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Overview for Billy Dee Williams
Billy Dee Williams

Billy Dee Williams


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Also Known As: William December Williams Died:
Born: April 6, 1937 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA Profession: Cast ... actor painter


Moving freely between the gritty, street-level world of Blaxploitation and the dreamy realms of science fiction and comic book fantasy, Billy Dee Williams enjoyed a diverse five-decade career in legitimate theatre, television and cinema, often being called the "black Clark Gable." A talented artist whose work went on to hang in museums around the world, Williams was compelled by poverty to turn his back on a potential career as a painter to make a living as an actor in New York. Studying briefly with Sidney Poitier, Williams seemed poised at one point to inherit Poitier's mantle of Hollywood's go-to black leading man after prominent roles in "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) and "Mahogany" (1975) with Diana Ross and by reinterpreting Poitier's famous "Homer Smith" character in the 1979 telefilm "Christmas Lilies of the Field," Ralph Nelson's belated sequel to "Lilies of the Field" (1963). The actor's classical good looks and roguish appeal won him a prominent part in the "Star Wars" (1977) sequels "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983), which cemented his status as an American cultural icon. Maturing over the years from firebrand leading man to assured character player, Williams' innate sense of humor allowed him to remain a familiar face and a beloved presence in films and on television for many years.

Billy Dee Williams was born William December Williams, Jr. on April 6, 1937 in New York City. Williams' namesake father was from Texas, while his mother Loretta had immigrated to the United States from the West Indies and earned a living in New York operating the elevator at the Lyceum Theatre. Raised in Harlem with his twin sister by his maternal grandmother while his parents worked a series of jobs to support the family, Williams attended the Manhattan's High School of Music and Art and made his Broadway debut at the age of seven in the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin musical "The Firebrand of Florence." Billed as Billy Williams, the young actor appeared as a page in the production, which closed after only 43 performances at New York's Alvin Theater. Williams would not return to the Great White Way for another 15 years, during which the chubby, outgoing preteen matured into a muscular and introspective young adult. Skilled in drawing, Williams won a scholarship to New York's National Academy of Fine Arts and Design, where he studied the classical principles of painting for two years. Williams might have pursued a career as a painter but the lack of money for art supplies pushed him towards the life of a jobbing actor.

Williams made his film debut in the Academy Award-nominated "The Last Angry Man" (1959), director Daniel Mann's adaptation of the novel by Gerald Green. Williams was cast as a juvenile delinquent afflicted with a brain tumor in this Columbia release, which also marked the film debut of black comedian Godfrey Cambridge and the last feature film for veteran Hollywood leading man Paul Muni. That same year, Williams also appeared in two episodes of "Look Up and Live" (CBS, 1954-1979), an anthology series of half-hour dramas co-sponsored by the National Council of Churches that was broadcast on Sunday mornings. Williams returned to Broadway in 1960 for Robert Rossen's staging of "The Cool World," based on the novel by Warren Miller. Despite a cast rich in up-and-coming black actors - including James Earl Jones, Calvin Lockhart, Roscoe Lee Brown, Cicely Tyson and Williams as the rumble-scarred teen protagonist Duke Custis - the production folded after just two performances. The young actor had better luck later that same year with a role in Tony Richardson's Broadway premiere of Shelagh Delaney's West End sensation "A Taste of Honey." Starring Angela Lansbury, the production ran for 376 performances.

Through the decade, Williams alternated stage roles with bits on episodic television. In a 1964 episode of the courtroom drama "The Defenders" (CBS, 1961-65), he was a Marine Corps private caught up in the case of a drill instructor whose military zeal has crossed the line. Williams also enjoyed day player roles on the soap operas "Another World" (NBC, 1964-1999), "The Nurses" (CBS, 1962-65) and "The Guiding Light" (CBS, 1952-2009). Shortly after turning 30, he returned to Broadway to replace actor Robert Hooks in the Tony Award-winning musical "Hallelujah, Baby," which ran from April 1967 until January 1968. While working on the TV pilot "Lost Flight" (1969) in Hawaii, Williams married his co-star, Marlene Clark, whom he had known as a teenager in Harlem; the couple's best man for the civil ceremony was star Lloyd Bridges. The pilot was meant to introduce a proposed series about the adventures of air crash refugees making a go of survival on a desert island but was turned down by the network, which presented it as a movie-of-the-week instead. The film was given a brief theatrical run in 1971, the year that Williams and Clark dissolved their marriage.

