Billy Dee Williams turns 80 years old this week, but don’t let the cane fool you—he’s still the king of smooth. A couple of weeks ago, he sat under a tent in Rock Hill, SC to answer fan questions at Mad Monster Party 2017.
From “Threepenny Opera” to Space Opera
Williams’ entrance into the performing arts arena is as unique as the man himself. “Actually, I started a hundred years ago,” he quipped. “I started way back in 1947. . .I was six and a half years old. . . . I started in New York, grew up in New York City. . .My mom. . .when she was young, she was an aspiring performer. She studied opera for many years. She was working for a general manager and a producer, Ben Boyer and Max Gordon. They were in preparation of doing a play, a musical, by Kurt Weill who wrote, with Bertolt Brecht, ‘Threepenny Opera.’ They were putting on this production called ‘The Firebrand of Florence.’ It was based on the life of a famous Italian sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini. He was a very interesting character back during the Italian Renaissance. . . .I was on stage with Lotte Lenya, who was Kurt Weill’s wife, and she was playing the Duchess and they needed a little boy to play the page boy to the Duchess. So they had me walk on the stage as an audition once, then I walked on twice, across the stage, and they said, ‘Thank you, Billy, that’s enough.’ I decided I was smitten by them, so I decided I wanted to walk across the stage a third time. And they said, ‘No, no, no, that’s okay.’ So, as a result, I started crying. And I always say that I cried my way into show business.”
As a grown man, Williams won his role in “Lady Sings the Blues” by using a different set of charms. “The audition for ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ was ridiculous,” he said, “I was lucky to get that job.” He credits executive producer Berry Gordy in recognizing the chemistry shared between him and the leading lady, Diana Ross.
He didn’t have to audition for his role as Lando Calrissian in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies. “I never auditioned for [“The Empire Strikes Back”], they asked me to do it,” he said. “I had pretty good popularity at that time, so Lucas and his company came to me and asked me to play Lando.”
Even before shooting began for “The Empire Strikes Back,” the filmmakers planned for Lando to take an active role in the events of “The Return of the Jedi.” “I signed a two-picture deal,” Williams said, adding that the term was “Hollywood talk.”
Williams described working on the set of “Star Wars” as being “a wonderful experience.” “There’s no other way I can explain it,” he said. “I especially loved not just working in front of a camera, but I had an opportunity—because I’m always interested in what’s going on technologically—to see and meet a lot of the young people at that time who were working behind the scenes, and I thought that really fascinating. . . .It was one of those total experiences. At that time, CGI wasn’t as prevalent. You actually had the Millennium Falcon. You had a lot of the sets that we used to film ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi.’ So, it was like being in a big toy store.”
Williams takes personal ownership of his contribution in the part of creating the personality of Lando, feeling he “sort of invented that character” and “find[s] it very difficult to imagine anybody else being Lando Calrissian.” Indeed, fans find it hard to picture anyone else playing the role. He envisioned making a “roguish, charming, good-looking guy,” and was wildly successful in giving Lando those qualities onscreen.
Williams has some favorite scenes while playing Lando in the “Star Wars” movies, including interactions with Darth Vader and getting choked by Chewbacca. “And blowing up the Death Star,” he added.
The actor also enjoyed being the voice of Lando in the animated show “Star Wars: Rebels” but doesn’t know if he’ll reprise the role in any future projects. “No one’s asked me to do anything with Star Wars,” he said. “But one never knows. I’m just having a lot of fun with my grandkids right now.” Even so, his PR team hopes that fans will storm Twitter with #bringbacklando in hopes of bringing Williams back for more episodes of “Rebels.” “We’re hoping Disney’s paying attention,” said his public appearances manager, Derek Maki.
Asked if Donald Glover has Williams’ blessing to play Lando in the upcoming Han Solo movie, Williams replied, “Of course.” He had a lot of praise for the young actor: “He’s a wonderful young man, I met Donald Glover. We had lunch one day, and he’s a very talented young man. He should bring something to it, but that’s in his own. I don’t know his acting, I’m not familiar with him as an actor, really. Obviously, he just won. . .the Golden Globe award. . .and he’s also a great, wonderful musician, so, he should do well.”
