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Michael K. Williams: He's Only Playing Tough

On HBO's The Wire, actor Michael K. Williams plays Omar Little, a stick-up guy who robs only drug dealers. Omar has a scar running down his face. That's not a prosthetic scar; it's real. Williams tells Terry Gross the story behind his scar — and lots of other stories about himself and Omar.


Other segments from the episode on January 22, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 22, 2008: Interview with Michael K. Williams; Commentary on the Butler brothers.


DATE January 22, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Michael K. Williams discusses his role as Omar Little
on the HBO series "The Wire"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the great things about the HBO series "The Wire" is the cast, which
includes many terrific actors who were not well known before. A good example
is our guest, Michael K. Williams. He plays one of the most charismatic
characters on the show, Omar. "The Wire" follows the intertwining stories of
Baltimore politicians, cops, drug dealers and the teenagers who sell the drugs
on the corners. Williams' character Omar is a unique figure. His thing is
robbing drug dealers who are in no position to complain to the police. Omar
often walks through the streets in a long coat carrying a shotgun. He has a
huge scar running down his face. He's feared because he's fearless.

What he's not respected for in the hood is being gay. In fact, in a previous
season, his lover was murdered, which led to a cycle of retribution. Here's a
scene that was a turning point last season. Its consequences are getting
played out this season. Marlo, the most powerful drug dealer in west
Baltimore, is running a card game and winning when Omar crashes through the
door with a gun in each hand.

(Soundbite of "The Wire")

(Soundbite of door breaking in)

Mr. MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) All right, fine. Let me see
those hands, you all. Hands!

Hey, yo, big man. Back up.

I don't know about cards, but I think these four fives beat a full house.
Hey, yo, banker. Cash me out, yo.

(Soundbite of bag being thrown)

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Boy, you want to hit on that body, you best
hop to.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) That's my money.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Man, money ain't got no owners. Only
spenders. I'll tell you something else. I like that ring, too.

Boy, you got me confused with a man who repeats himself.

(Soundbite of zipper zipping)

Actor #1: (In character) This ain't over.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Well, that's how you carry it, Shorty? Huh?
Because I could find your peoples a whole lot easier than they could find me.

Actor #1: (In character) Wear it in health.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) No doubt.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Michael Williams, welcome to FRESH AIR. People in the neighborhood
are really afraid of Omar because they know what you do, and when the
neighborhood kids see Omar coming, they run away screaming, "Omar coming!" How
does it feel to have that reaction to you, even if it's only in fiction?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, the first time I couldn't get through without laughing.
I couldn't fathom anybody would, you know, run away from me in total fear.
You know, anybody that really knows me growing up, you know, in Brooklyn
knows, you know, that's very far from my character. So I just had a hard time
finding a believable state of mind to execute the character. I just kept
going to laughter.

But, you know, I like to think that people are not scared of him is why they
do that. I think it's more of a respect thing, like they know that when this
dude surfaces, you know, there's going to be gunfire, and I don't think it's
necessarily like, `Oh my God, Omar's going to kill me.' It's like, `OK, it's
high noon, let's get, you know, it's a showdown about to happen. Let's get
out the way because you know stray bullets are--you know, can come this way.'
So I don't really think, not that they're running from him. They're scared of
what he represents when he comes.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And they want to get out the way of that.

GROSS: So you said that anyone who knew you growing up would know that you
weren't the kind of person who inspired fear. So how did you find that place
in yourself so that you could portray that kind of power?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I play Omar from a very painful place. You know, it's a very
dark state of mind to be in, a very painful state of mind, and I identify a
lot with him on that level, you know, having overcome a lot of pain in life
and stuff. So, you know, Omar in my book, in my eyes, I don't play Omar as an
alpha male, not one that would beat on his chest, and, you know, he's a very,
very sensitive dude. He comes from a very humble place. You know, growing up
in the hood, we always knew what the quiet one, the one that would kind of go
inside, that's the one you kind of, you watch out for. You know, so I play
him from that aspect.

GROSS: What one of the most fearless things that you had to portray Omar
doing up until this point in the series? Don't tell us about anything that
hasn't happened yet.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I would say the most fearless thing that I was able to pull
off and portray as Omar on television was his openness with his sexuality and
not have that go over the top. It meant a lot of me that this character be
taken seriously by my peers and by my community, and I didn't want this topic
of his sexual orientation to hinder his seriousness, and I didn't want to
disrespect anybody in the gay community, either. So it was like I was, I
think in a strange way, it was OK when it was Omar. You feel me? And kind of
like it was interesting to see that happen. That was one of the most
challenging parts of his character.

