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Delaney Williams isn’t a star yet, but some people know who he is. “Black guys, 18 to 49, always recognize me,” he says. “I’m in Target or someplace, and a 30-year-old black man will look at me: ‘You’re the fat fuck!’” He shrugs. “‘Yeah, fat fuck, that’s me.’”
Williams, 40, plays Sgt. Jay Landsman on HBO’s David Simon-penned crime drama The Wire, which is filming its second season. It’s the highest-profile role in his acting career to date, and it’s an unusual challenge for the former stage actor.
“He’s a peripheral character,” says Williams of the bullish Landsman, who’s usually confined to walking through the squad room, sandwich in hand, and needling renegade detective Jimmy McNulty (series star Dominic West). “The story’s about the investigation that’s out there. You have to live an entire life in the 13 seconds you’re conveying the information you have to convey.”
We’re having lunch on the Wire soundstage, a former Wal-Mart warehouse in East Baltimore. Later, after a day spent learning lines, dealing with wardrobe and makeup (“I think you’re going to get a haircut,” coos a production assistant, running her fingers through Williams’ already short locks), and a whole lot of waiting around, Williams will shoot a couple of scenes in the squad room. A few takes of each and he’s done with work on two episodes.
In the first scene he films, when the light outside the squad room suggests midday but the real outdoors is long dark, Landsman rags on McNulty about his latest unpleasant detail: harbor patrol (“Hey, Gilligan!”). Cheerful and professional throughout, Williams seems to relish his contribution to the world of fat-fuckdom. Looking at his lines for a later scene, he cracks, “The only place I eat is here. Every time I open a script.”
Williams sits at the desk across from McNulty’s and offers me his on-screen colleague’s chair. “I play a lot of cops,” he says.
This jibes with my recollection of the guy I knew, from a distance, as Bill Delaney: the Russian constable in Montgomery Blair High School’s 1978 production of Fiddler on the Roof.
“That was the first of many cop roles,” Williams says, laughing. “I did an episode of The District earlier this season for CBS where I played a captain in the Park Police. It just seems like…that’s part of my selling point as an actor, I guess, that I play those roles.”
Seeing him in The Wire’s debut run last year, I recognized my schoolmate instantly. He’s a little older and a little larger: 6 feet tall, according to his résumé, and 280 pounds. He’s been mistaken at least once for George Wendt.
“I grew into this face; I grew into the characters that I could play,” observes Williams, who was still treading the boards long after I gave up any hope of rising beyond a solo in a Fiddler dream sequence. “I would tend to say that I’ve stuck with it the whole time without risking it,” he says. “I guess I chose not to live in a sixth-floor walk-up with nine other people in SoHo 20 years ago. I made that choice. I stayed here, I took classes, I did stage work when I could, I got a day job.”
In fact, Williams spent 10 years as a bank manager. “It paid what it pays,” he recalls. “It’s not horrible, but it’s not brilliant, either. But it’s work that would have killed me if I stayed another 10 years. The whole time, my interest did not lie there, and I’m sure my bosses knew. I did what I had to do, and the place ran well, and it was one of those things that accomplished what it accomplished.”
All the while, he worked in local theater, acting for Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth, Signature, and, he says, “pretty much every…small theater in town.” He gave it up, in part, to spend more time with his family in Silver Spring: Television work, unlike theater work, allows for weekends off. His credits now include the John Waters films Cecil B. DeMented and Pecker, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, and Chris Rock’s new Head of State. Williams will soon begin work on the John Travolta project Ladder 49.
Williams remains unconvinced that it would have made much difference in the long run if he’d thrown himself headlong into acting once he left school. “I’m not sure that I could have worked as much as I work now, and as much as I’ll work in the future…because of the characters I play,” he says. “I don’t think that you’re looking for the 20-year-old with the 40-year-old’s face and body. You’re looking for the 40-year-olds to do that. They had 40-year-olds when I was 20. They didn’t need me.
“I’m hitting my stride now,” he adds. “It’s like an overnight thing that took 20 years to do.”
Jay Landsman, the real cop of that name, appears in the first sentence of Simon’s classic Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:
Pulling one hand from the warmth of a pocket, Jay Landman squats down to grab the dead man’s chin, pushing the head to one side until the wound becomes visible as a small, ovate hole, oozing red and white. “Here’s your problem,” he said. “He’s got a slow leak.”…
They give him a gun, a badge and sergeant’s stripes, and deal him out into the streets of Baltimore…Then they surround him with a chorus of blue-jacketed straight men and let him play the role of the lone, wayward joker that somehow slipped into the deck….Jay Landsman, who as a Southwestern patrolman parked his radio car at Edmonson and Hilton, then used a Quaker Oatmeal box covered in aluminum foil as a radar gun.
