Michael K. Williams' memoir 'Scenes From My Life' shows how he turned trauma into art The beloved actor made his mark playing tough characters; but he wanted young Black men to know it was okay to be vulnerable.



Michael K. Williams' memoir 'Scenes From My Life' shows how he turned trauma into art

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Actor and activist Michael K. Williams is the subject of a new memoir out today. He was known for groundbreaking roles on TV shows like "The Wire," where he played Omar, an outlaw who robbed drug dealers.


MICHAEL K WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) But the game is out there. And it's either play or get played.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Eric Deggans talked both to Williams' co-author and his nephew about the challenge of completing the book not long after the actor's death last year.

DION GRAHAM: (Reading) Way before I was anything or anyone, I was an addict.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: That's actually Dion Graham, an actor and voiceover artist, reading from the audio book of "Scenes From My Life." The book is written as if Williams is talking directly to the reader, speaking frankly about his lifelong struggles with self-esteem and addiction.

GRAHAM: (Reading) And in my mid-20s, I was on the verge of being discarded, like so many of my brothers and sisters who never got a chance to be something else. But through God's grace, I am still here.

DEGGANS: Unfortunately, Michael Kenneth Williams isn't here. The actor was found dead from an overdose in his Brooklyn home on September 6 last year. Williams' nephew, Dominic Dupont, says one way he copes is by focusing on the messages of love and healing in the book.

DOMINIC DUPONT: Understanding that Michael would have wanted this - he would have wanted us to elevate this conversation about what it is to turn pain into art.

DEGGANS: Williams' co-author, Jon Sternfeld, says the two worked on the book for more than two years. Williams died five or six weeks before the manuscript was due.

JON STERNFELD: And one of the things he talked about a lot was how young men, especially young Black men, were not taught to get out there with their feelings and be vulnerable. And he, like, wanted to be a demonstrator of that.

DEGGANS: "Scenes From My Life" tells a story which could have been a movie on its own. Raised in a Brooklyn housing project, Williams started as a dancer and model, inspired by Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" video. He thought his performing life was over when his face was slashed during a bar fight. But instead, it led to an acting career playing legendarily tough yet sensitive Black men, from Omar Little in "The Wire" to Montrose Freeman, a gay closeted Black man in the 1950s, in HBO's "Lovecraft Country."

Co-author Sternfeld noted Williams grew up as a very different person than the tough characters he played, discovering that dancing and the arts could bring purpose to his life.

STERNFELD: He's like, everyone who grew up with me knew that I was this scaredy cat who liked to dance or who wore bow ties to church. He was definitely a bullied kid. And they mocked him for his interest in the arts, and he would hang out with girls or younger boys because he felt like he couldn't hang. And that's a big part of the book.

DEGGANS: Williams' nephew Dupont said tapping into past traumas to play those characters could trigger emotions that made it tough for the actor to maintain his sobriety.

DUPONT: That was a sacrifice for Mike, and he knew that. That is how he poured life into these characters. Pouring life into these characters meant that he would pour pain and trauma into them.

DEGGANS: Dupont was convicted of murder after defending his twin brother in a fight at age 19. He served 20 years as a model prisoner, and Williams stayed connected to him, working with Dupont on a nonprofit aimed at helping kids after his sentence was commuted in 2017.

DUPONT: For as long as I can remember, my entire life - no matter what he struggled with, no matter what he was going through - he was always concerned that someone else was going through something worse than him, and how could he help.

DEGGANS: Dupont said things seem to be going well last year when Williams suddenly stopped answering texts.

DUPONT: What also alarmed me was that I talked to Michael every single day since I was released from prison - every single day.

DEGGANS: Dupont and his wife got into Williams' apartment, discovered his body and called 911. Both Dupont and Sternfeld said they had no idea Williams had relapsed. Sternfeld said Williams talked often about being one slip away from losing everything.

STERNFELD: He was very grounded in the fact that even making it to 54 was a miracle considering what he had fought through. So even though he didn't know he was going to die in September, he did have a sense that maybe he wasn't long for this world, but there was something about his urgency.

DEGGANS: Now, his co-author and nephew feel the urgency of ensuring Williams' legacy as an actor and activist continues to move the world. I'm Eric Deggans.

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