GROSS: Well, you're implying that there's a lot of homophobic feelings in
your community, but where you feeling homophobic about Omar, too? Where you
comfortable with him being gay?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I mean, I never really--it never--I--you know, it's all you
look at is--perception is everything with me. So I looked at it as an
opportunity to stand out, to shine, to be that sore thumb, if you will. It's
like, you know, I wasn't as much concerned about, you know, my homophobia
toward this character as I was concerned about the fact that there are some
stellar, kick-ass actors on this roster, and I got to make sure I meet the
standard, you know? So I was more concerned about that, and I saw the whole,
you know, I used, you know, the fact that this character had layers, none like
the other characters. I looked at it as a silver lining in the cloud.

GROSS: Now, Ed Burns, one of the main writers on the show, told me that
Omar's first on-screen kiss wasn't in the script and that you actually
improvised it. Would you describe the scene and tell us why you decided to
add that kiss?

Mr. WILLIAMS: At that point in the script, I already knew from the breakdown
that Omar was gay. And up until that point, it was--you know, it was a lot of
new faces, the show was brand new, new directors, new actors, you know, and
nobody knew who was what. You know...

GROSS: Yeah, the characters, so many characters, it's hard to follow.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It was hard--yeah, even for us working amongst each other, it
was hard to follow. So, you know, I would find that the writers were trying
to find the characters in their minds, and then also find the pushing point
with the actors, like, you know, `how far can we stretch these guys?' You
know? It was a trial and error process, and so, you know, by this time in the
taping, you know, Omar, he would only rub Brandon's hair, or he would, you
know, caress Brandon's cheek, or rub Brandon's back, and I'm like, well, you
know, if this is going to pop, then, you know, let's get this out the way so
we can establish this and move on from it. It was kind of like you know
you're going to get a whooping, like, let's hurry up and get it over with, you
know, let's just hurry up and get this thing done so I can stop waiting for it
to come. You know, let's just make it happen.

So this particular scene, it was in season one, and Omar and Brandon and
Bailey, they're waiting for Bailey to come back so they can go, you know,
hunting, basically. And he never shows up, and he's late. And Omar's a
stickler for time. So they, you know--and if you remember, Omar doesn't
curse. Brandon. you know, uses a lot of profanity to express himself. And
Omar expressed to him, you know, how ignorant that looks and how much he
didn't, you know, like those words coming from such, you know, a beautiful
mouth. And it was just, you know, ironic. They're waiting for their other
buddy to go robbing, and they're having this like lover's conversation over,
you know, guns and whatnot.

So I was just like, I think this would be the good time to just, you know,
throw that in there, you know, and so I go to the other actor, you know,
Michael Darnall, and say, `Mike, let's put the kiss in this scene.' He goes,
you know, `What?' I'm like, `I think it needs to happen now. And, you know,
let's just get it out there.' I go to tell him, and he goes, like, `You know
what, Mike? Just don't even tell me. Just surprise me because I just want it
to flow.' So, yeah, and it just--that scene which you saw was pretty much just
we just kind of got into these characters, man, and got into their minds, and
went with it. And, you know, to me, to, you know, to have these two dudes
kiss and then for him to pick up his shotgun and put his bullets in and,
clink, clink, `Let's go hunting,' it just was the ultimate contrast to me.
That's where I decided to put it.

GROSS: What was the reaction on the set when you added the unscripted kiss?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, I'll tell you, ironically, guess who directed that

GROSS: Was it Clark Johnson?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, none other than Clark. You know what I mean? So, you
know, in the beginning at rehearsal, he was setting this shot up. So he was
like, `OK, guys, rehearse.' And he was like, OK, talking to the lighting men
and looking at us. `OK, now put the flap this way,' you know, getting his
shot together. And when it got quiet and they heard the smacking of the lips,
Clark turned around and looked. He said, `Wait a minute. Hold up, hold up,
hold up. Cut!' He said, `Somebody get me some sizing. Get me some sizing. I
don't remember seeing that in the'--he had a little quick meeting. He said,
`Excuse me, um, ah, Omar.' He didn't know my name. `Omar, um, where
did--what--where--wh--wh?' I said, `So nah, I thought it would be a good idea
to improvise that right here. You feel me? Let's, you know, get it done.' So
from that day on, I noticed, you know, the light was a little bit more clearer
on me. I mean, they started calling me, you know, `Get Michael K. to the
set.' You know what I mean? You know, so, it definitely was a growth process.

