From theater to the cinema, and from television to the recording studie, Billy Dee Williams is a versatile actor/performer who is scheduled to perform on Dancing with the Stars.
By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez
Edited by Susan Aceves
Many years before he became Lando Calrissian in two STAR WARS movies and Harvey Dent in BATMAN, a 23 year old Billy Dee Williams recorded a long forgotten album. The album features ten Broadway songs, many of which were recorded for the first time. Williams said, “It’s a collectible; it’s part of my life and it’s an interesting aspect of my life. I kinda chuckle about it and I just find it interesting it’s going to be re-issued!”
William December "Billy Dee" Williams, Jr. is an American actor, artist, singer, and writer best known for acting in the movies Brian's Song and Lady Sings the Blues, and for his roles as Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's Batman and as Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars film franchise.
Williams was born in New York City, New York. He has a twin sister, Loretta, and grew up in Harlem, where he was raised by his maternal grandmother while his parents worked several jobs. Williams graduated from the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, where he was a classmate of Diahann Carroll, who coincidentally played the wife of his character Brady Lloyd on the 1980's prime-time soap opera Dynasty.
Even before he began acting, Williams attended the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design in New York. In the late 1980's, he resumed painting. Some of his work can be seen at his online gallery BDW World Art. He has had solo exhibitions in various galleries around the United States and his work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution and the Schomburg Museum. The covers of the Thelonious Monk Competition programs since 1990 are by Williams.
He first appeared on Broadway in 1945 in The Firebrand of Florence. He returned to Broadway as an adult in 1960 in the play version of The Cool Word. He appeared in A Taste of Honey in 1961. A 1976 Broadway production, I Have a Dream, was directed by Robert Greenwald and starred Williams as Martin Luther King, Jr.
He made his film debut in 1959 in the Academy Award nominated The Last Angry Man, opposite Paul Muni, in which he portrayed a delinquent young man. He rose to stardom after starring in the critically lauded blockbuster biographical television movie, Brian's Song (1971), in which he played Chicago Bears star football player Gale Sayers, who stood by his friend Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan) during his struggle with terminal cancer. The film was so popular it was given a theatrical release. Both Williams and Caan were nominated for Emmy Awards for best actor for their performances.
Having broken through, Williams became one of America's most well-known black film actors of the 1970's after starring in a string of critically acclaimed and popular movies, many of them in the "blaxploitation" genre. In 1972, Williams starred as Billie Holiday's husband Louis McKay in Motown Productions' Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues. The film was a box office blockbuster, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year and received five Academy Award nominations. Diana Ross starred opposite Williams; Motown paired the two of them again three years later in the successful follow-up project Mahogany.
The early 1980's brought Williams the role of Lando Calrissian, which he played in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Calrissian's charm proved to be popular with audiences and Williams now had a substantial fanbase within the science fiction genre as well. He reprised this role when he lent his voice for the character in the 2002 video game Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, as well as
Between his appearances in the Star Wars films, he starred alongside Sylvester Stallone as a cop in the critically acclaimed film Nighthawks.
He co-starred in 1989's Batman as district attorney Harvey Dent, a role that was planned to develop into Dent's alter-ego, the villain Two-Face, in sequels. Unfortunately for Williams, that never came to pass; he was set to reprise the role in a more villainous light in the sequel Batman Returns, but his character was deleted and replaced with original villain Max Shreck.
Williams's television work included a recurring guest-starring role on the short-lived show Gideon's Crossing. He is also well known for his appearance in advertisements for Colt 45 (a brand of malt liquor) in the 1980's and early 1990's, for which he received much criticism. Williams responded indifferently to the criticism of his appearances in the liquor commercials. When questioned, he allegedly replied by saying, "I drink, you drink. Hell, if marijuana was legal, I'd appear in a commercial for it."
In 1992, he portrayed Berry Gordy in The Jacksons: An American Dream.
He played Toussaint Dubois for General Hospital: Night Shift in 2007 and 2008. Williams General Hospital itself beginning in June 2009. Also in 2009, he took on the role of the voice of Admiral Bitchface the head of the military on the planet Titan in the Adult Swim animated series Titan Maximum. In July 2010, Williams appeared in the animated series The Boondocks, where he voiced a fictionalized version of himself in the episode "The Story of Lando Freeman."
In 2011, Williams appeared as a guest star on USA Network's White Collar as Ford, an old friend of Neal Caffrey's landlady June, played by Diahann Carroll. In 2012, Williams was the surprise guest during a taping of Oprah spotlighting Diana Ross. Ross and Williams were reunited after having not seen each other in 29 years.
