Michael Kenneth Williams, an actor known for his roles in The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Lovecraft Country, has died. He was 54.
The five-time Emmy Award nominee was found dead Monday afternoon at around 2 p.m. in his Brooklyn penthouse apartment, a source from the NYPD tells PEOPLE. Williams’ nephew discovered his body in the living room.
“It is with deep sorrow that the family announces the passing of Emmy nominated actor Michael Kenneth Williams,” a rep for Williams tells PEOPLE. “They ask for your privacy while grieving this unsurmountable loss.”
Although the cause of death has not yet been determined, drug paraphernalia was found in the apartment, according to the New York Post. A separate law enforcement source tells PEOPLE that Williams died of a suspected overdose and that officials believe he may have had heroin laced with fentanyl.
Williams has been open about his struggles with drug dependency in the past. Raised in the Vanderveer Projects of the East Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, he was exposed to crime at an early age and developed a drug addiction in his teens.
He told The New York Times in 2017 that although he’d had treatment for his addiction, he’d relapsed multiple times during his storied career. “Addiction doesn’t go away,” he said. “It’s an everyday struggle for me, but I’m fighting.”
Friends and fans shared tributes to Williams on social media after the news of his death on Monday. “The depth of my love for this brother, can only be matched by the depth of my pain learning of his loss,” his The Wire costar Wendell Pierce wrote on Twitter. “A immensely talented man with the ability to give voice to the human condition portraying the lives of those whose humanity is seldom elevated until he sings their truth.”
“Michael K Williams, in addition to being one of the most talented actors around, was also one of the kindest, sweetest, most gentle souls I’ve ever met,” wrote James Gunn. “This is heartbreaking. My thoughts are with all those who loved him.”
Williams’ breakout role came in 2002, when he portrayed Omar Little in HBO’s The Wire. The role has been lauded over the years for its complex depiction of a gay Black man with a reputation as a ruthless criminal in the streets of Baltimore.
In a statement, HBO says the network is “devastated” to learn of Williams’ death, noting that he has been “a member of the HBO family for more than 20 years.” They added, “While the world is aware of his immense talents as an artist, we knew Michael as a dear friend who was beloved by all who had the privilege to work with him. We send our deepest condolences to his family for this immeasurable loss.”
Over the years, he’s appeared in such shows as Law & Order, The Sopranos, Alias, Boardwalk Empire, Community and When They See Us. He’s also had roles in movies like Gone Baby Gone, The Incredible Hulk, 12 Years a Slave, Inherent Vice and Ghostbusters (2016).
Most recently, Williams delivered another acclaimed performance in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, which earned him his fifth Emmy nomination in July. (Winners will be announced on Sept. 19.) He spoke to PEOPLE about playing Montrose, a Black man discovering his sexuality in the 1950s, and how that compared to his role on The Wire.
“Montrose was different. He didn’t have the freedom Omar had or the confidence. He comes from such a broken place,” he said in October 2020. “I just had to find my own pain and my own trauma, which was a very painful experience for me. All the generational pain that had been passed down through my own personal experiences, I had to dig deep down in that for Montrose.”
“I would hope that after watching Lovecraft, people walk away with this understanding of the beauty and necessity of a father-son relationship in the Black community,” Williams shared. “Black fathers have been ripped away from their sons for so many years, mine included. That was the main thing that attracted me to this to this role was the opportunity to play dad to that amazing Jonathan Majors and for us to explore what father and son bonding looks like and how we can rebuild that and treasure it. There’s an absence of the Black male in our community for a lot of reasons and some of it isn’t our fault but the need is there. It’s a beautiful thing to look at. I hope Montrose will remind us how much little Black boys need their fathers.”
“We are so conditioned to mask our pain as Black men in America. We’re not allowed to cry, we’re not allowed to be vulnerable. We’re not allowed to be soft. I hope that Montrose will at least open up a conversation for Black men in America,” he added.
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