GROSS: You know, it's funny, like the trait that was really most likable
about Omar is the same trait that gets people to be uncomfortable with him,
and that is that he really loves the men that he's been with during the course
of the series, and he's very loyal to them, and it shows that he really has a
heart, unlike some of the characters in the series, like Marlo, the drug
dealer. He doesn't seem to have a heart. But that love, that homosexuality
is exactly what makes some of the fans of the show uncomfortable. So I'm
wondering about what the range of reaction is that you get to the character.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's just one range. It's, you know, nothing but love. It's
been crazy. I mean, men, women, children, anybody that watch that show pretty
much have gotten nothing but, you know, admiration for him. But, you know,
I've gotten, you know, once in a while, `I don't mess with what he do. I
don't like that, that gay...(word censored by station) You know, I
don't know about all that, but that's my dude outside of that.' You know, I've
got just, you know, but the love just outweighs any negative, you know, energy
that might be or any type of, you know, lack of understanding, you know, they
may have for who this dude is. What they do understand about him, they love
that part of him, and they just lock onto that, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And I think it's just that honesty. You know, this dude is
just so real. He's so just like just, ooh! And, you know, he's a stand up
dude, you know, and that's what, you know, at the end of the day we kind of
respect. He's old school. He runs his game, he lives his life by the code of
the streets the old way, you know, and, you know, in this season, you're going
to really see fight to keep those rules alive, you know. But the rules
change, but the game remains the same, and, you know, that's just, you know,
the unfortunate truth.

GROSS: One of my favorite Omar scenes, he's like--as I remember, he doesn't
have like the breakfast cereal that he wants, so he goes out wearing only his
robe--I don't think you were even wearing slippers or shoes--goes to the
neighborhood store to get it, and kind of, you know, brings it back. But it's
such a sign of power that he could just like do that in these like really mean
streets. He's just going to walk out in his robe and go to the store.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, I think, like I said, you know, earlier, where that
comes from, you know, because that would easily be perceived as ignorant for a
person who lives, you know, on the edge the way Omar does. But like I, you
know, said earlier, you know, Omar doesn't operate from a `You better fear me,
you know, and I'm the baddest, big bad wolf, and I'll kill everybody.' That's
not his mindset, you know. He's the opposite, actually, you know, but he's
vulnerable, and that's what makes him volatile, you know.

So he walks out there because he knows that, `OK, I'm off right now.' You know
what I mean? `I don't just run around and just kill people at random. I'm
calculated. There's a reason behind my methods. You know, just there's
always a method to the madness.' You know, he's out going for cereal.
`There's no need to carry my gun right now, really.' You know, he's just, you
know, in his mind, he thinks people are running because they think that he's
working. He's like, `don't you all fools know I'm off right now?' You know
what I mean? You know, because everybody knows he was not run in that corner
store that he was going to to rob nobody. You know, that's just--they know
Omar doesn't do that. So they know that, you know, he ain't coming to rob
them. Like I said before, they just running just to get out of respect for...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WILLIAMS: `It's high noon. Time to get out the way. Omar's here.
There's some bullets going to fly.'

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Williams, and he plays
Omar, the guy who holds up drug dealers and steals their money in "The Wire,"
which is currently on its fifth and final season.


GROSS: Tell us how you got the part of Omar.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Nothing extraordinary. I got the calls. I was always
considered for Omar from day one.

GROSS: How? Did your agent send them a picture? Like, why were you being

Mr. WILLIAMS: What agent?


Mr. WILLIAMS: I was working in my mom's day care back in Flatbush, but,
yeah, so, you know, I got a call from Alexa Fogel, she faxed over the
breakdown, the sides...

GROSS: Who is she? The casting director?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes, Alexa Fogel is the casting director.

GROSS: So how did she even know about you?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, before "The Wire," you know, I did several "Law &
Order"s, and did a film with Nicolas Cage, Martin Scorsese, "Bringing out the
Dead." I had "Sopranos" under my belt. You know, I had a few spots, things I
had done, but I took a break for like two years to work in my mom's day care
in the projects where she raised me at, and I did that for like about a year
and nine months, and decided I wanted to get back in the business. And by
November, I was, you know, putting my stuff back out there. I had a new reel
I cut, put it back out there and my March, I got the call for "The Wire."

GROSS: So what was the audition like?

Mr. WILLIAMS: The audition was real--it was, you know, like I said, Omar's a
dark place, and I immediately, you know, I identified with this dude for some
weird reason. I just, I knew exactly where his mindset was. I was probably
not far from that state of mind at the time of the audition. And I just, you
know, the audition scene was, again, season one, where McNulty and Kima...

