Photograph: Paul Schiraldi
“You come at the king, you best not miss,” he tells his enemies after a failed attempt on his life – a line sold, as always, with Williams’s indelible combination of menace and charm.Omar walks the streets wearing just his silk pyjamas to search for Honey Nut Cheerios, his favourite breakfast cereal, protected only by his fearsome reputation. And yet when he dies, he is killed by an irrelevant young kid in a moment meant to illustrate the brutality and meaninglessness of life in district of Baltimore. His role on the streets is eventually taken in the final episode by another complex character, Michael Lee (played by Tristan Wilds), illustrating the programme’s deterministic view that a person’s life is inescapably shaped and controlled by the social structures and institutions they live under.
Williams was so high when he met Obama in 2008 he was unable to speak. But the meeting with the future president had a decisive impact on him. He later recalled: “Hearing my name come out of his mouth woke me up. I realised that my work could actually make a difference.” As well as taking roles in productions that focused on the criminal justice system, such as The Night Of and When They See Us, he was the American Civil Liberties Union’s ambassador for ending mass incarceration, and fronted and executive produced a documentary series about illegal livelihoods with Vice, Black Market – something he called his “most personal project”.
However, it was his embodiment of Omar that really faced the US with the true human cost of the carnage in some of its inner cities, and how it truly feels to be on the frontline. On Tuesday, Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk, his adversary in the Baltimore police force, tweeted a piece of video from 2014 in which he pays tribute to Williams while his co-star is standing next to him.