Billy Dee Williams Revisited

It's been a while since Billy Dee Williams has shaken things up on-screen, but his latest performance in Jordan Walker-Pearlman's distinguished first film, The Visit, due in theatres next month, should remind audiences just how effective this actor can be when given strong material. He was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award (one of four Spirit noms the film received) for his portrayal of the father of a young man stricken with AIDS and serving a 25-year sentence for a rape he claims he did not commit. Williams gives his obstinate character, who is unwilling to forgive his son for humiliating his family, a quiet dignity, a seething anger, and, ultimately, a deeply touching compassion.

In addition to the fine work turned in by Williams, the film features noteworthy performances by Obba Babatundé, Marla Gibbs, Rae Dawn Chong, Phylicia Rashad, and Hill Harper (also nominated for Spirit Award) as the imprisoned son who finds spiritual freedom in his final days behind bars. The Visit is based on a play by Kosmond Russell and is inspired by Russell's own relationship with his brother in an Ohio prison.

Williams, who recently sat down with Back Stage West to talk about his proud participation in this project, told me that working on The Visit was like a rebirth of sorts for him.

"I'm always looking for good things to do," said Williams, who is best known around the world as Lando Calrissian in the back-to-back Star Wars sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. "I read this script, and I just started crying. It was so touching and so emotionally charged. This was like a renewal to me; it was like moving on."

Though he claims he harbors no anger about the way the entertainment industry tends to treat minority actors, Williams admitted that he's long been frustrated by the relative lack of opportunities for African-Americans in this business. Even at the height of his career in the 1970s and early '80s, his on-screen successes did not translate into numerous opportunities.

"The frustration was that, being of a particular ethnicity, you suddenly realize that all of these wonderful things that are happening to you don't really have a big follow-up. I've never seen myself in terms of black and white. If anything, I've seen myself as the full spectrum of colors, and to be faced with not being able to do something just because I'm of a particular race has been something that I've always found very difficult—even today," said Williams, whose notable screen credits also include the 1970 TV movie Brian's Song, in which his role as legendary Chicago Bears football player Dale Sayers earned him an Emmy nomination; the 1971 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, opposite Diana Ross, followed by the 1975 picture Mahogany, re-teaming him with Ross, and Tim Burton's blockbuster Batman. His television credits include Dynasty, Lonesome Dove: The Series, and the TV movie Courage, co-starring Sophia Loren.

Though Williams didn't want to discuss it much during our interview, he's also done his share of schlock and straight-to-video movies. The closest he came to talking about it was when he described his no-nonsense approach to working in this business: "I go and I do my work, and I try to do the best I can, and I collect my money and I go home, and then I go on to the next thing. That's my attitude."

The Visit, however, was not business as usual for Williams. When his agent passed along Walker-Pearlman's script, Williams recognized the importance of this story. The actor also found something he hadn't felt in a while—hope. Williams was reminded that there are still vital stories waiting to be told and that if he can be a part of those stories, it's worth the wait.

"Doing this film was about not giving in to my despair, and the way not to give in to your despair is to unite yourself with the newness of life. To me, the filmmaker, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, represents the newness of life. He represents a point of view that I think can set a precedent in terms of expressing something about the human dilemma. Jordan makes us think more about what we're not looking at and what we should be looking at."

Williams is especially proud of his own precedent, set in the early 1970s, beginning with being cast as the romantic lead opposite Ross in Lady Sings the Blues.

"I did something that no brown-skinned man in the movie industry ever did. I made a brown-skinned man look very romantic—a matinee idol. If you think about it, what I introduced is historical, because it had never happened before, and it hasn't happened since—not on that level," claimed the performer, adding that he owes much of that success to Berry Gordy, the late head of Motown records, who signed Williams to a seven-year film contract during which the actor was propelled to stardom.

Painting His Canvas

Williams was not what one would call an overnight success. He admittedly struggled as an actor for 10 years in New York, working as an extra, doing small- and large-scale theatre, and slowly breaking into television and film. His early credits include the 1959 film The Last Angry Man, starring Paul Muni; the Broadway production of A Taste of Honey, which won the 1961 New York Drama Critics Circle award for best foreign play, and a brief stint as a doctor on the TV soap The Guiding Light.

Williams actually made his first stage appearance at the age of 6 in the 1945 Kurt Weill musical The Firebrand of Florence. Born and raised in Harlem, Williams initially concentrated on becoming a painter and attended New York's High School of Music and Art, followed by a scholarship to the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design.

While pursuing his art studies, Williams became interested in the Stanislavski approach to acting and began studying under blacklisted actor Paul Mann and actor Sidney Poitier at Mann's school, the Acting Workshop, in Harlem. Williams initially viewed acting as a way to earn money for art supplies, but by the early 1960s he had begun to devote all of his energy to performance.

As he recalled, his acting career just seemed to fall into place. "One thing led to another, and all of a sudden I found myself with an agent through an actor friend of mine. I began to get jobs. I started getting major Off-Broadway jobs, and then I started getting work on Broadway. It all sort of evolved," said Williams, whose stage credits also include the Broadway productions of The Trial of A. Lincoln with Henry Fonda; Jean Genet's The Blacks; I Have a Dream, in which he portrayed Martin Luther King Jr., and August Wilson's Fences. Off-Broadway he's performed in Blue Boy in Black with Cicely Tyson, William Hanley's Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, and Robert Rossen's The Cool World.

Moment to Moment

Williams put aside his ambitions as a painter until the late 1980s, when he picked up a brush again and began devoting much of his time to his former passion. Today his paintings sell for $10,000 to $35,000, on average, and his artwork has been shown in galleries around the country and abroad. The day after this interview, Williams flew to Japan to attend his new exhibition.

Though he's rediscovered another outlet for his creativity, acting remains an equally important component of his life. He said he can't imagine giving up acting and believes that he's become a better actor with age.

"Either I want to drop dead with a paint brush in my hand or I want to drop dead doing a soliloquy on the stage," Williams told me. "I love acting. I love it. I take my acting very seriously, but I also find it fun. To do what children do and get paid for it is a lot of fun. I'm very fortunate."

Though he is hesitant to offer advice to young performers—believing that each person must find his or her own path—Williams did share some of his philosophy when it comes to life.

"I feel that life is always delivering a message, and you just have to keep your eyes and ears open, especially through the tough times," said the 63-year-old veteran, who certainly has had his share of hardships—from personal setbacks such as failed marriages and depression to the stalls in his career. "Life has a way of working itself out. Each one of us has moments, and it seems to me that we have to really recognize that when it happens to us and try to do the very best we can in that time frame."

Indeed, Williams has had his share of superb moments as an actor, and with his recent work in The Visit, he's made the most of yet another great opportunity. BSW