GROSS: And these are two of the cops.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, two of the cops, McNulty and Kima Greggs, they're
following him, and he knows he's being followed. So he drives into the center
of this cemetery, and they pull up behind him, and they have this conversation
about, you know, Barksdale, what does their snitch Bubble know about Barksdale
vs., you know, that's how they find out the reason why Bailey never made it to
the house for them to go robbing when that kiss scene happened, is because he
got killed the night before. And so all that comes out in that one scene in
the cemetery, and that was my audition scene. I put myself on tape once.
Alexa Fogel sent it to the producers in Baltimore. Next thing I know, they
were telling me to report to work.

GROSS: Wow. Well, why don't we hear how that scene you're talking about
actually turned out.

(Soundbite of "The Wire")

Mr. DOMINIC WEST: (As McNulty) Omar with no gun on the street? Must be a

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Yeah, sometimes who you are is enough, dawg.
But being as you all are sitting in my ride so long, I thought I'd save you
all some time, come straight on out. I ain't taking no charge, and you all
ain't putting me back up in no cage.

Mr. WEST: (As McNulty) We're not here to bury you, Omar. We'll pulling you
out because we got a problem in common.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Problem?

Mr. WEST: (As McNulty) Barksdale.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) No, he ain't no problem.

Mr. WEST: (As McNulty) I don't know. Avon's been chalking up a lot of
bodies, you being you.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Put it that way, I guess he could be a little
problem, but I just can't be coming out and help you all. You know what I
mean? Snitching? Just rubs me wrong. Hurts me. I don't think the game is
played like that.

Mr. WEST: (As McNulty) And we respect that. If you do happen to take a
charge, though, I'm McNulty. That's Greggs. You give us a call, we'll sort
something out.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Fair enough.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Williams, and he plays Omar, who we just heard in
that scene.

Now, I heard that you were supposed to die after seven episodes, but obviously
you didn't. You're one of like the leading characters now in the final
season. So were you told early on that you only had seven episodes and then
you were going to get killed?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Omar was pretty much from the beginning a recurring
character. That was the original idea for him, and I was grateful. I was
grateful I never had that word next to any character, any role I had up until
then. So, I mean, I was like grateful for that, just that word, and, yes, I
was happy. I was happy to be there, man, and we did it, you know, so around
the fifth or six--you know, actually, maybe we started around the third or
fourth, I'm waiting to see this type of like, `OK, they're not setting this
up? I don't see where--OK, I can see where this is definitely going to happen
in the seventh episode.' I'm like, it's looking like they're involving me more
and more into the storyline, like this is going the other way, you know what I
mean? So, yeah, just I've been looking for the bullet since season one.

GROSS: It's hard to tell right now whether you're going to live or not. I'm
waiting to see. I'm rooting for you.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So did they ever sit you down and say, `OK, you're not getting killed
off'? Or do you just like never know?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You never know. No one ever knows.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: They will come and tell you...

GROSS: So you're just living episode to episode.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Everybody. That's everybody.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WILLIAMS: From the number one on the call sheet to the number 30--I
think we're 30-something deep, the cast, crew, on the cast list. But no one
knows what's happening next. And it's so funny because, you know, we have a
rumor mill on the--like, `I heard they're writing something.' You know, like
all kind of stuff, man, it's crazy. But we be like a bunch of kids with our
ear to the end of a glass with a glass pressed up against the door, against
the writers' door, you know, trying to find out what they're going to do next.
But it keeps us on our toes, keeps everything just kind of honest and humble.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael K. Williams,
one of the stars of the HBO series "The Wire." He plays Omar, who makes his
money by robbing drug dealers. Before Williams got the part, he danced in
music videos by such performers as Missy Elliott, George Michael and Madonna.
Williams discovered the actor who plays one of the strangest characters on
"The Wire," Snoop, a drug dealer's hitman. Here's Snoop at a chain hardware
store buying a nailgun which she will later use to nail shut the doors of
vacant houses that have become tombs for her victims.

(Soundbite of "The Wire")

Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) I see you've got the DeWalt cordless,
your nailgun, DeWalt Core 10.

Ms. FELICIA PEARSON: (As Snoop) Yeah, the trouble is if you leave it in the
trunk for a while, you need to step up and use the bitch the battery don't
hold up, you know.

Actor #2: (In character) Yeah. Cordless will do that. You might want to
consider the powder actuated tool. The Hilti DX 460 MX or the Simpson PTP.
These two are my Cadillacs. Everything else on this board is second best,
sorry to say. Are you contracting or just doing some work around the house?

Ms. PEARSON: (As Snoop) No, we work all over.

Actor #2: (In character) Full time?

Ms. PEARSON: (As Snoop) No, we had about five jobs last month.

