When actor Michael K. Williams prepared for his iconic role of Omar in “The Wire,” he turned to his memories of a dear neighborhood friend from Brooklyn: an unconventional, swaggering lesbian named Robin. She had helped him survive a sad adolescence. She had also introduced him to crack cocaine.
Williams’ path from bullied, frightened boy to respected actor and advocate for justice ended tragically in 2021 when he died of a drug overdose at 54 after decades of struggling with addiction. He leaves behind the poignant, vivid memoir Scenes From My Life, written with Jon Sternfeld, which will cement Williams’ legacy as a kind, thoughtful man who used his public prominence to give back to his community.
As Williams often noted, his personality was far from that of ruthless Omar. Growing up in an East Flatbush housing project, Williams was a fragile outsider, tormented for his dark skin and his fluid sexuality. But he did have some luck in the form of a determined mother and loyal friends who helped him break loose from his neighborhood’s insularity.
As he grew older, Williams progressed from Manhattan dance clubs to a nascent modeling career, which was truncated when a razor wound from a bar fight left a deep scar across his face. Ironically, the scar gave him the distinctive appearance that led to a successful dance career, then to acting.
Williams’ fans remember him for his roles in “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Hap and Leonard,” “The Night Of” and so many other productions—but his memoir offers relatively few details about his acting career, drug use or romantic relationships. Instead, it is a sensitive exploration of his journey to become an advocate for young people from backgrounds like his who get stuck in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Despite Williams’ own challenges before his death, he made important progress in his aspiration to scatter what he called “breadcrumbs”—pathways to help others escape poverty and injustice.