A handsome, suave leading man, Billy Dee Williams was often touted as the “black Clark Gable,” especially after his co-starring role in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), opposite Diana Ross.
Born William December Williams, Jr. in Harlem, he began his career as a child, thanks in part to his mother, an elevator operator at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. When she discovered that a production of The Firebrand of Florence starring Lotte Lenya needed youngsters, she volunteered her son. After that brief success, however, Williams returned to a relatively normal upbringing until he resumed his performing career as an adult to help fund his studies as a painter. TV roles and stage work followed, and Williams went on to train with Paul Mann, Herbert Berghof and Sidney Poitier. After making his feature debut in 1959’s The Last Angry Man, he debuted on Broadway the following year and spent much of the 1960s alternating between the small screen and the theater. It wasn’t until he was cast as real-life football player Gale Sayers in the seminal TV movie BRIAN’S SONG (1971) that Williams’ career took flight.
Once cast in romantic roles opposite Diana Ross in both Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany (1975), Williams was poised for major stardom. One of his best was as a baseball player who forms his own team as a rival to the Negro League in the underrated The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor King (1976). As the ‘80s dawned, George Lucas tapped him to play the scoundrel Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which he reprised in The Return of the Jedi (1983). He also played the district attorney Harvey Dent in 1989’s Batman.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the small screen offered roles that made the best of William’ s assets. He was duly smooth and charming as a love interest for Diahann Carroll on ABC’s Dynasty. Williams also won strong praise for his portrayal of Motown founder Berry Gordy in the ABC miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992). During this period, the actor, who became financially secure thanks to the success of the Star Wars films, resumed his avocation as a painter and had several exhibitions of his work. He also trademarked the image of “THE COLT 45 GUY,” marketing beer with his smooth style in well-made, entertaining commercials.
Williams has had many recent roles in film and television, including the Paramount Pictures comedy The Ladies Man (2000) and the Universal Pictures comedy Undercover Brother (2002). In 2000, Williams co-starred in the independent drama The Visit, directed by Jordan Walker-Pearlman. Williams received widespread praise and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his portrayal of a stern yet loving father. The favorable feedback whetted William’s appetite to revive his career as a serious character actor, so he once again went under the direction of Walker-Pearlman for the feature film Constellation (2005), opposite Gabrielle Union.
In 2006, the NAACP recognized Mr. Williams for his immense contribution to the arts by awarding him the Lifetime Achievement Award, and he continues to work in stage, film and television roles that interest and challenge him. His recent television appearances have included NCIS and Modern Family. Mr. Williams continues to keep busy doing various voice-over work on shows such as Robot Chicken and Star Wars Rebels.
In addition to his impressive acting career, Billy Dee Williams is also a very accomplished painter. He has been commissioned by many high-profile companies and personalities, and has a painting on display at the Smithsonian.
– We regret that due to unforeseen circumstances Billy Dee Williams will no longer be in attendance as previously announced.