None of the diners at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood dove under the tables as Michael Kenneth Williams strode past late last month. But startled gazes from more than a few betrayed their recognition of the gravel-voiced actor who brought a sinister sparkle to his role as the lethal gangster Omar Little in HBO's critically lauded "The Wire."
An upbeat Williams waved to a few of the diners, clearly still enjoying the spotlight that "The Wire," which is near the top of many critics' lists as one of the best TV shows of all time, has brought him. That shine of celebrity has taken on a brighter glow this fall thanks to his current role as ruthless businessman Chalky White in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," a period drama set in Atlantic City, N.J., during Prohibition.
The reception has heightened the profile of the 44-year-old Williams, who vividly recalls the personal demons he battled in the years before "The Wire" as a struggling New York actor so filled with despair and disillusion that he felt "like part of me was dead inside."
A long scar near his eye — a lasting souvenir from a barroom fight in which his face was slashed with a razor — is an ever-present reminder of that period. "I had a little too much of that liquor courage that night," he said with a chuckle. But the scar has also become an instantly identifiable trademark that has made Williams' expressive face even more compelling.
Remembering those tough times has cemented his connection to his darker roles: "I love my characters. I play them with 100% honesty; there's no holding back. I understand where they are coming from."
With his armor and sawed-off shotgun, Williams' Omar Little was a standout in "The Wire," a gritty urban series that featured a web of complex characters operating on both sides of the law. The hard-core, much-feared character was a stick-up man operating in the projects of Baltimore, but his principal targets were rival drug dealers, giving him a Robin Hood-like moral code in a series that had few heroes. His love of "the game" and "the hunt" provided him with an antihero charm, and he took pleasure in the havoc he caused: children yelling "Omar comin'" when he approached would clear the streets just like in a western movie.
Omar, who was gay, was anything but the cookie-cutter villain. He announced his entrance by whistling "Farmer in the Dell." He loved Honey Nut Cheerios.
"That show changed my life in so many ways," said Williams. "My career would have never been the same without it." It also was a bit of a stretch: "I was never a thug. I never even liked to fight."
Williams was drawn to acting and show business as a young man. He appeared in dozens of music videos with artists such as Madonna and Tupac Shakur, who was so impressed with Williams that he helped him land a costarring role in the 1996 film "Bullet."
But though he went on to do guest shots in other TV shows, his career stalled and he became despondent. "I was in a lot of pain — drugs, alcohol, 9/11. I wound up working at my mother's day-care center in Brooklyn. I was coming from a dark place personally when I read for Omar. And when I read it, I knew I could put that part of myself into that part."
His main focus now is "Boardwalk Empire," which wraps up its first season Sunday and in which Williams is the only African American in the main cast. And though the sharply dressed Chalky is a supporting character, his fierce demeanor has demonstrated that he bows to no man, even during a historical period when black men were regarded as inferior to whites. In the pilot, Chalky is shown impatiently waiting outside main character Enoch "Nucky" Thompson's office for a meeting, barking at an assistant, "Tell Nucky I ain't got all day."
"That really set the tone for the character," Williams pointed out. "Imagine a black man acting like that in the 1920s. It wasn't no 'yes sir' and 'no sir.' I just love that about him."
In another of the series' highlights, Chalky is interrogating a Ku Klux Klan member whom he suspects of killing one of his associates. Chalky calmly recites a tragic tale about how the death of his carpenter father at the hands of racists shaped him into a man. During the speech, he slowly unveils some strikingly sharp tools ("These my daddy's tools") that he will later use to torture the man.
Said Williams: "Getting the whole tone of that scene right was very important. I worked on it a long, long time."
He's also out to prove to audiences that all bad guys are not alike. "The most challenging thing right now for me is showing that there's a difference between Omar and Chalky. There's no Omar in Chalky. They are driven by different things, different moral codes. Omar was driven by the hunt, while Chalky is a straight-up-and-down businessman."
Terence Winter, the creator and executive producer of "Boardwalk Empire," had high praise for Williams: "Of course I was familiar with Michael from 'The Wire.' It was important for this character to establish himself with just a few words, and he nailed it right off the bat. He can do more with his eyes than most actors can do with a whole page of dialogue."