A film legend recalls his remarkable life of nearly eight decades—a heralded actor who’s played the roles he wanted, from Brian’s Song to Lando in the Star Wars universe—unchecked by the racism and typecasting so rife in the mostly all-white industry in which he triumphed.
Billy Dee Williams was born in Harlem in 1937 and grew up in a household of love and sophistication. As a young boy, he made his stage debut working with Lotte Lenya in an Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill production where Williams ended up feeding Lenya her lines. He studied painting, first at the High School of Music and Art, with fellow student Diahann Carroll, and then at the National Academy of Fine Art, before setting out to pursue acting with Herbert Berghoff, Stella Adler, and Sidney Poitier.
His first film role was in The Last Angry Man, the great Paul Muni’s final film. It was Muni who gave Billy the advice that sent him soaring as an actor, “You can play any character you want to play no matter who you are, no matter the way you look or the color of your skin.” And Williams writes, “I wanted to be anyone I wanted to be.”
He writes of landing the role of a lifetime: co-starring alongside James Caan in Brian’s Song, the made-for-television movie that was watched by an audience of more than fifty million people. Williams says it was “the kind of interracial love story America needed.”
And when, as the first Black character in the Star Wars universe, he became a true pop culture icon, playing Lando Calrissian in George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back (“What I presented on the screen people didn’t expect to see”). It was a role he reprised in the final film of the original trilogy, The Return of the Jedi, and in the recent sequel The Rise of Skywalker.
A legendary actor, in his own words, on all that has sustained and carried him through a lifetime of dreams and adventure.
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