Actor #2: (In character) At that rate the cost of the powder actuated gun
justifies itself.

Ms. PEARSON: (As Snoop) Did you say power?

Actor #2: (In character) Powder.

Ms. PEARSON: (As Snoop) Like gunpowder?

Actor #2: (In character) Yeah.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: I asked Michael K. Williams about discovering Felicia Pearson.

You're responsible for casting one of the strangest characters in "The Wire,"
and that's Snoop, who's played by Felicia Pearson, and she's a hitman for the
most powerful drug dealer in west Baltimore. And she speaks in this like
mumbly slang that's really colorful, but it's also often incomprehensible.
When she first appeared on the show, I really couldn't tell whether she was a
male or a female. Would you tell us the story of how you met her?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. First of all, I have to correct you. That's how
Baltimore speaks, or that part of Baltimore. That is the normal and accurate
dialect and tone for the average Baltimorean who lives on the west side or on
the east side, in the hoods, you know, so that's not just her thing.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And we met in a club, a local bar in Baltimore. And she
caught my eyes like she caught America's eye. I was, like, you know, trying
to get a handle on what was her gender, you know, and her age, because, you
know, one eye said this is a 15-year-old little boy and the other eye was
like, but that could be just a really, you know, androgynous female.

So she came over to me and we spoke. And she had never watched the show, but
she knew who I was. And just, you know, gave me props, you know, didn't ask
me for nothing, didn't want to be on "The Wire," didn't ask for no numbers for
anybody, just really brief conversation. I just kept starring at her. And,
you know, I, you know, I mean, just like really rudely starring at her. And
she just like, "you know I'm a female, right? Twenty-five years old, just
came home," and I, you know, I guess at one point she felt that she had to let
me know that, you know, she had no interest in me whatsoever, you know,
because I just kept staring at her.

So you know, when she confirmed that she was a female and that she was 25
years old, I was blown away. It was like a light bulb went off in my head and
I immediately just was like, you know, I just knew that I had to be a part of
that, of her life, anything. I didn't--I had no clue who the, you know,
producers was going to put on the show. I wasn't even thinking that far.
And, man, they took it from there. That was pretty much my extent with it.

GROSS: So they just wrote the part of Snoop for her when they saw her?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Just like that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: They had a--they spoke with her for two hours, man, listened
to her story, and the next thing you know she was Snoop on "The Wire." She
ain't looked back since, you know. I'm really proud of her.

GROSS: You have a beautiful face, but you also have a scar running down most
of the length of your face. How did you get the scar?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment. And
fighting in this barroom brawl, you know, typical New York City story, wrong
place, wrong time. One drink too many. And just...

GROSS: What was it about?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I was in a bar, and a friend of mine from Brooklyn was
surrounded by a group of guys who wanted to jump him and I kind of stuck my
nose in there, you know, Broker's in the house. He's not going to get jumped
while me and my people is out here. So, you know, he ended up going home
safe, nothing happened to him. But I guess the crew of gentlemen didn't take
too kindly to me, you know, I guess sticking my nose in their business, so
kind of diverted their energy towards me, you know, and some words were
exchanged and tempers got hot, and some razor blades came out of some mouths.
The rest is history.

GROSS: So like what happened next? Did you get an ambulance or did...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, no. We took ourselves to the hospital and I...

GROSS: You took yourself to the hospital?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, because it was me and two of my friends. We got jumped,
and we all just got pretty much cut up. And so I--just something just told me
to tell the police report that it was attempted robbery. I don't know why I
did that, but I just did. And it worked out in my favor because I ended up
being eligible for their Crime Victims Bureau, which paid for my plastic
surgery, which is the reason why the scar didn't keloid on my face.

GROSS: So initially, how did it change your life? Your life had to change by
something as major as that.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, it definitely it was a wake-up call. I almost died that
night, though. The scar that most people see is not the one that endangered
my life. There is one that goes from my earlobe to my jugular, and that's the
one that scared me. I was like, you know, a lot of things have happened. I
was--I had two grand theft auto charges. The case is, you know, open, it's
going to court for. And then this pops up, you know. I was seeing that I was
being given an opportunity, you know, I was dancing. I was, you know,
modeling and working, getting my little gigs and stuff. And I was happy in
the direction that, you know, the universe was taking me as far as, you know,
the business was concerned. But I had these little, like, dark situations
that would just come up and bite me in my behind. And I think that me getting
jumped that night was definitely the pinnacle of that wake-up call. And I
just like, you know, I just didn't think I was going to be living very much
longer. There were just too many things happening too fast at one time.

