Billy Dee Williams


Actor

About

Also Known As
William December Williams
Birth Place
New York City, New York, USA
Born
April 06, 1937

Biography

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 ...

Family & Companions

Audrey Sellers
Wife
First wife; divorced.
Marlene Clark
Wife
Second wife; divorced.
Teruko Nakagami
Wife
Third wife; married c. 1973; filed for divorce in June 1993; reported to have reconciled c. 1997; together as of June 2002.
Patricia Von Heitman
Companion
No longer together; alleged that Williams beat her in a 1996 incident.

Notes

Some sources give 1938 as the year of Mr. Williams' birth

Q. What's the greatest stumbling block in your career?A. Racism. Plain prejudice from both sides, black and white. It's become such a hassle, man. Because everybody is looking at that rather than at much more important things. I see changes happening now. The success of all these black actors right now is so important.--From Entertainment Weekly, March 21, 1997.

Biography

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

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

Star Wars: Episode IX (2019)
Dirty Dancing (2017)
The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Two-Face
The Man in 3B (2015)
The Lego Movie (2014)
Voice
The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll (2011)
Je'Caryous Johnson Presents: 3 Ways to Get a Husband (2010)
Barry Munday (2010)
IMurders (2009)
Fanboys (2009)
Constellation (2007)
Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horror (2006)
Epoch: Evolution (2003)
Ferguson
Undercover Brother (2002)
The Visit (2000)
The Ladies Man (2000)
Lester
The Contract (2000)
Senator J Harmon
The Prince (1998)
Steel Sharks (1998)
Hard Time (1998)
Barker
Moving Target (1996)
Mask of Death (1995)
Agent Jeffries
Triplecross (1995)
Falling For You (1995)
Percy and Thunder - Part 2 (1993)
Marked for Murder (1993)
Percy and Thunder (1993)
Alien Intruder (1993)
Cammander Skyler
Percy and Thunder - Part 1 (1993)
The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992)
Giant Steps (1992)
Slate Thompson
Secret Agent 00 - Soul (1991)
Driving Me Crazy (1991)
Dangerous Passion (1990)
Lou
Batman (1989)
Harvey Dent
The Return of Desperado (1988)
Number One With a Bullet (1987)
Deadly Illusion (1987)
Courage (1986)
Right of the People (1986)
Oceans Of Fire (1986)
Fear City (1985)
Time Bomb (1984)
Wes Tanner
The Imposter (1984)
Matthew Raines
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Shooting Stars (1983)
Nighthawks (1981)
Children of Divorce (1980)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Hostage Tower (1980)
Clarence Whitlock
Christmas Lilies of the Field (1979)
Homer Smith
Scott Joplin (1977)
Blast (1976)
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars And Motor Kings (1976)
Mahogany (1975)
The Take (1974)
Sneed
Hit! (1973)
The Final Comedown (1972)
Johnny Johnson
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Louis McKay
The Glass House (1972)
Lennox Beach
Brian's Song (1971)
Lost Flight (1970)
Merle Barnaby
The Out-of-Towners (1970)
Lost and found, Boston
The Last Angry Man (1959)
Josh Quincy

Cast (Special)

James Caan: Making a Scene (2001)
4th Annual Soul Train Christmas Starfest (2001)
VH1 Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin -- A Benefit Concert For VH1 Save the Music Foundat (2001)
It's Black Entertainment (2000)
Canned Ham: The Ladies Man (2000)
Interviewee
A Tribute to Muddy Waters, King of the Blues (1999)
An All Star Party for Aaron Spelling (1998)
Nissan Presents: The 2nd Annual Celebration of America's Music (1998)
Motown 40: The Music Is Forever (1998)
Nissan Presents a Celebration of America's Music (1996)
Ninth Annual Genesis Awards (1995)
Presenter
The NFL at 75: An All-Star Celebration (1995)
The Walt Disney Company Presents the American Teacher Awards (1994)
Presenter
Diamonds on the Silver Screen (1992)
Guiding Light: The Primetime Special (1992)
Voices That Care (1991)
The 3rd Annual Soul Train Music Awards (1989)
Performer
Diana Ross... Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987)
Bugs Bunny/Looney Tunes All-Star 50th Anniversary (1986)
Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of Black Female Superstars (1986)
Host
Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of Black Female Superstars (1986)
Narration
The Night of 100 Stars II (1985)
Cougar! (1984)
Host
Eubie Blake: A Century of Music (1983)
Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Higher and Higher, Attorneys at Law (1968)
David Arnold

Music (Special)

Diana Ross... Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987)
Song Performer

Misc. Crew (Short)

Lady Sings the Blues (Featurette) (1972)
Stock Footage

Cast (TV Mini-Series)

John Jakes' Heaven and Hell: North and South, Part III (1994)
Message From Nam (1993)
Chiefs (1983)

Life Events

1945

Stage acting debut opposite Lotte Lenya in "The Firebrand of Florence"

1959

Film acting debut in "The Last Angry Man"

1960

First adult stage role in "The Cool World"

1966

Had featured role as Dr. Jim Frazier on the CBS daytime drama "The Guiding Light"

1967

Broadway musical debut, replacing Robert Hooks in "Hallelujah, Baby!"

