable character actor - nominated for multiple Emmy Awards. Many people know him from the HBO series "The Wire." Can you talk about his background?
DEGGANS: Sure. You know, he was born in Brooklyn, and he was raised in the projects there - started out as a backup dancer for musical artists and appeared in music videos. He got a small part in "The Sopranos." And as you said, you know, one of his signature early roles was playing Omar Little in "The Wire." He won the hearts of TV fans really playing this really distinctive character - a robber of drug dealers who was also really witty and kind of understood his place in the drug game with a real piercing clarity. And so we have a clip of him, a scene where he's testifying in court. An attorney for one of the drug dealers kind of confronts him, and he explains how they both have a place in the drug game. Let's listen to that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")
MICHAEL KOSTROFF: (As Maurice Levy) You are a parasite who leeches off...
MICHAEL K WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Just like you, man.
KOSTROFF: (As Maurice Levy) ...The culture of drugs. Excuse me, what?
WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game though, right?
DEGGANS: Exactly - and so that kind of bravado made Omar Little really stand out.
CORNISH: He was also in "Lovecraft Country," "When They See Us." In terms of being a character actor, what was the type of character?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, Williams has talked in the past about how as a dark-skinned Black man with a scar on his face, it was kind of - you know, he was going to get certain kind of roles and it was his honor and responsibility to really play Black characters with substance and complexity. You know, a couple of his signature characters were gay men. He often played characters and was in situations that explored issues that affected Black men, like poverty, crime, addiction, masculinity, institutional racism. That's what made his performances so special.
So he played Omar Little as a gay man who also had a sense of humor about what he was doing. On "Boardwalk Empire," he played Chalky White, a Black gangster who looked out for Black people and was a leader in that community in the 1920s-era Atlantic City. He was in Ava DuVernay's limited series for Netflix about the Central Park 5, played the father of one of the boys who was unfairly accused of raping a woman in Central Park. So many great characters where he explored the dignity and the challenges facing Black men in many different eras of time.
CORNISH: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talking about actor Michael K. Williams. Williams was found dead today at age 54.
Eric, thank you.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF FUTUREBIRDS SONG, "VIRGINIA SLIMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.