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Billy Dee Williams: ‘At this stage in my life, I don’t need to apologise for anything’

<span>Billy Dee Williams: ‘I’ve led a very eclectic life. I see myself as the full spectrum of colours and, when you’re a painter, you learn a lot more about that perspective.’</span><span>Photograph: Janet Mayer/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Billy Dee Williams: ‘I’ve led a very eclectic life. I see myself as the full spectrum of colours and, when you’re a painter, you learn a lot more about that perspective.’Photograph: Janet Mayer/Rex/Shutterstock

He was a trailblazer in Hollywood and broke the colour barrier in Star Wars. But Black History Month or not, there is one role that Billy Dee Williams has no intention of playing: racial justice warrior.

“I don’t think about all that stuff,” the 86-year-old actor and painter says by phone. “I’ll let everybody else think about it. I’ve led a very eclectic life. I see myself as the full spectrum of colours and, when you’re a painter, you learn a lot more about that perspective.”

Related: ‘I try not to be a weirdo’: actor Andrea Riseborough on being true to herself

As he tours live venues and TV studios to promote his memoir, What Have We Here?, Williams shows no desire to be a celebrity advocate or spokesman for Black empowerment, even if it means disappointing progressive America.

“I can’t spend my time going, like, ‘Fuck the whites,’” he told an audience at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library in Washington last week, raising one fist after another with a wry smile. At the same event Williams described former president Donald Trump as “a very charming man”, with a mischievous laugh.

The new book chronicles Williams’s childhood in 1930s and 1940s Harlem, New York, in the twilight of the Harlem renaissance. His father, William December Williams, was a hard-working labourer who knew how to dress. Williams writes: “He taught me how to put a hat on, using two fingers and a thumb, grasping the brim in a way that prevented my fingerprints from smearing the crown.”

His mother, Loretta Bodkin, was a friend of singer Lena Horne and dreamed of becoming a Hollywood star. It was thanks to her that Williams made his Broadway debut at the age of seven in Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s operetta The Firebrand of Florence.

Williams tells the Guardian: “She was studying opera but working as an elevator operator at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City. They were putting on this production and they wanted a little boy to fill this role of the page boy to the Duchess in the production. She happened to have me and so she took me down to the theatre and I auditioned for [producer] John Murray Anderson.

“I walked across the stage one time, walked across stage two times, and they said thank you very much, Billy, you don’t need to do any more. I became enamoured with the moment and I wanted to do it the third time, and they said, no, that’s all right, you don’t need to do the third time. I started crying. I always say I cried my way into showbusiness.”

Williams did not intend to become a child actor and had a fairly conventional schooling but he returned to the stage in his late teens and 20s, appearing in Broadway productions such as A Taste of Honey with Joan Plowright.

His big break came in the 1971 TV film Brian’s Song, based on the real-life interracial friendship between the American football players Brian Piccolo, who is dying from cancer, and Gale Sayers. Piccolo was played by James Caan, who died in 2022 aged 82.

Williams recalls of the film: “That whole experience was an act of love. When James Caan and I met each other there was an immediate chemistry and then working with Buzz Kulik, the director, turned into a wonderful, beautiful and very special experience.”

Caan and Williams were both nominated for Emmys but lost out to Keith Michell for the The Six Wives of Henry VIII. More than half a century later, Williams is still sore about it. “They decided to give him the Emmy, which I thought was totally, absolutely absurd.”

Handsome and debonair, Williams played opposite Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. At last week’s book promotion in Washington, he asserted: “I created something that nobody ever created as far as little brown-skinned boys were concerned. I became a matinee idol. That never happened but I was cute!” The audience burst into laughter.

Williams adds to the Guardian: I remember going to the supermarket after I did Lady Sings the Blues and somebody ran up to me and said, ‘I gotta tell you something. You are the Black Clark Gable.’ I said: fine. I was being called the Black Clark Gable by people who saw me as this kind of fancy figure.”

He writes somewhat ruefully in What Have We Here?: “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 says his friend James Baldwin wanted him to play Malcolm X in a film based on Baldwin’s screenplay about the advocate for Black empowerment. He recalls by phone: “I wanted to do it. He was writing it for Columbia [Pictures] but Columbia wanted James Earl Jones.

“Jimmy was writing Malcolm’s life from a very early stage in his life until his demise and James Earl didn’t fit into his vision of Malcolm. Columbia even talked about [Marlon] Brando doing Malcolm at that time, which I know is hysterical but a little bit interesting.”