GROSS: So you were already doing acting and modeling when you got cut?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I was--yeah, I was dancing, more so. I was background dancing
on a lot...

GROSS: Like on videos?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Music videos...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: ...going on tours and stuff. And I did a spread for this
company called Rock Embassy, and they made all the tour jackets for recording
artists like, you know, Queen Latifah, Janet Jackson, Madonna. I had all
those tour jackets. And there was a huge spread that me and a good friend of
mine, Charles...(unintelligible)...he and I did this spread for this company
and it hit all the magazines, all the hip-hop magazines like Right On and Word
Up, those magazines, those publications at the time. And that was--they hit
the newsstand November 19th, and I got cut November 22nd. You know, that


Mr. WILLIAMS: So my friends had this little joke, they called me the male
Marla Gibbs.

GROSS: Well, did you think your career was over?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I never even locked into that, you know. I was pretty much
humbled on how this buck fifty down my face, you know, because I was, you
know, I was, you know, club kid...(unintelligible) I was like, I always
had the flat top and, you know, the loud trendy shirts. And, you know me, I
was a dancer so that was my--so o when this happened I was like, damn, I've
got to switch it up. So, you know, I just, you know, Seal was really big at
the time and, you know, he had just all the media for putting his tribal marks
on his face. And I was like that's a great, great angle. I'm going to rock
with that. So I bald my head, cut off all my hair. And I was like, I'm the
new Seal.

And I just never locked into it. I never like, you know, I was, you know,
through the Crime Victims Bureau, I was supposed to go and get all this like
psychiatric evaluation and yada yada yada. I just--I thought at the time, I
thought it would be best if I not locked into any of that. You know, like
when a baby falls? If the baby, looks at your face for your reaction to know
how they should react? So I kind of like just used that kind of psychology on
myself and just, like, I just didn't trip.

GROSS: So how did it affect future roles that you got?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Like I said, I got cut in November, by March I was...

GROSS: Now, what year was this?

Mr. WILLIAMS: This happened '93, somewhere around 1993...

GROSS: OK. Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: ...this happened. It impacted my career a lot by--I got cut
in November, by March I was literally just getting stopped in the street by
photographers, you know, some among who were David LaChapelle, you know, he
was one of the first ones who told me I had a beautiful face. James Mitchell
III, he's like, you know, Lower East Side, man, back in the '90s was a good
time. It was just like we were all growing. You know, I mean it was a good
time and being in the city and that got the whole thing rolling.

GROSS: So how did you get into doing music videos? Like, what was your first
break there? How did you start dancing in the first place?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I always loved to dance. I always, you know, was the life of
the party growing up, stuff as far as dance was concerned. But I got into a
lot of trouble in my teenage years, you know, messing around the streets, you
know, drugs and stuff like that. And I had to go, you know, clear my head for
a couple of months upstate and...

GROSS: You mean like rehab or something?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. So when I came back from that...

GROSS: Or prison? I'm not sure what you mean.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It was mandatory so...

GROSS: Right. OK.

Mr. WILLIAMS: ...we'll leave it at that.

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. WILLIAMS: But, yeah. And I came back from that and I was like, you
know, I started to get my life together and I was going to school. I went to
BMCC, which is Borough Manhattan Community College, I was taking up business
there, and got a good job at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. They was about to make
me--I got like a temp situation, they was about to make me permanent. And,
man, here goes Janet Jackson dancing her big old butt across my screen,
talking about "Rhythm Nation." That just lost my mind. I just quit school. I
quit my job. And I was like, this is it. I'm going to become a Janet Jackson
dancer. And I was really serious about that. And, you know, I got--you know,
ended up homeless for about a year or so.

GROSS: Homeless? How come?

Mr. WILLIAMS: My family's not really big on that entertainment stuff, you
know. I was a big boy. I was like 23 by this time. And, yeah, means is like
my family was really fed up. They were like, as soon as they see, like, he
starts to get his life together, he goes left again. Yet again, he makes
another left turn. `What do you mean you're going to quit school and your
good job to become a dancer? Are you crazy?' So just trying to escape hearing
all the, you know, just to downplay on what I wanted to do I just kind of
stayed away. And, you know, kind of, you know, had to sleep on a few couches,
a few trains. And I mean, but it wasn't long--it was about a year--it wasn't
long before I started making money as a dancer and...