It was announced in 2014 that Williams will be competing on the 18th season of Dancing with the Stars. He partnered with professional dancer Emma Slater. The couple had to withdraw from the competition on the third week due to an injury on Williams' back.
Williams will provide the voice of Lando Calrissian in the upcoming 2014 Star Wars Rebels cartoon series.
Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had a unique opportunity to speak with the living legend!
AC: Tell us a little about growing up in Harlem, New York. What was it that inspired you to gravitate towards the arts?
BDW:I always found myself to be an artistic person. I would look at things and see the beauty and want to give my own personal take on it.
New York was great. I come from a very supportive family.
AC: Many people don’t know that you are an accomplished and significant artist. Can you tell us a little about your art? What are some of your more favorite works and what inspired you to create? Do you still paint?
BDW: Yes I still paint. I will probably paint till my last day. I am literally inspired by everything! People around me, my surroundings, from the little things like a glass of water at the dinner table to larger things like buildings and the sky. I can find inspiration in anything I am looking at.
AC: Tell us about your singing; about the reissue of the album you did when you were 23?
BDW: It was the first time some songs had ever been recorded. It is a very raw but important part of my history as an entertainer. It is something I wished I had tried more of it in the day. And I think the new CD will make a great collectible! I know the original vinyl records are very hard to find.
AC: What do you remember about the experience and why didn’t you pursue more of a singing career?
BDW: I ask myself that same question all the time, I think I could have been a great singer. The experience itself was very positive. I had so many people around me, supporting me. I was very blessed to have been able to record the album.
AC: Your breakout performance was in Brian’s Song. How did you get the role? What was it about that story and the character you portrayed that made you into a star?
BDW: I got the role as a hungry young actor who was willing to try anything that was thrown my way. I was looking for a job at the time and it was offered to me. I thought it was a great vehicle and there was no way I could have turned it down. The experience was amazing, something I will always remember. I was nominated for an Emmy for that role. It was a real pleasure to be part of something so prolific. People still talk to me about it today; so many men say it is the only movie that makes them cry.
BDW: Simply put, those films turned me into a romantic idol for the screen. It has been a persona that has stuck with me my whole career and I’m very proud.
AC: You were America’s first African American heart throb and you set the bar for the rest who have followed you. How does that feel? Who are some of your favorite lead actors?
BDW: It is a great accomplishment for a “little brown skinned boy” from New York. Who would have ever thought?!
My favorite actors would be Paul Muni, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier.
AC: Many people today know you as the Star Wars icon Lando Calrissian. What did you bring to the character and why do you think the Star Wars franchise is such a hit with all generations?
BDW: I brought a rouge-ish charm to Lando and his suave and stylish lifestyle was something that the Star Wars universe needed at the time. Lando is like Steve Wynn.
AC: Tell us about your role in Batman. What was the good and bad of that experience?
BDW: It was a great experience. I will always remember the sets! They were huge and impressive beyond what words can express. I wanted to play Two-Face very badly. It was part of the reason I took the role, but sadly the studio changed hands and the project was taken over by new folks so I never got to show what my take would have been.
AC: There was some controversy about bringing your star power to Colt 45 Malt Liquor back in the day. It is alleged that you said you would do an ad for marijuana if was legal. Is this true; would you do it?
BDW: That’s simply not true, I would not do a commercial for marijuana. As for Colt 45, I am very proud of my endorsement of the product and it still, “Works every time.”
AC: Tell us about Dancing with the Stars. What was that experience like? Have you recovered from your injury? Are you a fan of the show and would you do it again?
BDW: FUN! So glad I did it! It was a great challenge but one that I wanted to see if I could do! It was a lot of hard work but worth every bit of effort and my partner, Emma Slater, was an amazing teacher and friend! I would do the show again in a heartbeat if they asked me. Aside from a small back problem, I am fine.
AC: You are an American legend, a pioneer. How would you like history to remember you and what would you like your legacy to be?
BDW: I want to be remembered as being a hard working performer. I always tried to give my very best. I always tried to bring something extra to any role that I did, on stage or on screen. I took my roles seriously and put every ounce of effort and more that I had into them.
AC: What kinds of projects are you working on now? What are some things that are still left on your bucket list?
BDW: I can currently be “heard” on Star Wars Rebels in which I reprise my role as Lando Calrissian. As for my bucket list? I would love to sink my teeth into a spectacular and pioneering role that would be really meaningful. I am always looking for that one great, unforgettable script.