When asked about his work as Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie, Williams answered, “Working with Tim Burton was a formidable experience. You know, I really wanted to play Two-Face, but [that] didn’t work out. . . .[In] that situation, there was no two-picture deal, but I was hoping to do that. But Sony had bought the project out and decided to go take a different direction, and so I didn’t get the opportunity. But ironically, I got the opportunity. . .of being Two Face as a Lego character.” Williams admitted that he hadn’t seen “The Lego Batman Movie” yet, but added, “I might have to see it.”
Asked what his version of Two-Face would have been like had he been cast for “Batman Forever,” Williams replied, “It’s hard to say now. . .when you’re playing the character, you really progressively, developing the character as you go along. . . .Tommy Lee Jones is one of my favorite actors, so I got no complaints there, but I would have been different.”
“I think it would have been ahead of its time, as well, too,” the event emcee, Levi Tinker, added. “I think it’s one of those lost opportunities where you could’ve brought something to it that would have been very unique and very special. It’s just one of those things where you hear about how that just did not come to be, it’s one of those great ‘lost movie’ moments, I think.”
Amused, Williams said, “I agree,” drawing cheers from the crowd.
Among the Stars
As a successful Hollywood actor, Billy Dee Williams worked with many influential figures in the film industry. He spoke highly of several of them during the panel.
Others, not so much. “Richard Pryor I knew very well, so, I don’t have very much to say about Richard Pryor,” he said. “To me, he was a totally ridiculous human being.”
Williams enjoyed friendships with fellow castmates during the production of his two “Star Wars” movies that lasted long after production wrapped up. “We all had a great relationship,” he said. “Harrison’s a good man. . . .I particularly like him because I’ve seen him with his sons, and he’s a very good father, and that tells me a lot about a man. And Carrie, of course, was one of my dearest friends, very bright person. And Mark, we all had a very good relationship. And when Irvin Kershner was alive, who directed ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ that was a very special relationship.”
Working on “Star Wars” also fulfilled a desire Williams had for working with one of several rising directors. He explained, “It was a very happy experience for me because, there were a lot of these new, young filmmakers like George, Spielberg, and Scorsese, [and] Coppola. They were a whole new breed of filmmakers and so. . .I wanted to work with one of those people, so this was a great opportunity for me, by working with George, and suddenly George was the great pioneer of all the new approaches to filmmaking.”
A Modern Renaissance Man
In addition to his accomplishments on the silver screen, Billy Dee Williams also made a name for himself as a musician and painter. “My life has. . .always revolved around creativity,” he said. “I come from that kind of a background. I’ve never been a thug or anything like that. I was always a nice little kid.”
As with his early introduction to musical theater as a child, Williams got an early education in the arts. He said, “I went to a school called Music and Art High School, my sister and I—I had a twin sister—and was a straight-A student all through school. . . .When I graduated Music and Art High School I went to a school called the National Academy of Design and the Fine Arts where I spent two years on the scholarship painting.” Still only a teenager while studying at the National Academy of Design and the Fine Arts, Williams earned a nomination for the prestigious Guggenheim award.
“Painting has been very much a part of my life,” he said. “The Smithsonian owns one of my pieces, the Kansas City Jazz Museum owns a piece, the Schomberg in New York owns a piece and—I even exhibited down here back in, I think the late 80s or early 90s. . .[in] one of the small museums. I got friendly with RJ Reynolds, Reynolds’ son, and they arranged the whole exhibition for me at that time.”
Williams’s diversity in talent reflects a way of life that he calls “eclectic.” One fan asked him, “Actors face a lot of challenges during their careers, especially people of color, could you speak briefly about the challenges you faced growing up in the industry in your career?” Williams responded, “I don’t spend very much time ethnicity and all those kinds of things, I leave that to everybody else. I find it kind of boring. . .I try to approach my life as an individual with my own unique, individual ideas about how to do things and create ideas. I’ve led a very eclectic life. So I prefer to continue to live my life that way, and that’s how I raised my children and now my grandkids are being raised in the same way.”
At 80 years old, this multitalented gentleman still has a lot to contribute to the arts. And that’s a deal that keeps getting better all the time.