Billy Dee Williams

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Billy Dee Williams
Billy Dee Williams by Gage Skidmore.jpg
Billy Dee Williams in 2011.
Born William December Williams, Jr.
(1937-04-06) April 6, 1937 (age 77)
New York City, U.S.
Occupation Actor, artist, singer, writer
Years active 1959–present

William December "Billy Dee" Williams, Jr. (born April 6, 1937) 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.

Early life[edit]

Williams was born in New York City, New York, the son of Loretta Anne, a West Indian-born elevator operator from Montserrat, and William December Williams, Sr., an African-American caretaker from Texas.[1][2] He has a twin sister, Loretta, and grew up in Harlem, where he was raised by his maternal grandmother while his parents worked at 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 1980s prime-time soap opera Dynasty.

Acting career[edit]

Stage[edit]

He first appeared on Broadway in 1945 in The Firebrand of Florence.[3] 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.[4] His most recent Broadway appearance was in August Wilson's Fences, as a replacement for James Earl Jones in the role of Troy Maxson in 1988.[5]

Film[edit]

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.[6]

Having broken through, Williams became one of America's most well-known black film actors of the 1970s, after starring in a string of critically acclaimed and popular movies, many of them in the "blaxploitation" genre. In 1972, 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 in Lady Sings the Blues opposite Williams; Motown paired the two of them again three years later in the successful follow-up project Mahogany.

The early 1980s 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 the audio dramatization of Dark Empire, the National Public Radio adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back, and two productions for the Star Wars: Battlefront series: Star Wars: Battlefront II and Star Wars Battlefront: Elite Squadron. (However, the appearance in Battlefront II was archive footage and it is unknown whether it was him or another actor in the role of Calrissian in Elite Squadron. He appears through archive footage for that game's full-motion sequences). 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. When Joel Schumacher stepped in to direct Batman Forever, where Two-Face was to be a secondary villain, Schumacher decided to hire Tommy Lee Jones for the part.[7] There is a rumor that Schumacher had to pay Williams a fee in order to hire Jones, but Williams said that it was not true: "You only get paid if you do the movie. I had a two-picture deal with Star Wars. They paid me for that, but I only had a one picture deal for Batman."[8]

After The Walt Disney Company acquired ownership of Lucasfilm in 2012, plans for a sequel trilogy to the Star Wars films were announced. Then, on April 29, 2014, Disney announced a cast list for Star Wars Episode VII, set decades after Episode VI.[9] The confirmed cast included the actors who portrayed Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker set to return in J. J. Abrams' sequel along with Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, but Calrissian's character was mysteriously omitted. It is yet unknown why Williams was not included in the cast list announcement. Fans made their displeasure known on social networks immediately.[10]

Television[edit]

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 1980s and early 1990s, for which he received much criticism. Williams responded indifferently to the criticism of his appearances in the liquor commercials. When questioned about his appearances, he allegedly replied by saying, "I drink, you drink. Hell, if marijuana was legal, I'd appear in a commercial for it."[11]

Williams was paired with actress Marla Gibbs on three situation comedies: The Jeffersons (Gibbs's character, Florence, had a crush on Williams and challenged him on everything because she thought he was an imposter); 227 (her character, Mary, pretending to be royalty, met Williams at a banquet); and The Hughleys (Gibbs and Williams portrayed Darryl's parents).

In 1992, he portrayed Berry Gordy in The Jacksons: An American Dream.

In 1993, Williams had a guest appearance on the spin-off to The Cosby Show, A Different World, as Langston Paige, a grumpy landlord, in a backdoor pilot for his own series.

Williams made a special guest appearance on the hit sketch comedy show In Living Color in 1990. He portrayed Pastor Dan in an episode of That '70s Show. In this episode entitled "Baby Don't You Do It" (2004), his character is obsessed with Star Wars, and uses this to help counsel Eric Forman (himself a major Star Wars fan) and Donna Pinciotti about their premarital relationship. Williams made a cameo appearance as himself on the television series Lost in the episode "Exposé". He also appears regularly on short clips on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! as a semi-parody of himself. In February 2006, he guest starred as himself in the season 5 episode "Her Story II" of Scrubs, where he plays the godfather of Julie (Mandy Moore). Turk hugs him, calling him "Lando", even though he prefers to be called Billy D.

He played Toussaint Dubois for General Hospital: Night Shift in 2007 and 2008. Williams reprised his role as Toussaint on 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 February 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 February 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. In October 2012, Williams appeared as a guest star on NCIS in Season 10 Episode 5 titled "Namesake", as Gibbs' namesake and his father's former best friend, Leroy Jethro Moore. On January 9, 2013, Williams appeared as himself in a cameo role on Modern Family, Season 4 / Episode 11 "New Year's Eve".

It was announced on March 4, 2014 that Williams will be competing on the 18th season of Dancing with the Stars. He partnered with professional dancer Emma Slater.[12] 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.[13]

Other ventures[edit]

Music[edit]

In 1961, Williams ventured into the music industry when he recorded a jazz LP produced by Prestige Records entitled Let's Misbehave, on which he sang several swing standards. The album, which was a commercial success at the time, made Williams eligible for an appearance in the legendary Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (1983).

Video games[edit]

Williams voiced Lando Calrissian in the video game Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Star Wars Battlefront as well as the spin-off Star Wars Battlefront: Elite Squadron (however, the Battlefront appearances were archive footage and his voice-appearance in Elite Squadron is left uncredited or unknown). He also played a live-action character, GDI Director Redmond Boyle, in the game Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, which was released in March 2007. This made him the second former Star Wars actor to appear in a Command & Conquer game, with the first being James Earl Jones as GDI General James Solomon in Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun.

