The Secret Weapon

Until fairly recently, "diversity" on the air often amounted to an overweight wisecracking black guy or an Asian forensics investigator.

Michael Kenneth Williams

Michael Kenneth Williams

Photo By WWD Staff

Until fairly recently, "diversity" on the air often amounted to an overweight wisecracking black guy or an Asian forensics investigator. Then came "The Sopranos," "Lost" and "The Wire," which features — perhaps most memorably — a shotgun-toting gay homeboy named Omar Little, who robs drug dealers for a living.

In a television ad for the final season of "The Wire" — which begins Sunday on HBO — Tony Kushner calls Omar the greatest gay character ever written for American television. Which is high praise, but a little misleading, since Omar is less a gay character than a very tough guy who happens to roll with the boys.

Michael Kenneth Williams, the actor who plays Omar, is not gay or a gangster, but he never had any doubt as to who he was playing on the show. "When I read his character, I quickly understood that he walked by a code," Williams, 41, says in a telephone interview on Thursday. "He had morals, a method he didn't go against."

The actor also knew a thing or two about living on the street. He grew up in the Van Der Veer Projects in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 10th child of a father who wasn't around. "He had kids with four different women," he says. "They all knew each other and had a camaraderie." His mother, who raised him, struggled to make ends meet as a seamstress.

"She had me at Kings County Hospital and then took the bus home," he says.

By ninth grade, he'd lost interest in school, so he dropped out. For the next decade, he worked odd jobs and floundered around. "I was more interested in going to nightclubs," Williams recalls.

On his 25th birthday, he was involved in a barroom brawl that left him with a giant scar on his face. "The guy was hiding a razor in his mouth," Williams says, nonchalantly describing a tried-and-true street/prison technique in which tough guys (or gals) wrap sharp objects in cardboard or plastic, before inserting them into one of three orifices to avoid detection from the police or nightclub security guards. (They're stashed inside for safekeeping and removed as necessary.)
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