Why Michael K. Williams thought his signature scar changed his career

A closeup of a Michael K. Williams with his closed eyes and a scar running down his face
Michael K. Williams was known for his memorable portrayals — and for his facial scar.
(Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

Michael Kenneth Williams’ career was changed by the scar on his face, a remnant from a dangerous run-in when he was younger.

Williams, who was found dead in his New York apartment Monday at age 54, was a dancer before gaining fame as an actor in shows such as “The Wire” (Omar Little) and “Boardwalk Empire” (Chalky White).

Those were just two of the roles enhanced by his trademark scar, which ran straight down from the top of his forehead before taking a slight bend, finishing off down his right cheek, between his right eye and his nose.

It was a feature that Williams could show off boldly when a role required it — think Chalky in “Boardwalk,” brazenly staring down his rivals — or seem to hide easily with his hand when his face broke open in a smile, as happened in a recent L.A. Times photo shoot.

‘The Wire’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ star acknowledged the pain he brought to his roles. But in his work he also found a respite.

Sept. 7, 2021


The wound that produced the scar came when he was 25.

He and some friends were at a bar in Queens that night, the Brooklynite told National Public Radio in 2014, and there was a party going on. He went to get some air, then realized two of his buddies were being surrounded by strangers. Williams, suspecting a fight coming on, told his friends it was time to go home.

But there was the one guy, you know? And it was too late.

“He kept like, you know, like sucking his teeth, and I’m looking — I’m like, ‘Yo — so what’s up, dude? Yo bro, what’s your problem?’” Williams told NPR.

“The dude wiped his hand across his mouth and ... smacked me. What he did was he spit a razor. He was positioning the razor in his mouth to get it between his middle finger and ring finger. And then he swiped me down my face.”

The beloved star of “The Wire” and “Lovecraft Country” graciously sat for portraits revealing the range of emotion — and the honesty — fans loved.

Sept. 6, 2021

And so the brawl began. The performer and his friends escaped that night with their lives, he said, “barely.”

After that, his career changed. He went from simply dancing in music videos — with the likes of George Michael and Madonna — to being called on as a featured performer who acted out roles. Thug roles, generally.


“They were like, ‘Mike, roll these dice in this video! Have this fight in this video!’ I was like, ‘All right!’ ” Williams told NPR, noting the moment he began to receive different acting opportunities.

Michael K. Williams, known for “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” was a sentimental Emmy favorite for his work on HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.”

Sept. 6, 2021

He moved from music-video parts to acting with Tupac Shakur and Mickey Rourke in the 1996 movie “Bullet.” Then came a very few TV roles, including an episode of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” before a fax came outlining the breakout role of Omar Little in “The Wire.”

“With a cobra-like grin, a gravel-hard voice and an ominous scar near his eye, Williams’ Little was street terror personified,” The Times’ Greg Braxton wrote in his appreciation of the esteemed actor. “Williams’ portrayal of a gay antihero with a Robin Hood-like moral code shattered boundaries.”

“It’s not something I really think about much any more,” Williams said of his scar, speaking in 2011 with the Globe and Mail, “but I always know it’s there.”

The actor’s character, Montrose, suffered his own traumas before inflicting them on his son.

Aug. 24, 2021

Also, he told The Times in a 2011 article, “I feel very blessed. Very, very, very fortunate.”

Nominated for Emmy Awards five times, Williams remains up for consideration as 2021’s supporting actor in a drama for his work as Montrose Freeman in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” competing against Bradley Whitford, Giancarlo Esposito, John Lithgow, Tobias Menzies, Chris Sullivan, Max Minghella and O.T. Fagbenie.