“Jay’s one of my favorite detectives that I followed in Homicide,” says Simon. “He’s a consummate survivor. He understood how to run a squad and survivehow to deal with the bosses, how to get to the end of the year and clear cases.”
The real Landsman is now a corporal in the Baltimore County Police Department, while his fictional counterpart intercedes between The Wire’s Maj. William Rawls (John Doman) and the homicide detectives. The office politics are part of the series’ overriding theme, which Simon describes as “how individuals endure, or fail to endure, within institutions.” Season 1 pitted the Baltimore cops against drug lords and their minions in a slow-building story line that explored the moral ambiguity of both groups.
“These are people in an institution that is malevolent,” says Simon of his fictional force. “This is not a healthy police department. Jay’s in that world and perceives it for what it is. It doesn’t make him noble, but it does make him astuteand it does make him a survivor.”
Williams himself is reluctant to describe his character. “As an actor,” he begins uneasily, “the way I approach it is, I have to like the person because I have to play the personI have to be the person who’s making these choices because he wants to make these choices….So I can’t analyze the character and say, ‘He’s being a jerk here, and selfish there.’ I can’t ascribe necessarily negative things, because I have to play those actions.”
OK, then how did Landsman come across last season? “A little bit of a buffoon, maybe. A smartass. I think well-meaning,” Williams says. “But certainly a kiss-ass. That’s the No. 1 trait that’s important to the show.” He gestures around the squad room. “There’s Rawls over here and McNulty over here. Or there’s upper brass over here and there’s the squad detectives over here. There’s the guy who’s in between, surviving by keeping these guys from killing each otherand in the end, keeping his place.”
“Jay sees the landscape as others can’t. He is in no way the foolish Falstaff of the unit,” says Simon, who hired Williams for The Wire after seeing him in a previous Simon-does-gritty-Bawlmer series, The Corner. “It was only a line or two,” he says, “but he captured it brilliantly and really captured the moment. So when I wrote the character of Jay Landsman, I had Bill in mind.”
But Williams wasn’t the only actor who auditioned, says Simon: “I also read the real Jay Landsman. But I ended up saying to him, ‘You’re good, but you’re no Jay Landsman.’”
The women on the Wire set love Williams. “He’s so funny!” is often their first response when asked about him. Gabbing with a stand-in during the long wait before he enters the squad room, Williams jokes about the tough time women have choosing between him and pretty-boy West.
Back in the squad room, where I’m still a little star-struck that I’m sitting in West’s chair, I’m also interested in this man whose success in getting roles on the basis of how he looks must be as much curse as blessing. I ask, cautiously, “Have there ever been roles you wanted that you couldn’t get because you didn’t have the right look?”
“Well, every single role out there, ever,” Williams replies before trailing off. “People used to say, ‘What type are you?’ And I’d say, ‘Think of Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, some dashing young leading man.’ Because” He makes a dismissive sound. “Those same roles? Us fat, ugly people can do that, too. And do, in the real world. We live our lives. But that’s not what’s bought. That’s not a commodity that’s out there. I understand that….I get it all the time: ‘What role do you want to play onstage?’ Like, Hamlet! I’m a 40-year-old fat man. I’m not gonna play Hamlet. I wasn’t gonna play Hamlet as a 20-year-old fat man. But I’m never gonna get that chance. But why wouldn’t I want to do that?
“I always thought I’d be able to choose what I wanted to do,” he continues. “Unless you produce, that’s not always the case. And even when I have nailed auditions for parts and I’m sitting across from the people making the decision, and they’re like…’We’re gonna just prepare the contract, and it’ll be on your desk’and then the phone doesn’t ring. There’s something else going on.”
So he’s not auditioning for Hamlet, but if you need a funny guy to lift a refrigerator or swagger around a crime scene, he’ll be there. “I’ve lived a lot of experiences by going, Eh, that’s not going to happen,” he says. “That’s maybe my nature as well as driven by the fact that I look like I look or am who I am. But [there are] those times where you grab the bull by the horn a little bit: ‘Hey, come with me, bull.’ And the bull comes. And you go, Shit, that wasn’t so hard. I’ll grab the next bull, too.” CP