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Michael K. Williams even made advertising feel like art

Revisiting two powerful ads that the award-winning actor made for ‘The Atlantic’ and 1800 Tequila.

Michael K. Williams even made advertising feel like art
[Screenshot: The Atlantic/O Positive]
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On Monday, award-winning actor Michael K. Williams was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. The 54-year-old artist was best known for his roles in some of HBO’s biggest hits, first as Omar Little in The Wire, then as Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire. His other credits include Lovecraft Country, The Night Of, Bessie, and When They See Us.

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Williams grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and spoke often about the violence and poverty that surrounded him, and how it shaped him as a person. His signature facial scar came from being slashed with a razor on his 25th birthday. As a dancer early in his career, he performed with Madonna and George Michael, and his first acting role was in the 1996 Tupac Shakur film Bullet.

Over the years, Williams starred in a handful of advertising campaigns, including for Diddy’s Ciroc and Beats by Dre. But two pieces of brand work in particular stand out as not only compelling ads, but also poignant representations of Williams as a man and an artist. For these brands, as in his TV and film roles, Williams’ presence, gravitas, and performance elevates the work to another level.

The first was in 2015 for 1800 Tequila, in which Williams discusses his past, upbringing, and the roles he chooses. “If I could bring some type of understanding, empathy, compassion, to a people that society may deem as ‘undesirable,’ I think that’s a pretty cool place to be,” says Williams.

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Then in 2017, Williams starred in a short film for The Atlantic called “Typecast,” created with agency Wieden+Kennedy and director David Shane. In it, Williams ponders how, given his variety of roles—from a detective in the 2007 film Gone Baby Gone, to a biology professor on the TV comedy Community—it’s the gangsters like Chalky and Omar that are most etched in people’s memories. Williams’ Wire co-star Wendell Pierce once said that Omar and Chalky were two of the most iconic characters in the history of American television.

The ad showed Williams discussing whether he has repeatedly been stuck playing the same character with four different versions of “Mike.” But ultimately, the main Mike argues against the idea that he’s typecast.

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“If I were typecast, I’d be in jail or dead. But I’m here. I got out. Got myself out,” says one Mike.

“You sure about that?” answers another Mike, looking very much like Omar, a shotgun in his lap.

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“Yeah,” says Mike quietly, as he’s revealed to be sitting in his apartment alone.

These two ads illustrate both Williams’ power as an actor—his onscreen intensity and shine—as well as the inescapable similarities between Williams the man, and the characters he portrayed. He could jump from Oscar-winning films to hosting a Vice series on the real-life black market dealings of desperate people. He was a celebrated actor with a wide range of roles, even as he openly struggled with his own demons. “Addiction doesn’t go away,” he told the New York Times in 2017. “It’s an everyday struggle for me, but I’m fighting.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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