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    Friday, July 19, 2024

    How Billy Dee Williams cried himself into show business

    In a 1976 profile, the New York Times referred to Billy Dee Williams, the dashing leading man opposite Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany,” as “the black Clark Gable.” But frankly, my dears, he did not give a damn. In his new memoir, “What Have We Here? Portraits of a Life,” he writes, “I wanted to be known as one of the best actors of my generation, period. But the opportunities weren’t the same for me as they were for Gable.”

    Williams wants to be clear, however, that his is not a “victim story.” He writes: “I don’t think exclusively in terms of the Black experience, the White experience, or any other experience, except the human experience.”

    “What Have We Here?” (the title taken from the instantly iconic words that Williams’s Star Wars character, Lando Calrissian, said upon meeting Princess Leia in “The Empire Strikes Back”) chronicles a creative journey that started in Harlem and landed Williams on Broadway as well as on screens big and small.

    This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

    Q: Why write your memoir now?

    A: I’m 87 in April. I’m at that juncture where I’m thinking in terms of legacy. The memoir I originally wanted to do was a coffee-table book that told my life story through my paintings. I’m still working on that.

    Q: Did you read other celebrity memoirs for inspiration?

    A: Many years ago, I read “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger, and I always thought of myself as being very much like that boy. Life always seemed to be a kind of adventure, and I thought if I had to talk about my life, I would talk about my life in that particular way. I’ve lived a very eclectic life. Because I’m a painter, I see myself as the full spectrum of colors. I’m not inclined to embrace this idea of one thing or the other. I see myself as very much a part of a universal truth.

    Q: You write about listening to the radio as a kid. Did that influence your career path?

    A: In those days, we listened to everything as a family: “The Lone Ranger,” Molly Goldberg, “The Shadow,” Jack Benny, “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” who were portrayed by two White men. I never really thought about wanting to be an actor. I didn’t follow acting; acting followed me. It managed to enter my life in a very surreptitious way.

    Q: Your first Broadway audition was at the age of 8.

    A: A Broadway musical, “The Firebrand of Florence.” Kurt Weill did the music, and his wife, Lotte Lenya, played the Duchess. My mom worked as the elevator operator at that theater. They were looking for a little boy. She took me to the audition, and I remember walking across the stage. They had me walk a second time. I was really enamored. I wanted to do it a third time, and they said I didn’t need to do it anymore. I insisted on doing it, to the point where I started crying. I always said I cried my way into show business.

    Q: A New York Times profile at the time said you came from the ghetto.

    A: Whenever people see success from someone who is a minority, they immediately think this is one of those rags-to-riches ghetto success stories. I remember doing “The Merv Griffin Show” after starring in “Brian’s Song.” He asked where I came from. I wanted to have a little amusement, so I said, “New York.” He asked, “Where in New York?” I said, “New York City.” I tried to avoid the whole Harlem thing. He got really frustrated and stopped asking where I came from.

    Q: During that time, blaxploitation films were at their height. With the arguable exception of “Hit!” you did not appear in these films. What did you think of the genre?

    A: I tried to avoid it. It wasn’t the direction I wanted to take. I wanted to be a romantic lead. The movies I fell in love with when I was growing up were the romantic comedies. I envisioned myself doing the stuff William Powell and Melvyn Douglas did.

    Q: Which brings us to “Lady Sings the Blues.” How did that movie come your way?

    A: I had auditioned for it. My screen test was really terrible. But (producer) Berry Gordy saw the chemistry between me and Diana Ross, and he decided I was absolutely the person to play that character. That ended up changing my whole life. I suddenly became this romantic figure on-screen.

    Q: You write about your interactions with fans. Can you tell, when someone is approaching, which specific project they want to talk to you about?

    A: First of all, I will be asking the questions. I will not be looking to impose my importance on anybody (laughs). I remember when I met Laurence Olivier when I was doing “A Taste of Honey” on Broadway with him and his wife, Joan Plowright. I spent a lot of time talking with him. I was only in my early 20s and I was full of questions. But he never let me ask questions about him. He was always asking me questions. I said to myself, “This is why this guy is as good as he is.” He was like a sponge. He was interested in finding out who I was, my ideas and thoughts.

    Q: You broke the Star Wars color barrier with Lando Calrissian in “The Empire Strikes Back” and cut quite a dashing figure doing so.

    A: I didn’t play him as Black.

    Q: That’s what you told Donald Glover when he reached out to you when he was cast as a young Lando for “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”

    A: I told him, “Just be charming.”

    Q: Bruce Dern used to tell stories about being confronted by John Wayne fans who were irate with him for shooting Wayne in “The Cowboys.” You write about Star Wars fans being angry with you for seemingly betraying Han Solo at the end of “Empire.”

    A: I always found it amusing and sometimes a little scary. Every now and again you run into someone who takes that stuff very seriously. But Lando was up against Darth Vadar and had to make some sort of bargain with him. It got to the point where I finally had to say to people, “Did anyone die? Relax.”

    Q: This is, of course, one memoir where you really want to hear the audiobook. You always knew you had the looks, but when did you realize your voice was such a powerful and seductive instrument?

    A: I never really liked my voice. I learned how to use it, certainly in “Lady Sings the Blues,” which turned everything around, and when I started doing the Colt 45 commercials. That was a whimsical time for me. And it made me a lot of money (laughs). And I had a fragrance: Undeniable. I was in competition with Elizabeth Taylor.

    Q: You are an icon of cool. Who were your screen role models?

    A: My father was pretty cool, but it’s not anything I spent time thinking about. I look at myself as a walking absurdity. I take my work seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously.

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