After a decade as a working actor, Williams achieved a significant measure of crossover success in the 1971 telefilm "Brian's Song." Based on the memoir of Chicago Bears fullback Gale Sayers, the film chronicled the friendship of the black Sayers with white teammate Brian Piccolo, which ended with Piccolo's death from cancer at the age of 26. Both Williams and co-star James Caan were nominated for Emmy Awards and Williams' deeply-felt but masterfully controlled performance helped him break out of the ghetto of guest roles on "The FBI" (ABC, 1965-1974), "The Mod Squad" (ABC, 1968-1973) and "Mission: Impossible" (CBS, 1966-1973). Before he was able to graduate to lead roles in feature films, Williams made another strong impression in the Emmy Award-winning prison drama "The Glass House" (1972), as a black activist who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a white college professor (Alan Alda) serving a 12-month sentence for manslaughter. The actor had his first starring role in Oscar Williams' "The Final Comedown" (1972), co-financed and released by schlock king Roger Corman. Told in flashback, the film follows the political awakening of a black college student, who channels his anger into a counter attack against a racist system but dies in a hail of LAPD bullets.

Paired with singer-turned-actress Diana Ross, Williams had his greatest success in the Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972), produced by Motown Productions, in which he portrayed the charming dream man Louis McKay who tries to save Holiday from herself and her heroin addiction. The success of this multiple Academy Award nominee led to a lucrative long-term contract with Motown, who reunited the equally attractive Williams and Ross for the glossy melodrama "Mahogany" (1975). Set in the glitzy demimonde of international high fashion, "Mahogany" was an unabashed trash classic directed by Motown founder Berry Gordy, who cast Williams yet again as a righteous, forward-thinking leading man in love with a complicated but passionate woman. Elsewhere during this transitional period of his career, Williams divided his time between period pieces, such as the Negro baseball league comedy-drama "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings" (1973) and the made-for-TV biopic "Scott Joplin," and such gritty crime fare as "Hit!" (1973), in which he played a federal agent (a role intended for Steve McQueen) who wages a personal vendetta against drug traffickers, and "The Take" (1974), in which Williams brought the full weight of his machismo to bear in the tale of a corrupt cop who tries take down the Mafia.

In 1979, Williams attained pop culture immortality when he was cast as the roguish Lando Calrissian in "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), the first sequel to George Lucas' meteorically successful sci-fi pastiche "Star Wars" (1977), directed by Irvin Kershner. Only in the film for a brief time, the cape-wearing Cloud City administrator makes an impact by betraying Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones), leading to the infamous incasing of the former in carbonite. Williams would repeat the role in "Return of the Jedi" (1983), in which his initially duplicitous character is allowed to redeem himself to properly heroic proportions. The actor had significant supporting roles as well in "Nighthawks" (1981) with Sylvester Stallone, in "Marvin & Tige" (1983) with a cirrhotic John Cassavetes, and in "Fear City" (1985), directed by Abel Ferrara. In the CBS miniseries "Chiefs" (1983), Williams played the last in a long line of Georgia peace keepers investigating a decades-long case of serial murder against a backdrop of rural prejudice and fear. He appeared in five episodes of the primetime soap "Dynasty" (ABC, 1981-89) and in 1989 appeared in a cameo in Tim Burton's "Batman," as Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent; although the righteous prosecutor later becomes a scarred villain in the Batman mythos, Burton declined to include the character in his 1991 sequel "Batman Returns."

His looks coarsening with age, Williams dropped back from A-list status to appear in mostly independent and low-budget fare through the new millennium. Apart from a return to Broadway in 1988 to replace James Earl Jones in August Wilson's acclaimed "Fences," Williams made a greater impression on the small screen, in episodes of the syndicated "Lonesome Dove: The Series" (1994-95), in the ABC miniseries "Heaven & Hell: North & South, Book III" (1994), and in a recurring role on the short-lived medical series "Gideon's Crossing" (ABC, 2000-01). He played former mentor Berry Gordy in "The Jacksons: An American Dream" (1992) and embraced his soap opera roots in episodes of "General Hospital" (ABC, 1963- ) and its cable TV spin-off "General Hospital: Night Shift" (SOAPnet, 2007-08). If Williams capped his career as a negligible cinematic presence, he retained cult credibility via his association with the "Star Wars" franchise and for a series of warmly-remembered TV spots for Colt 45 malt liquor, in which he lampooned his reputation as a ladies' man. Williams further riffed on his image by playing himself in episodes of "Scrubs" (NBC/ABC, 2001-2010) and "Lost" (ABC, 2004-2010) and by reprising the role of Lando Calrissian in a mock political ad for the Internet website "Funny or Die."

By Richard Harland Smith

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