Internet[edit]

In 2008, Williams reprised his role as Lando Calrissian to appear in a video on FunnyOrDie.com in a mock political ad defending himself for leader of the Star Wars galaxy against vicious attack ads from Emperor Palpatine.[14] Williams is currently a cast member of Diary of a Single Mom, a web based original series directed by award-winning filmmaker Robert Townsend. The series debuted on PIC.tv in 2009.[15]

Art[edit]

Even before he began acting, Williams attended the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design in New York. In the late 1980s, 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 him. He was also on the Martin Lawrence situation comedy Martin.

Personal life[edit]

Marriages and family[edit]

Williams has been married three times. His first marriage was to Audrey Sellers in 1959, with whom he had a son Corey (b. 1960). They were divorced some years later, after which he apparently became quite depressed: "[...] there was a period when I was very despondent, broke, depressed, my first marriage was on the rocks."[16]

Williams was briefly married to actress Marlene Clark in the late 1960s, and divorced in 1971.

He married Teruko Nakagami on December 27, 1972. She brought a daughter, Miyako (b. 1962), from her previous marriage to musician Wayne Shorter. They have a daughter Hanako (b. 1973). They filed for divorce in 1993,[17] but were reported to have reconciled in 1997.[18][19]

Legal problems[edit]

Williams was arrested on January 30, 1996 after allegedly beating his live-in girlfriend, whom the police did not identify.[20] He was freed from custody the following day after posting a US$50,000 bail.[21] Williams stated through his attorney that he expected to be fully exonerated of the charges.[22] The Los Angeles city attorney's office filed misdemeanor charges of spousal battery and dissuading a witness against Williams.[23] The woman, identified only as "Patricia", later stated the incident was her fault and that she hoped the police would drop the case.[24] In a plea bargain agreement to dismiss the charges, Williams was ordered to undergo 52 counseling sessions.[25]

Filmography[edit]

Films[edit]

Short subjects
  • Very Heavy Love (2001)
  • Oedipus (2004) (voice)

Television work[edit]

Recorded musical work[edit]

Video game work[edit]

Books[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Nishikawa, Kinohi. "Billy Dee Williams." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature. Ed. Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey, Jr. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 1742–43.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Billy Dee Williams - Interview". African American Literature Book Club. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  2. ^ "S W A D - Williams, Billy Dee". nerf-herders-anonymous.net. Archived from the original on July 1, 2009. 
  3. ^ Billy Dee Williams at the Internet Broadway Database
  4. ^ "The Theater: A King in Darkness", Time, October 4, 1976, retrieved January 3, 2009 
  5. ^ Falkner, David (February 7, 1988), "The Actor as Athlete: Subtle and Complex Portrait", New York Times, retrieved January 3, 2009 
  6. ^ Awards and nominations for Brian's Song (1971) at IMDB
  7. ^ Bentley, David (July 2008). "Aaron Eckhart on creating the new face of Two Face". Coventry Telegraph. Archived from the original on May 24, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Billy Dee Williams Talks Two-Face, Did Not Get Paid For Batman Forever". Comicbook.com. November 2, 2013. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  9. ^ "Star Wars VII cast confirmed as Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill return". Mail Online. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  10. ^ "Star Wars 7 cast: Where is Lando Calrissian?". The Independent. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  11. ^ Kiefaber, David (July 20, 2007). "Billy Dee's charisma still works every time". AdWeek Blogs. Retrieved November 13, 2011. 
  12. ^ "Dancing With the Stars Cast Revealed! Cody Simpson, Nene Leakes and James Maslow Are Among the Names—See the Full List!". E! Online. March 4, 2014. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  13. ^ Goldberg, Matt (June 25, 2014). "Writer-Producer Simon Kinberg Talks STAR WARS REBELS, His Duties on the Show, and the Thrill of Writing for Original Trilogy Characters". Collider. Retrieved May 9, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Vote for Lando Calrissian! w/ BILLY DEE WILLIAMS". Funny or Die. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  15. ^ "About the show - Robert Townsend's Diary of a Single Mom". PIC.tv. June 9, 2010. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 26, 1975). "Interview with Billy Dee Williams". Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  17. ^ Jet, July 5, 1993[dead link]
  18. ^ "Billy Dee Williams". Hollywood.com. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  19. ^ "Billy Dee Williams Biography (1937-)". Filmreference.com. Retrieved September 20, 2014. 
  20. ^ Merril, Laurie C (February 1, 1996). "COPS NAB BILLY DEE WILLIAMS IN BEATING". Daily News. Retrieved May 31, 2011. 
  21. ^ "Billy Dee Williams Arrested". Chicago Tribune. January 31, 1996. Retrieved May 31, 2011. 
  22. ^ "Actor Billy Dee Williams Is Freed in Domestic Violence Case". Los Angeles Times. February 1, 1996. Retrieved May 31, 2011. 
  23. ^ "Billy Dee Williams Charged in Spousal Battery Case". Los Angeles Times. February 8, 1996. Retrieved May 31, 2011. 
  24. ^ Benza, A.J., Lewittes, Michael (February 20, 1996). "GAL PAL'S BILLY DEE-FENSE". Daily News. Retrieved May 31, 2011. 
  25. ^ "Actor Billy Dee Williams charged with slapping girlfriend; ordered to undergo counseling.". Jet. April 15, 1996. Retrieved May 31, 2011. 
  26. ^ "Star Wars: Jedi Knight II – Jedi Outcast". Allgame. Retrieved May 8, 2013. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
None
Harvey Dent Actor
1989
Succeeded by
Tommy Lee Jones