LifestyleFrom Motown to Lando Calrissian: Billy Dee Williams' remarkable journey

From Motown to Lando Calrissian: Billy Dee Williams’ remarkable journey

Excitement was in the air as the audience waited to hear Billy Dee Williams, the beloved actor from stage, screen, and television. He was at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Northwest D.C. to share moments captured in his autobiography “What Have We Here?: Portraits of a Life.” 

“What Have We Here?: Portraits of a Life,” the autobiography of Billy Dee Williams, was released on Feb. 15. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)
Before NBC Washington anchor Jummy Olabanji began the conversation with Williams, a film montage offered a glimpse into the superstar’s storied career. The biggest reactions came when Williams was seen in a clip where he portrayed Lando Calrissian in George Lucas’s “Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back” and then when he was the smooth pitchman for Colt 45 malt liquor. 

Williams entered to a standing ovation, sat down across from Olabanji, and began singing “Our Love is Here to Stay,” the George and Ira Gershwin standard.

The actor’s career started at 7 years old, when his mother encouraged him to try out for a stage production. Williams was cast in many theatrical roles before being seen on screen in “Brian’s Song,” the award-winning 1971 television film about the life of Chicago Bears player Brian Piccolo, played by actor James Caan, and his friendship with teammate Gale Sayers, portrayed by Billy Dee Williams. 

Williams explained his agent felt he was perfect to play Sayers.

“We had the same sensibilities. We were both very shy and introverted, but the movie touched many people,” Williams said. 

The Motown Years 

After “Brian’s Song,” Williams received a multi-year contract with Berry Gordy and Motown. That relationship put Williams in two movies with Diana Ross, “Lady Sings the Blues” in 1972 and “Mahogany” in 1975. People began calling Williams the “Black Clark Gable.”

“I became a matinee idol,” Williams acknowledged. “I am a romanticist.”

At a point in his career, Williams’s film success did not bring him the same caliber of roles being offered to other actors.

“You realize you’re living in a world that was created by the European Western values system,” Williams said.

Instead, Williams took a practical look at how to move ahead. 

“Rather than spending time being pissed off, you just find your way around and through it and come up with ideas to make a difference. I just don’t want to spend my time being pissed off,” he explained.

Painting has always been in Williams’ life and was one way that he diverted his attention from being frustrated with Hollywood. He studied art in high school and a few years after graduating. Williams’ paintings are highly regarded and he has received a few commissions. 

Star Wars and Beyond 

“The Empire Strikes Back” intrigued Williams. He wanted to see what could be done with Lando Calrissian’s role. Plus, he loved the idea of that character having a cape.

“I said, let me do something bigger than life,” said Williams when offered the Star Wars role. “Lando was dubious. There is nothing more interesting than a dubious hero of fear.”

In the mid-1980s, Williams was the face and voice of Colt 45. The commercials played off his smooth demeanor and deep voice. He said the tagline “It works every time” before the library audience, which garnered a huge celebratory reaction.

 The evening with Williams kept this image intact. He is still fine, funny, and flirtatious – flirting with us all.

“What Have We Here?: Portraits of a Life,” the 288-page book about the remarkable life of Williams, age 86, is now available from your favorite bookseller.

Source: Washington Informer

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