Actor Billy Dee Williams is a TV, film and stage icon particularly known for his roles opposite Diana Ross in ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ and ‘Mahogany’ as well as Lando Calrissian in the sci-fi epics ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi.’
William December Williams was born on April 6, 1937, in New York, NY. Williams got into acting early, making his stage debut at seven years old in the 1945 musical The Firebrand of Florence, though he wouldn’t return to the professional stage until adulthood. Williams went on to attend the High School of Music and Art in his home city as well as the National Academy School of Fine Arts, where he honed his skill as a visual artist. He later studied under acting legend Sidney Poitier at the Harlem Actors Workshop.
Emmy Nod for ‘Brian's Song’
Williams made his big-screen debut in 1959’s The Last Angry Man. The next decade would see Williams appear in an array of TV series and movies while also joining the cast of the Broadway productions The Cool World (1960), A Taste of Honey (1960), Tiger Tiger Burning Bright (1962) and Hallelujah, Baby! (1967).
Williams’ next theatrical film would be 1970’s The Out of Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. The following year, Williams starred in the biopic Brian’s Song, which depicted the friendship between Chicago Bears athletes Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Williams), with Williams receiving an Emmy nomination for his role.
Suave Sex Symbol
Williams then made a major name for himself opposite Diana Ross in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, with the actor playing love interest Louis McKay. He later starred with Ross again in the 1975 film Mahogany, in which Williams portrayed an urban activist with romantic ties to Ross’ designer/model title character.
Williams’ iconic, suave looks and worldly air thrilled moviegoers, with the media billing him as the black Clark Gable (a moniker reportedly stemming from former manager Berry Gordy). His heartthrob status was memorably evidenced by his guest turn on the popular sitcom The Jeffersons, on which he appeared as himself on the episode “Me and Billy Dee” as the perennial object of affection for housekeeper Florence Johnston (actress Marla Gibbs).
Other Williams big-screen films of this era included Hit! (1973), The Take (1974) and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). He also portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1976 Broadway play I Have a Dream and ragtime creator Scott Joplin in a 1977 TV movie.
Lando Calrissian in ‘Empire Strikes Back’
Williams’ fame took a different, blockbuster turn in 1980 when he starred as Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, the sequel to George Lucas’ trailblazing production Star Wars, a sci-fi film regarded as a cinematic cornerstone that has spawned one of the most successful screen franchises of all time.
Calrissian, the once treacherous, cape-wearing administrator of Cloud City who eventually joined the rebel forces, was a significant figure as well in 1983’s The Return of the Jedi. Calrissian has proved to be an enduring entity for the actor, with the character eventually having his own comic miniseries and Williams continuing to make appearances over the years at conventions.
More Screen Roles, Malt Liquor and Art
The 1980s saw Williams continue to be a force on the screen with a role in the prime-time soap opera Dynasty as Brady Lloyd, the paramour of Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll). He also played district attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
From the ‘90s into the new millennium, Williams has had a lower screen profile but nonetheless appeared in an array of projects, ranging from television appearances in A Different World, General Hospital, White Collar, and Modern Family to the films This Bitter Earth (2012) and voice over for The Lego Movie (2014).
During the ‘80s, Williams appeared as a spokesperson for the malt liquor Colt 45, again doing so in 2016, though controversy remains about the underlying messages for the campaigns and its targeted audience.
Williams has also continued to develop his craft as a painter, with his sometimes jazz-infused work having appeared in venues like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York and the Liss Gallery in Toronto.
Williams, who previously described himself in a 1980 People interview as somewhat tortured and searching for happiness, has been married and divorced three times. He has two children as well as a stepdaughter from his third wife Teruko. The actor/artist is also a professed spiritualist with interests that range from Eastern philosophies to astrology.
April 6, 1937
- Inducted into the International Mustache Hall of Fame in 2015 (inaugural class) in the category Film & Television.
- Inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1984.
- The character Walter “Doc” Hartford from the animated space opera The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers (1986) was based on him.
- He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1521 Vine Street in Hollywood, California on March 27, 1985.
- In addition to playing Lando Calrissian in the original Star Wars trilogy, he played the part in the NPR radio dramatization of The Empire Strikes Back. However, he was not available to reprise the role for Return of the Jedi.
- Is one of three actors, along with Anthony Daniels and Mark Hamill, to reprise their same roles from the original Star Wars trilogy in the NPR radio dramatizations of the trilogy.
- He and actress/singer Diahann Carroll were classmates at the New York City High School of the Performing Arts, the school that was featured on the popular television series Fame (1982).
- Was an accomplished art student even before his acting career began. Has had professional gallery showings where his oil canvases have sold for tens of thousands of dollars.