GROSS: How did you do it? I mean, how did--if you're sleeping on trains, how
did you get to the point where you're getting cast in music videos?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh...(unintelligible). Oh, I stayed in the mix. Backstage
was my best friend. That was like my Bible, Backstage newspaper. I stayed in
areas like Broadway Dance Center. I was always up there bothering somebody
or, you know, or Stepping Out Studios. You know, I packed my backpack with a
bunch of PJ sandwiches and, you know, I mean I would literally just pound that
pavement up and down Broadway, winding up at record companies, finding out
who's the new artist and you know, do you need any dancers, man? Going to the
clubs. I stayed in the clubs. You know, I just, I was hungry. And before
long I wasn't--about a year I'd give it. I started getting gigs. My first
gig was Kim Syms. She had this record called "Too Blind To See It." She's
from Chi-town, big ups to Chi-town. And that was my first gig, and I ain't
looked back yet.

GROSS: Well, your mother must be proud of you. She didn't think it was a
realistic ambition, and look what you've done.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, she's very proud of me. And I'm just proud of the fact
that she even, you know, loves me and hasn't, like, kicked me out of her life,
the crap I put her through. But, you know, I must say, though, she does not
watch "The Wire." She's, you know, my mother's--the relationship that she and
I have has been tested many, many times. And the friendship that we have
today and how we survive this life is not because I'm in show business. I
think she's just happy to see me alive and happy doing something I like to do.

GROSS: You know, when I interviewed Clark Johnson, who plays the character of
Gus, the city editor on "The Wire" and who directed the first two episodes and
the final episode of the series, I said to him, `What should I ask Michael
Williams when I talk with him?' And the one question he suggested to me is,
ask him how he's going to shake off the character of Omar?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, big ups to Clark Johnson, the man has a beautiful
mind. That's a hella fine question. You know, I don't know if it's going to
ever happen. And what's even scary is I don't even know if I want to shake

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, Omar, like I say, is a real, it's a dark state of
mind. And sometimes I scare myself when I get comfortable there. So I don't
know if I'll--I'm still kind of like--it's weird. It's weird. It was a real
experience. It was very cathartic having been given the opportunity to play
Omar. I don't know that I really have embraced everything that's happened,
you know, having played a character like this. I would have never have thunk
that what we did as a family down there in Baltimore would have created this
type of response and admiration that we've gotten. And I don't know if I ever
want to let that feeling go. I don't think I'll ever get it that intensely
again in this business. So I don't know if I want to ever really let that go.
I'm going to hold onto that for as long as I can, I think. But I know with
that comes that dark side, you know. It's a sad place, but I like being
there, oddly.

GROSS: Well, I really like watching you in "The Wire," so I'm hoping that
Omar makes it through the end, the end of the final episode.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Man, it's Baltimore, baby, everybody dies.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me here.

GROSS: Michael K. Williams plays Omar on "The Wire." Here's Omar in a high
noon kind of showdown with Brother Mouzone, who Omar once wounded but decided
to spare.

(Soundbite of "The Wire")

Mr. MICHAEL POTTS: (As Brother Mouzone) I see you favor a .45?

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Tonight I do. I keeps one in the chamber in
case you pawned me. Nice show piece you got there.

Mr. POTTS: (As Brother Mouzone) Walter PPK .380, double action.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Hear them Walters like to jump some.

Mr. POTTS: (As Brother Mouzone) As will you, with one in your elbow.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) That gun ain't got enough firepower to make
my joint useless. It definitely won't stop me from emptying out half my mag.

Mr. POTTS: (As Brother Mouzone) You might not hit me.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) This range? And this caliber? Even if I
miss I can't miss.

Mr. POTTS: (As Brother Mouzone) I admire a man with confidence.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) I don't see no sweat on your brow neither,

(Soundbite of train)

Mr. POTTS: (As Brother Mouzone) I suppose we could stand here all night.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) I suppose we could, or settle this once and

(End of soundbite)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ed Ward on The Impressions and Jerry and Billy Butler

It's not easy being the younger brother of a famous singer; just ask Chris
Jagger. But it can also help when you're both part of a community taking off,
like the Chicago soul scene did in the 1960s. Today Ed Ward takes a look at
the intertwined fates of The Impressions, Jerry Butler, and his brother Billy.

(Soundbite of "I'm A Telling You")

Mr. CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) I'm a telling you
Whoa, I'm a telling
I'm a telling you
Mm, I'm a telling you
I get up, I go to work
I try real hard to do my job
But before the day is done
I find out I've done something wrong

I'm a telling you
Whoa, I'm a telling you
I'm a telling you
Whoa, I'm a telling you
Days are getting longer
And my nights are getting shorter
And my way gets darker
And my work gets harder now

When I get home...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. ED WARD: In the beginning they were The Impressions, five Chicago
teenagers who thought they were pretty good. And they were. The chief
songwriter, Curtis Mayfield, also had a beautiful high tenor and played guitar
in hypnotic gospel-influenced style. Their lead singer, Jerry Butler, though,
was their secret weapon. Like a few other singers around Chicago, most
notably Sam Cooke, he was in the process of inventing soul.

