The Wire’s Michael K Williams opened up about being ‘scared to play gay character’ before his death

Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar Little in The Wire.

The late, great actor, Michael K Williams, may have won critical acclaim for his portrayal of gay character Omar Little in The Wire but he wasn’t always comfortable with the idea of playing a homosexual.

Writing in his memoir Scenes From My Life before his tragic death last year at age 54, Williams revealed that he was initially fearful of taking on the role of Omar due to the stereotypical nature of most gay characters at the time.

“As for Omar’s homosexuality, it was groundbreaking 20 years ago, and I admit that at first I was scared to play a gay character,” Williams wrote.

“I think my initial fear of Omar’s sexuality came from my upbringing, the community that raised me, and the stubborn stereotypes of gay characters. I made Omar my own. He wasn’t written as a type, and I wouldn’t play him as one.”

The character of Omar won widespread praise when HBO’s The Wire premiered in 2002. At a time when queer characters on screen were built around already-tired tropes of what it means to be LGBTQ+, Omar felt refreshingly authentic.

Omar’s sexuality provided important representation in the early 2000s – particularly for Black gay men – considering LGBTQ+ rights across both sides of the pond sill lagged woefully behind.

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Michael K. Williams smiling at camera wearing a green blue and brown shirt.
Michael K. Williams died in 2021 from acute drug intoxication. (Getty/Leon Bennett)

Yet, on screen, his sexuality was the least notable thing about the character. For many LGBTQ+ fans, it felt like one of the first instances of a gay character having an entire personality aside from who they sleep with.

Omar was, as writer Ernest Owens noted following Williams’ death last year, “tough, confident, sexual, funny, and gangsta”, and not a “hypersexual, overly flamboyant caricature”.

Despite his initial hesitations, Williams knew how monumental the character would be, both for representation and for his own career.

Recalling the moment he told his mother that he would be playing a gay man, Williams wrote: “I remember helping my mother carry groceries to her apartment and telling her about this new role that I booked. I knew from the jump he was going to be a big deal.

“This character is going to change my career,” I said. “But the thing is … I hesitated. He’s openly gay.

‘Well, baby,’ she said, ‘that’s the life you chose and I support it.’ She hadn’t embraced the arts or my interest in them, but to me, that was her version of encouragement.”

Williams’ memoir also reveals how, despite being aware that there was a lot more to Omar as a character than him being gay, the actor fought for the portrayal to explicitly reference his sexuality.

In a section of his memoir, Williams writes: “In regards to Omar and his lover Brandon (played by Michael Kevin Darnall), it seemed like everyone was dancing around their intimacy issue.

“There was lots of touching hair and rubbing lips and things like that. I felt like if we were going to do this, we should go all in. I think the directors were scared, and I said to one of them, ‘You know gay people fuck, right?'”

“When I went in and kissed Michael on the lips, everyone stopped what they were doing and went slack-jawed. Twenty years ago, men – especially men of colour – were not kissing on television. I don’t mean it was rare; I mean it did not happen.”

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