1970

TV-movie debut in "Carter's Army" (ABC)

1971

Co-starred with James Caan in "Brian's Song" (ABC), earned Emmy nomination for his performance as football player Gale Sayers

1972

Starred opposite Diana Ross in "Lady Sings the Blues"

1975

Portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in the stage play "I Have a Dream"

1975

Reteamed with Diana Ross as her love interest in "Mahogany"

1977

Played title role of ragtime musician "Scott Joplin"

1979

Starred in the TV-movie "Christmas Lillies of the Field" (NBC), played role originated by Sidney Poitier in the feature

1980

Cast as Lando Calrissian in "The Empire Strikes Back"

1983

Had pivotal role in the CBS miniseries "Chiefs"

1983

Reprised his role as Lando Calrissian in "The Return of the Jedi"

1985

Primetime series debut as regular on the short-lived CBS series "Double Dare"

1988

Succeeded James Earl Jones in the role of Troy Maxon in the Broadway production of "Fences" by August Wilson

1989

Portrayed district attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's "Batman"; was replaced by Tommy Lee Jones for the third installment, "Batman Forever" (1995)

1991

Had first solo art exhibition

1992

Portrayed Motown Records founder Berry Gordy in the ABC miniseries "The Jacksons: An American Dream"

1999

Co-starred with Lucky Vanous in The Nashville Network series "18 Wheels of Justice"

2000

Had supporting role in "The Ladies Man"

2000

Co-starred in the indie feature "The Visit"; received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards

2002

Had small role in "Undercover Brother"

2002

Lent his voice to the character Lando Calrissian for the video game "Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast"

2007

Co-starred in the southern drama, "Constellation"

Videos

Movie Clip

Last Angry Man, The (1959) - Around The Rugged Rock Nephew Myron (Joby Baker) and TV producer Thrasher (David Wayne) are enthralled as neighborhood legend Dr. Abelman (Paul Muni, in his last film) works his magic on rebellious Brooklyn teen Josh Quincy (Billy Dee Williams, in his movie debut) in The Last Angry Man, 1959.
Last Angry Man, The (1959) - We Want the Doctor! Godfrey Cambridge and Billy Dee Williams make their screen debuts together as they drop off a sick girl (Cicely Tyson!) at the door of Brooklyn Dr. Sam Abelman (Paul Muni) in director Daniel Mann's The Last Angry Man, 1959.
Lady Sings The Blues (1972) - The Man I Love Supported in her performance of the George and Ira Gershwin tune by "Piano Man" (Richard Pryor) but unwilling to take part in a crude tipping ritual, young Billie Holiday (Diana Ross) is rescued by Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams) in Lady Sings The Blues, 1972.
Lady Sings The Blues - Open, New York City 1936 Newsy opening credit sequence for Berry Gordy's production of the Billie Holliday biography Lady Sings The Blues, 1972, starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor.
Lady Sings The Blues (1972) - This Place Is Fantastic Taken to a plush New York club on their first night out, young Billie Holliday (Diana Ross) jousts with man-about-town Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams) in Lady Sings The Blues, 1972, directed by Sidney J. Furie.
Mahogany (1975) - A Really Good Obsession Egotistical fashion photographer Sean (Anthony Perkins), before he splits for Rome, is driving everyone nuts, including assistant Tracy (Diana Ross), at an artsy urban Chicago shoot, her boyfriend, neighborhood activist Brian (Billy Dee Williams) not impressed, in Mahogany, 1975.
Mahogany (1975) - Do You Know Where You're Going To The first iteration of the ubiquitous, Oscar-nominated theme song by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin, sung by leading lady Diana Ross, who plays Tracy, flashing back with credits from the opening scene, her success in Rome, to earlier days as a fashion student in Chicago, in Mahogany, 1975.
Mahogany (1975) - Just Because You're Brown Chicago, South Side neighborhood activist Brian (Billy Dee Williams), who teased fashion student Tracy (Diana Ross) on his megaphone the first time they met, is the butt of the joke this time, in Mahogany, 1975, the credited director Motown founder Berry Gordy, who fired Tony Richardson.
Out-of-Towners, The (1970) - He's Trying To Help! The airline guy is Billy Dee Williams and Jack Lemmon (as "George") and Sandy Dennis (as "Gwen") are sublime as the neurotic Kellerman's early in their odyssey in Neil Simon's The Out-of-Towners, 1970.

Trailer

Family

William D Williams
Father
Janitor. Originally from Texas.
Loretta Williams
Sister
Twin.
Camera Williams
Daughter
Hanako Williams
Daughter
Art gallery employee. Born c. 1974.
Miyaka Williams
Child
Corey Williams
Child

Companions

Audrey Sellers
Wife
First wife; divorced.
Marlene Clark
Wife
Second wife; divorced.
Teruko Nakagami
Wife
Third wife; married c. 1973; filed for divorce in June 1993; reported to have reconciled c. 1997; together as of June 2002.
Patricia Von Heitman
Companion
No longer together; alleged that Williams beat her in a 1996 incident.

Bibliography

Notes

Some sources give 1938 as the year of Mr. Williams' birth

Q. What's the greatest stumbling block in your career?A. Racism. Plain prejudice from both sides, black and white. It's become such a hassle, man. Because everybody is looking at that rather than at much more important things. I see changes happening now. The success of all these black actors right now is so important.--From Entertainment Weekly, March 21, 1997.

"I never TRIED to be the black Clark Gable. It was never a publicity stunt. It was just one of those things." --Williams quoted in Playbill, 1988.

In 1996, Williams created four paintings for Nissan that were displayed at the Olympics. The following year, he created paintings for a sports center owned by the Walt Disney Company.

Williams has exhibited a series of impressionistic portraits of the Tuskegee Airmen. His artwork has also been featured in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

"When I came on the scene, it was, 'What's this - a black matinee idol?' I presented something that they never expected or anticipated. Denzel and those guys are it now, of course. Some of those movies he's done, I tried to do those type of movies back in the '70s. I couldn't get the kind of backing that was neccesary. And I was hot property. My whole life has been, I have to wait unti everybody catches up. It pisses me off." --Williams to Entertainment Weekly, June 14, 2002