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Revisiting A Conversation With Michael K. Williams' About His Winding Path To Success

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Actor Michael K. Williams, who died yesterday, is celebrated for award-winning roles in dramas such as "The Wire," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Lovecraft Country." Before that, though, he was a dancer in music videos. Today, we wanted to revisit a talk with Williams from 2014. He spoke about his winding path to success for NPR's series My Big Break.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL K WILLIAMS: I was doing a bunch of videos, you know, just dancing background. But then on my birthday, on my 25th birthday, I got cut in my face in a barroom brawl. There was a popping party going on in Queens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MR. CHOP'S "INTERMEZZO 1")

WILLIAMS: Went outside to get some air, and I saw that two of my other friends was being surrounded by some dudes who I didn't know. And it looked like they were about to get jumped. And I said, yo, I'm ready to leave. Let's go back. I'm going to go back home now.

But this one dude kept pacing behind me. He kept walking behind me. He kept, like, you know, like, sucking his teeth. And I'm looking. I'm like, yo, so what's up, dude? Like, yo, bro, what's your problem?

And the dude wiped his hand across his mouth and just - what I thought - it appeared to be - smacked me. But what he did was he spit a razor. He was positioning the razor in his mouth to get it between his middle finger and his ring finger. And then he just went and swiped me down my face. And this cut in my face was actually the first hit of the fight (laughter). So we managed to escape with our lives barely that night.

Things changed immediately after that. Directors didn't want me just to dance in the videos anymore, they wanted me to act out these thug roles, you know? I was like - you know, Mike, roll these dice in this video, have this fight in this video. I was like, all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Tupac Shakur was filming a movie in New York called "Bullet" opposite Mickey Rourke, and the production office that they were working out of in New York happened to have a Polaroid picture of me from me going to audition from some various music video. So he happened to see a Polaroid picture of me and was like, yo, this dude looks thugged out enough that he could play my little brother. I think he saw my pain, my struggle, my heart. I was just - like, I was starstruck. You know, I was like, wow, that's Tupac Shakur.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BULLET")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (As Tank) And if you was half as smart as I thought you was, Paddy boy, you'd be minding your [expletive] business right now.

WILLIAMS: (As High Top) Let me tell you - we know all about your little hotshot package.

Tupac was larger than life. I spent a lot of time just listening to him and watching him because I learned so much. He's that kind of person. He's like a walking encyclopedia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL EYEZ ON ME")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) 'Cause all I want is cash and things, a five-double-0 Benz, flauntin' flashy rings, uh.

WILLIAMS: I shot that movie still dancing. And I had booked a major supporting role on "Law & Order." I had booked a major supporting role on "Sopranos." So, you know, I got a little high on the horse, you know? Yeah, I'm going - I ain't going to LA, LA going to send for me. And it didn't happen. And I got really financially strapped.

My mom opened up a day care in the projects where we lived. So in 2000, she was like, why don't you come work in day care, you know? So I said, Ma, you know, I want to give this acting thing one more shot. It doesn't work, I'm done. It's me and you. We changing Pampers, baby.

My phone did not ring. And man, I was down in the dumps. I got really depressed - like really depressed. And then March came. And one day she called me, said, you got a fax downstairs here. I went downstairs to her office, and it was the breakdown for Omar from "The Wire" on HBO.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")

SUSAN ROME: (As Ilene Nathan) State your name for the record.

WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Omar Devone Little.

ROME: (As Ilene Nathan) And what is your occupation?

WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) I rip and run.

ROME: (As Ilene Nathan) You...

WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) I robs drug dealers.

ROME: (As Ilene Nathan) Mr. Little, how does a man rob drug dealers for eight or nine years and live to tell about it?

WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Day at a time, I suppose.

I got to grow with an amazing group of people that I consider my "Wire" family. That character changed my life, and that was my big break.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MY ONLY SWERVING")

KELLY: The actor Michael K. Williams - he died yesterday at the age of 54. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.