(Soundbite of "For Your Precious Love")

Mr. MAYFIELD: (Singing) Your precious love
Means more to me
Than any love could ever be
So when I wanted you
I was so lonely and so blue
For that's what love will do
And darling, I...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: "For Your Precious Love" was a good sized hit in 1958, but the
follow up "Come Back, My Love" wasn't. The record label dropped The
Impressions but kept Jerry Butler, who was kind enough to hire Curtis Mayfield
as his guitarist and songwriting partner, which turned out to be a very good

(Soundbite of "He Will Break Your Heart"

Mr. JERRY BUTLER and Mr. MAYFIELD: (Singing) He don't love you
Like I love you
If he did, he wouldn't
Break your heart
He don't love you
Like I love you
He's trying to tear us apart

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: That's Mayfield on harmony, too, on Butler's first solo single,
which took him to the top of the charts. But Mayfield and The Impressions got
signed by another label and started having hits of their own. And as the
1960s progressed, Butler leaned more towards big productions which showcased
his voice and The Impressions toward stripped down numbers where Mayfield
could support the vocals with his guitar. And while Butler recorded what is
probably the definitive version of "Moon River," he was still hyperaware of
keeping things soulful.

(Soundbite of "I Stand Accused")

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) I stand accused
Of loving you too much
I hope, I sure hope it's not a crime
'Cause I'm guilty
Oh, I...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: But Butler was recording for Vee-Jay Records, and when they went
under he found a couple of young men in Philadelphia who wanted to make
records with him. Under Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Jerry Butler found
songwriting partners and producers who'd make him bigger than ever.

(Soundbite of "Only the Strong Survive")

Backup Singers: (Singing) I remember...

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) I remember my first love affair.

Singers: (Singing) I remember...

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Somehow or another the whole darn thing went wrong.

Singers: (Singing) I remember...

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) But my mama had some great advice, so I thought I'd put
it in the words of this song. I can still hear her saying...

(Singing) Boy

Singers: (Singing) Boy, boy

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Oh, I see you sitting out there all alone
Crying your eyes out 'cause the woman that you love is gone
Oh, there's going to be, there's going to be
A whole lot of trouble in your life

Singers: (Singing) Whole lot of trouble

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Oh, so listen to me, get up off your knees
'Cause only the strong survive
That's what she said,
She said only the strong survive
Only the strong survive
Yeah, you got to be strong

Singers: (Singing) No

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) You better hold on

Singers: (Singing) Hold on

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Hold on!

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: "Only The Strong Survive" brought Butler's career to a new height
in 1969, and the Ice Man, as he was known from his cool onstage demeanor,
would stay there for a few more years. But who knew that, back in Chicago,
there was another Butler? Well, Curtis Mayfield for one, and Carl Davis of
OKeh Records for whom Billy Butler, six years younger than brother Jerry, had
run sessions, sung backup on them and contributed songs. Finally, in 1963,
Billy and his group The Four Enchanters got their break, but their records,
although good, went nowhere. It wasn't until 1965 they hit the charts with a
Curtis Mayfield song.

(Soundbite of "I Can't Work No Longer")

THE FOUR ENCHANTERS: (Singing) I just can't work no longer
I've got to see my woman right now
And we ain't getting any younger
I've got to get to her love somehow
The clouds come, it's raining
It's raining
The sun comes and shine
Lord, I ain't complaining
I don't know when I'm serving my time

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: This song isn't the most original,
and...(unintelligible)...arrangement is too busy. But you can hear a good
voice in there, and it charted. His next and last hit for OKeh was a lot

(Soundbite of "Right Track")

THE FOUR ENCHANTERS: (Singing) Girl, what's on your mind?
What are you trying to tell me now?
Are you feeling sad and blue
Because money's low and everything seems to go wrong

Well, my shoe's got a hole
But I can't stop now
I've been trying to reach my goal too long
To give up on my journey now

And I believe that I'm on the right track
I believe, I believe
I believe that I'm on the right track
I believe, I believe
I'm going to keep on stepping,
Never looking back
I believe that I'm on the right track
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WARD: "Right Track" was the end of Billy's career with OKeh, although he
continued to record into the '70s. Today the Butler brothers are still in
Chicago. Jerry is a singer and politician, and Billy, after many years of ill
health, is reportedly considering a comeback.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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