Brooklyn Community Mourns Michael K. Williams: ‘He Never Stayed Away’
As the voice of Michael K. Williams crept from a large sound system hooked to the back of a truck, the bustle of an East Flatbush street slowed …
As the voice of Michael K. Williams crept from a large sound system hooked to the back of a truck, the bustle of an East Flatbush street slowed down a bit.
People stopped to pay their respects and to retrieve a white balloon that would later be released during a vigil for Mr. Williams, held right in front of the Brooklyn housing complex where the actor grew up.
“He went to Hollywood, but never forgot where he came from,” said Anthony Herbert, a community advocate who hosted the vigil at the intersection of Foster and New York Avenues. “He was a brother of our community.”
Mr. Williams, who was found dead on Monday at his home in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, was famous for his portrayal of Omar Little, the shotgun-wielding gangster in the HBO epic drama “The Wire.” But that character wouldn’t be possible without the real-life people from East Flatbush from whom he fashioned Omar.
“Everybody loves him because from when he was on ‘The Wire,’ we couldn’t believe that he was just walking around like he wasn’t a Hollywood celebrity,” said Nena Ansari, 66, of Flatbush. “People were just like, ‘Is that him?’ We were shocked to see him walking around without security guards. But he was a regular guy.”
Mr. Williams, who was born in Brooklyn in 1966, grew up in the Vanderveer Estates housing complex now known as Flatbush Gardens. Built in 1949 and 1950 on the site of the old Flatbush Water Works, the 59-building complex for working-class families was also home to a teenage Barbra Streisand and her family.
Assemblyman Nick Perry, who has represented that part of Flatbush for nearly 30 years and lives near the complex, said that Mr. Williams would often visit over the years, and include Mr. Perry in youth-focused events or food drives. They encouraged residents of the complex to get the Covid-19 vaccine during the pandemic.
“He lived elsewhere, but he always seemed to feel that he belonged and owed something to the neighborhood he grew up in,” Mr. Perry said.
Residents who attended the vigil felt it was their duty to pay tribute, whether they knew Mr. Williams personally or not.
Tammie Pierce, 53, of Flatbush, said Mr. Williams lived next to her cousin in the housing complex. She never had a chance to meet him, but she always admired him for his talent.
“I live down the block, so I came to show some love and release my balloon with them,” she said. “He was a great actor, and all the good people come out of the projects.”
Jessica Ortiz, 48, of Flatbush, said she grew up with Mr. Williams and loved the fact that he visited the neighborhood often.
“He always came back here and looked out for the place where he started,” she said. “The characters he portrayed, like the gangsters, that wasn’t him. He was a real soft, gentle, kind, give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of guy.”
Mr. Williams told The New York Times in 2017 that he continuously drew inspiration for his characters from people around the complex. When he didn’t quite know how to handle a shotgun, he and a local drug dealer stood on the roof of one building and shot off bullets into a steel door.
“Best acting lesson I ever had,” Mr. Williams said at the time.
He continued to use other people in his life, like his father and nephews, to bring depth and nuance to his roles on “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Night Of” and “When We Rise.”
Residents in the neighborhood said he often popped up at random events in the community to celebrate and be “with the people,” as Ms. Ansari put it.
Ms. Ansari said she often saw Mr. Williams because he was a “house head,” someone deeply into house music, and he would show up to house music events and other neighborhood gatherings to dance. Since his death, a video of him showing off his dance moves has widely been shared on social media.
“Even after being on ‘The Wire,’ he never stayed away,” Ms. Ansari said. “He still walked through the community like he had never been on TV. He wasn’t a star to himself. He was just a regular person.”
Erica Ford, the founder of Life Camp, an organization focused on reducing gun violence in New York City, said Mr. Williams felt as if he owed it to people to use his celebrity for good. Ms. Ford said he used his influence to bring awareness to social justice issues that he cared about, including gun violence, mass incarceration, and poverty and oppression.
“He used everything he had to make sure that people enjoyed life and that they experienced what happiness meant to him, and what happiness should look like for our children,” she said.
Mr. Williams was frequently in the community supporting a range of programs, Ms. Ford said, like helping to raise money for youth summer jobs and hosting block parties to register people to vote.
“He was constantly doing bids for people,” she said, adding, “He always thought of himself as an ordinary person just using his likeness to help the people.”
Dana Rachlin, 34, started the organization We Build the Block with Mr. Williams in 2018. The group focuses on replacing police presence with community-based initiatives in over-policed communities.
Ms. Rachlin said Mr. Williams was passionate about social justice because he realized everyone he knew had been affected by mass incarceration, including his nephew Dominic Dupont, who spent years in prison and was featured in his documentary on the juvenile justice system, “Raised in the System.”
“He was like: ‘I have never been to prison, but I’m making trips back and forth to prison my whole life. Why is everybody I know there?’” she said. “He understood the systems that were set up to help people fail. He wanted to dedicate his life to healing people and helping people understand.”
Ms. Rachlin said that since his death, she has felt numb, but that she was hopeful the work he started would continue.
“I feel really sad because I know that Mike had so much more to give,” she said, her voice cracking. “But I also feel like his legacy is going to exceed any expectations. Everybody’s ready to double down on doing good work now.”
Mihir Zaveri contributed reporting.