The late Emmy nominee admitted in his memoir that he was “scared” to portray a queer character in the critically acclaimed HBO series.
Five-time Emmy nominee Williams died of a drug overdose in September 2021 at age 54. The “Lovecraft Country” and “Boardwalk Empire” actor portrayed gay drug dealer Omar in “The Wire” from 2002 to 2008.
“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 penned in an excerpt from his memoir “Scenes From My Life” co-authored with Jon Sternfeld, via Vulture. “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. Once I realized that Omar was non-effeminate, that I didn’t have to talk or walk in a flamboyant way, a lot of that fear drained away. I made Omar my own. He wasn’t written as a type, and I wouldn’t play him as one.”
Williams, who added that he was called “fagot Mike” growing up, transformed into Omar when he was 35 years old.
Since Omar was the “opposite of the stereotypical hood types,” Williams pushed “The Wire” production to all faces of Omar’s life onscreen, including his showcase gay relationships. Williams recalled that “everyone was dancing around their intimacy issue” when it came to Omar and his lover Brandon (Michael Kevin Darnall).
“There was lots of touching hair and rubbing lips and things like that,” Williams said of the script. “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?’”
Williams even told co-star Darnall that it was “time to step it up with Omar and Brandon” when it came to their displays of affection in character.
‘ ‘I’m thinking in this scene we should kiss,'” Williams told Darnall on set, who replied, ‘ ‘OK, but — that’s not in the script, though.’”
Williams continued, ‘ ‘But it feels right,’ I said. ‘Don’t it?’ ‘Maybe let’s run it by the director and see what he has to say?’ he suggested. ‘Naw,’ I said. ‘I don’t think we should ask anyone. I think we should just do it.”’”
The “Breaking” actor continued, “He was game. ‘OK, but don’t tell me when you’re going to do it. Make it spontaneous so it looks natural. Just go for it.’ They called us for rehearsal and the crew was still putting the set together, getting the lights and camera up while we ran through it. When I went in and kissed Michael on the lips, everyone stopped what they were doing and went slack-jawed.”
Williams contextualized just how groundbreaking the improvised scene was: “Twenty years ago, men — especially men of color — were not kissing on television,” he said. “I don’t mean it was rare; I mean it did not happen.”
Director Clark Johnson said “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up” after he “heard the lips smack and maybe sensed the crew’s reaction,” Williams wrote. Johnson told them to “do that again” for another take.
“’You’re some brave motherfuckers,’ he said. ‘All right, let’s get it,’” Williams recalled of Johnson. “The crew all stopped what they were doing and rolled action. I think he was anxious to get it before one of us changed our minds.”