For Michael Kenneth Williams, The Stardom He Deserves is Coming

By  · Published on July 9th, 2015


It’s been a first-rate week for Michael Kenneth Williams. On Monday, the actor landed himself two shiny new roles (well, landed himself “in negotiations for,” at least) in Ghostbusters and Assassin’s Creed. The Assassin’s Creed part is “a major stake in the franchise;” Ghostbusters is “being kept under wraps.” Still, not too shabby. And last night was the premiere of The Spoils Before Dying, the sometimes-intolerable-but-mostly-hilarious IFC miniseries where he stars as a ’50s jazz pianist / private eye.

First-rate weeks are wonderful. But more than that, they’ve got me hopeful. A major role here, a franchise stake there- with luck, this’ll be the tipping point in a Michael Kenneth Williams avalanche to stardom (fingers crossed, obviously- don’t want to jinx anything). Because that’s something that really should have happened a few years ago, at least.

Presumably, you know Williams from The Wire, where he played walking conundrum Omar Little (an openly gay, morally upright, shotgun-toting drug den Robin Hood). And if you haven’t seen The Wire, now’s the time- if only to shut up that one friend who’s always insisting you have to watch this. That’d be the role that bumped up Williams to at least semi-approaching-household-name status (cul-de-sac name, maybe?). And, fun fact- regularly receives praise from President Obama, of all people.

But like way too many cable TV stars that earn society’s love and affection (see also: Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm, James Gandolfini etc.), that love only applies when you’re on TV. When was the last time we saw Bryan Cranston in a big way? After getting monster-stomped way too early in Godzilla, he’s working on an HBO TV movie. I’m never sure if that’s a personal choice- say, because a post-Breaking Bad Cranston has his pick of the litter and can do whatever indie project calls to him- or because of some weird industry hangup.

Either way, that same fame slump seems to have hit Williams with sledgehammer force- way harder than most other cable stars. He nabbed a few major roles in the immediate post-Wire years (Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire and one member of Trapped in the Closet’s unhinged love hendecagon), but still grabbing one-off Law & Orders and CSIs. “Cable Guy Mike” in The Cookout 2. That kind of thing.

In a more just world, Williams would be snapping up lead roles left and right. Granted, there’s a running theme in most of his performances (mostly, Williams plays the steel-eyed, gravel-voiced loner, silently tamping down some horrifying inner turmoil), but there’s also a genius in the diversity of characters he can coax out of that same general type. Here’s Williams in The Road– still quiet, still tamped-down, but generating unbelievable amounts of pathos just from his eyes (oh, and a NSFW warning- strong language, brief hints of penis):

Now here’s Williams in The Spoils Before Dying, playing that same type, but so straight that it horseshoes around and becomes dry comedy:

He’s far and away the best part of The Spoils Before Dying, a lone island of cool in a show where everyone else is playing things SNL-level broad (the show opens with Will Ferrell in a fat suit and unkempt beard, jamming a fistful of cheeseburger into his mouth amid sex moans. You get the idea).

Oh, and just for fun here’s Williams coping with the realization that he’s mutating into some kind of horrible plant monster. At least, that’s what I think is happening (in a video for MGMT’s “Cool Song No. 2”).

Luckily, it seems like the pool of Michael Kenneth Williams fans is growing larger. In the last three or so years, he’s gone from reasonably-sized TV roles to small-sized roles with master filmmakers. A brief bit in 12 Years a Slave (a slave stabbed to death trying to rouse a slave ship mutiny), one in Inherent Vice (black revolutionary Tariq Kahlil) and for half a second was almost Django in Django Unchained. Apparently Williams was up for the lead, got beat out by Jamie Foxx, but impressed Tarantino enough that the filmmaker penciled in a last-minute role just for Williams (“muscle” for Calvin Candie, said Deadline way back when). Scheduling conflicts rendered the role a moot point, though- Williams couldn’t work Django into his Boardwalk Empire schedule.

Now he’s nabbing juicier parts in future blockbusters and lead roles in obscure cable shows. Not just The Spoils Before Dying, but Sundance TV’s Hap and Leonard. In that one, Williams is one half of an unlikely bromance between an openly gay, black Vietnam vet and a white rural southerner. If that stardom avalanche really is coming, his snowball’s certainly bigger than it was a few years ago. I’ve got my hopes up that in a few years, we’ll find Williams nabbing the star roles he deserves (in my imagination, he’d make a fun counterpoint to British wit as a Bond villain). But hey, at the very least?At least I’ve got more incentive to see Ghostbusters and Assassin’s Creed than I did last week.

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