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Actor Michael K. Williams' posthumous memoir details how his life informed his career


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: A posthumous memoir out this week tells of the life and legacy of actor Michael K. Williams, who died of a drug overdose last fall.

Now, Williams is known for his powerful performances on screen. But the memoir also reveals his struggles and the impact he made through social justice and community activism.

Jeffrey Brown explores the roles and the man as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Actor: Omar coming.

Jeffrey Brown: The whistle, the walk, the way of being Omar Little, a stick-up man and killer, but one who only takes on drug dealers, and a gay man in a violent and homophobic world.

He was an indelible character on one of the most highly regarded series in television history, "The Wire." The actor who brought Omar to life, Michael K. Williams.

Eric Deggans, National Public Radio: He played these powerful figures who were pioneering characters in terms of the portraits of Black men that we have seen on television.

Jeffrey Brown: Eric Deggans is the television critic for NPR.

Eric Deggans: Michael was constantly sort of reinventing our vision of what Black maleness could be, of what Black masculinity could be.

Jeffrey Brown: Other actors also saw an unusual talent.

"Wire" co-star Wendell Pierce:

Wendell Pierce, Actor: What we are actually getting to witness in his young career — and we're going to see a lot more — is, like, one of the great American actors giving voice and giving flesh to characters that most people would have never given the same humanity to.

Jeffrey Brown: Chalky White, a prohibition era gangster in "Boardwalk Empire," Freddy Knight, a convict who rules the prison in "The Night Of," Montrose Freeman, a mysterious traumatized man who has lived through the Tulsa massacre in "Lovecraft Country." Williams was a powerful presence in high-profile series for HBO.

Now the man behind the characters comes to life in a posthumous memoir, "Scenes From My Life," co-written with Jon Sternfeld, who completed the work after Williams' death.

Michael K. Williams, Actor: And this building was where I lived all my life from conception up until season two of "The Wire."

Jeffrey Brown: Williams, scene here in a video from March 2021, grew up in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn in a huge housing project then called Vanderveer Estates.

In the book, he described a vibrant, but violent world, amid the crack cocaine era of the 1980s and '90s, a loving but strict mother, an absent father, his own crippling insecurities, what he called his softness in a hard environment, and his turn to drugs. He got the scar running down his face that would in some ways define his on-camera image after being slashed with a razor in a fight.

The arts became a way out, first as a dancer, then actor.

Dominic Dupont, Nephew of Michael K. Williams: It was interconnected, his personal experiences through his professional experiences, through work and through some of his characters.

Jeffrey Brown: Dominic Dupont, Williams' nephew and friend, also grew up in Vanderveer.

Dominic Dupont: A lot of Michael's personal experiences breathed life into his characters. But what he was to me, I believe he was to most of the people who knew him in the world.

He was an amazingly talented human being who cared about people, who understood what it was to suffer and how to help people heal from suffering.

Jeffrey Brown: What Dupont and others want the world to know of Williams, especially in the last years of his life, was his commitment to social justice and community work, a legacy as important as his acting.

Michael K. Williams: I ain't no angel. I have been through — I made some bad choices, but God lifted me up. So, the way I show God that I appreciate my second chance at life is by coming home and making sure that I show my youth what I did wrong.

Dana Rachlin, Public Safety Expert: The greatest gift that Michael was able to give to people a lot of the time was making them feel like they mattered, because he was going to the places that other people don't go.

Jeffrey Brown: Dana Rachlin is a Brooklyn based activist who, with Williams, co-founded We Build the Block, an organization aimed at increasing public safety through community-led initiatives.

Williams, she says was eager to reach young people and help change lives.

Dana Rachlin: And when we talk about, like, mentorship, or looking for positive role models, or looking for love, I think that's what made Michael so special.

He understood that he had to share pieces of himself to make other people feel whole.

Jeffrey Brown: The focus on social justice also showed up in his work on camera, in drama such as "When We Rise" about the gay rights movement, and as a father to one of the exonerated Central Park 5 in "When They See Us."

Michael K. Williams: I was that kid that the neighbors thought wasn't going to make it.

Jeffrey Brown: Also in a series of documentaries he made, "Raised in the System," in which Williams took viewers into juvenile detention centers and prisons.

Man: The strong survive off the weak.

Jeffrey Brown: And "Black Market," a visceral look into the world of crime and illegal markets.

In the memoir, Williams wrote candidly of his own continuing struggles with addiction, also of the dark places his roles often took him and the difficulties he had returning from them.

NPR's Eric Deggans:

Eric Deggans: The fact that he would take on those roles anyway, knowing the danger to his sobriety, sort of spoke to the mission that he felt as a performer, to bring these men to life, even though it was at great risk to his own sobriety and health.

I thought that was sort of the tragic dilemma of his life.

Jeffrey Brown: On September 6, 2021, Michael K. Williams was found dead of an overdose of fentanyl-laced heroin. He was 54.

Four men were charged for distributing the drugs that led to his overdose.

Dominic Dupont: In a few weeks, it'll be a year already. I feel like it was just yesterday.

What I understand is, is what Michael would want us to understand, that there's a lot more work to do and that, if we can use this situation as an opportunity to make people more aware about substance abuse and addiction and how do we help people, then we have gained something. We have made progress.

Dana Rachlin: I have a lot of rage when it comes to Michael's death and a lot of sadness.

I hope that what comes out of this is Michael's legacy. And that is a legacy of love, and healing, and a mirror that's put up to all of us, that we're not just telling the stories, like Michael told in "The Wire" or "The Night Of," or "When They See Us," but we're actually doing things to change that.

Jeffrey Brown: In addition to "Scenes From My Life," a final on-camera roll comes this month with the release of the film "Breaking," while Dana Rachlin continues to work she and Williams began with We Build the Block and other programs across this city.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Brooklyn.

Amna Nawaz: And what a legacy he leaves behind.

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