He’s a man that really needs no introduction. With a voice that is still smooth as silk and charm that can make any woman’s heart flutter, actor Billy Dee Williams is proof that after a lengthy career spanning over 50 years, “the force is still with him.”
As an actor he has achieved star status in film, television and theater. Billy Dee Williams has starred in iconic roles such as Gayle Sayers in the Emmy Award-winning film Brian’s Song, and as Lando Calrissian in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He also made his mark as the male romantic lead in films like Mahogany and Lady Sings the Blues.
The 76 year-old boasts a myriad of talents aside from acting. His musical talents led to the release of his jazz album Let’s Misbehave in 1961. Mr. Williams’ artistic abilities laid the foundation for a lifelong passion. He won scholarships to pursue his passion for painting, and continues to turn his visions into artwork, making him an accomplished painter with his works being shown at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Schomburg Museum in New York, and in galleries around the world. That’s not all; Mr. Williams has also co-authored three novels over the span of his career. With all of that under his belt, he shows no signs of slowing down as he is currently hitting the Comic Con trail reuniting with Star Wars fans across the country.
SoulTrain.com caught up with the legendary actor Billy Dee Williams as he reflects on his acting career and his passion for his artwork.
SoulTrain.com: For those that don’t know, how did you get started with acting?
Billy Dee Williams: I started when I was 6 years old in a Broadway musical. My mom actually got me involved into show business. She was an aspiring performer, she always had dreams of being a movie star, she studied opera for many years and she was working as a secretary for the manager of the theater. So they were doing a musical and they were looking for a little boy to play the role of the pageboy. I went and auditioned and cried my way into show business [laughs]! They had me walk across the stage a couple of times, and I decided I wanted to do it again and they said it was alright and I started crying, so I always say I cried my way into show business.
SoulTrain.com: You have been busy on the Comic Con trail. How has that been, being able to meet and introduce yourself to some of the younger fans and being able to bridge the gap?
Billy Dee Williams: Of course they are all Star Wars fans, and I love it! I travel all over the world and all over the country. It’s been a lot of fun, I really enjoy it. It’s fun to meet some of the people that have given me support over the years.
SoulTrain.com: Do you follow Lando’s adventures in other avenues, like novels and comic books?
Billy Dee Williams: I have seen the novels but I haven’t read any of them. I keep threatening to do it, so one of these days I will sit down and catch up on Lando’s adventures.
SoulTrain.com: Of course the burning question on the minds of Star Wars fans is, will you be starring in the new Star Wars movie?
Billy Dee Williams: I have no idea what’s going on with that. People ask me that all the time and I really don’t know, but we’ll see what happens.
SoulTrain.com: What was the most challenging about the role of Lando? Or was this role just a natural fit for you?
Billy Dee Williams: Well I was cute, charming, and a bit roguish so it just worked [laughs].
SoulTrain.com: Since you brought up the cute factor, you were the one that kind of opened the door for handsome African American men to play the leading man in a romantic role in several films like Mahogany, so what are your thoughts on that?
Billy Dee Williams: It’s been a wonderful journey, let me put it that way. I had been doing romantic roles on stage in the theater in New York City in my early 20s. It wasn’t really new to me, but I feel very fortunate to have been able to emerge in film in a romantic way. It’s been fun.
SoulTrain.com: Do you think chivalry is dead? It seems that the thought process for some men is that women can open their own doors and be independent. What are your thoughts on that?
Billy Dee Williams: I’m not sure what to say about it, but I was raised differently and I have a profound respect for the ladies.
SoulTrain.com: What has been your favorite role to date?
Billy Dee Williams: There is no one favorite role, but there are a few roles that I did enjoy doing–Mahogany, Lady Sings the Blues, Bingo Long and The Traveling All Stars and Motor King, Brian’s Song, and things I have done on stage. Just about everything that I have done and consider pretty significant, I really enjoyed and had great fun doing it. There is no one particular thing; I have had so many roles in my career. I have been doing this for over 50 years now.
SoulTrain.com: In those 50 something years, did you have a favorite leading lady?
Billy Dee Williams: All of them were my favorite. They really are, actually. I get along with everybody.
SoulTrain.com: What would be your dream role?
Billy Dee Williams: There are a couple of characters that I have always wanted to play, but it’s too late now. One was Duke Ellington; I always wanted to do his life, and I tried a few times to get his story off the ground but didn’t have any real success with it.
SoulTrain.com: What do you think about how African American actors and actresses are treated in the industry? Do you think they get overlooked for certain roles, or do you think it’s an over-saturation of the same actors and actresses being cast for every movie?
Billy Dee Williams: I think things are probably getting better. Certainly, the whole African American experience has been a difficult journey and will probably continue to be, but I think it’s getting better.
SoulTrain.com: You had a jazz album called Let’s Misbehave that you released in the early 60s. Do you plan to release any more music?
Billy Dee Williams: That was a long time ago! I don’t know. I often find myself thinking about releasing new music. I have been thinking of releasing some of the old romantic songs or standards, but we’ll see.
SoulTrain.com: Do you listen to any music that’s out today? If so, what do you think of the content that’s out there?
Billy Dee Williams: Yeah, I listen to everything. A lot of it I like and a lot of it I don’t like. It’s just reflecting what’s going on today, it reflects the attitude and inner sensibility that exists today, and a lot of it is quite good. It’s like any other time period: Music always has the ability to either teach us something or it’s reflecting something.
SoulTrain.com: Let’s switch gears and discuss your painting. How did you get into art?
Billy Dee Williams: I grew up in New York City, and I went to a school called Music and Art High School and that’s when I really got into it. I was an art major, and from there I went to a school called National Academy of Fine Arts and Design where I went on a Hallgarten Award Scholarship. When I was 19 years old I was nominated for a Guggenheim. I had also won a few awards as a teenager as a painter. Painting has always been a big part of my life.
SoulTrain.com: Where do you draw your inspiration from on what you decide to paint?
Billy Dee Williams: I paint about everything. It’s primarily about my experiences and things that I have gone through in my life, things that really interest me. I try to talk about music, romance, and all kinds of things through my paintings.
SoulTrain.com: Do you have any favorite pieces that stand out for you?
Billy Dee Williams: I love all of my paintings, actually. I sometimes find it difficult to give them up. They become like your children. I have a website where I have a few of the paintings where people can see some of it.
SoulTrain.com: What are your plans for the future?
Billy Dee Williams: At this stage of my life, I am always looking for something very exciting to do. I am very fortunate and lucky to be able to take my time and relax and not have to live with a lot of anxiety.
SoulTrain.com: Do you have any advice for aspiring actors and artists?
Billy Dee Williams: I don’t normally like to give advice, but I think if you are going to do this then you have to dedicate yourself and work really hard and be the best that you can.
SoulTrain.com: How do you want Billy Dee Williams to be remembered? What is your legacy?
Billy Dee Williams: I hope to be remembered for being a very good dad. I also hope that people will remember the work that I have done as a performer and as a painter. Hopefully people will think of me as a person with a lot of compassion.
Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, Mosaic Magazine Charlotte, or her own websites, www.themofochronicles.com and www.conversationswithmeik.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @mofochronicles.