It would also have been another notorious example of “blackface” in Hollywood. How does Williams feel about that practice? “You don’t have to do blackface. There are lots of things you can do. Most people in my mind are very provincial and myopic in their vision of the world. All you have to do is use your imagination and, if you’re good at using your imagination, you can do some really interesting stuff without doing the obvious to achieve whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

As if to prove the point, Williams went to a galaxy far, far away for the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, playing the charismatic scoundrel Lando Calrissian. His book’s title is a direct quotation from when the smooth-talking Calrissian lays eyes on Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, the first time.

He says: “At that time there were all of these wonderful young film-makers that were changing the face of cinema like Spielberg and Coppola and Scorsese. When I was asked to participate in the Star Wars movie, I jumped at the opportunity of working with George Lucas.

“George at that time was getting a lot of flak about Darth Vader being this big black evil figure. But what he was trying to express was the old cowboy symbolism: the guy in the white hat as opposed to the guy in the black hat. That’s basically what he was all about.”

Williams goes on: “I signed for two movies and it was a great contract so it was a great opportunity for me, especially when I heard the name Calrissian: I thought, well, that’s interesting, it’s an Armenian name, so I decided I’m gonna see what I can do with that, play around with that whole idea. And when I got the cape, that was Errol Flynn time so I decided to do something that was interesting and bigger than life with the character.”

Fame was a double-edged lightsaber. Han Solo, a lovable rogue played by Harrison Ford, ended The Empire Strikes Back frozen in carbonite and set to become a prisoner of slug-like gangster Jabba the Hutt. Some fans blamed Calrissian. Picking up his daughter from school, Williams would be confronted by kids in the playground demanding: “Did you betray Han Solo?” Flight attendants would ask him the same question. (Adam Driver, whose character actually kills Solo in The Force Awakens, is still getting harassed about it.)

Although Darth Vader was voiced by the African American actor James Earl Jones, Williams played the first Black character in the Star Wars universe. But he is not eager to embrace the status of pioneer or receive the kind of accolades that Nichelle Nichols did from Martin Luther King for her role in television’s Star Trek.

“I never think of myself in terms of the only Black character. Everybody else might think of it that way. In my reasoning in my own head, I’m just a character. A character has certain qualities that make a character a winning character in a movie or a character that is not able to translate very well. I’ve been able to translate very well across the board.

“As I said, I don’t really think in terms of Black. I couldn’t care less about all that garbage.”

The Star Wars saga has now grossed more than $10bn at the global box office, second only to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the highest-grossing film franchise of all time. It is also firmly embedded in western popular culture. Some lines of dialogue – “No, I am your father”; “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” and of course “May the Force be with you” – are as familar as favourite songs and raw material for countless memes.

Some Jedi communities around the world describe themselves as religions. The billionaire tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel once opined: “I’m a capitalist. Star Wars is the capitalist show. Star Trek is the communist one.” Williams and his fellow cast members found themselves turned into action figures. Last week a Star Wars script left in a London flat by Ford in 1976 sold at auction for more than £10,000.

How does Williams explain its enduring appeal? “There are, I guess, lots of reasons,” he says. “It was timely. It’s like anything that comes along: for that moment it worked and it worked very well. And it continues to work. That’s the phenomenon.”

Williams reprised his role in Return of the Jedi and again, some 36 years later, in The Rise of Skywalker, a film that received lukewarm reviews. Meanwhile a young version of Calrissian was played by Donald Glover in the disappointing Solo. Disney, which owns Star Wars, has also made a glut of spinoff TV series. Is there a danger of too much Star Wars?

“I don’t know. Nothing’s dangerous. The only thing that’s dangerous is lots of stupid people running around and shooting people.”

Williams also played Harvey Dent in Batman alongside Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. On TV he appeared in shows such as Dynasty and General Hospital and commercials for Colt 45, a malt liquor. He is also a prolific painter and says he has 300 works in storage. His memoir is frank about his three marriages and various affairs.

He does not rewatch the Star Wars films and did not catch his old friend Ford’s return to the Indiana Jones series last year at the age of 80. “He’s an old man. I don’t want to watch an old guy running around doing what he was doing when he was a younger man.

He adds: “I don’t really watch anything now. Occasionally I will, especially if I see certain actors that I like to watch perform, like Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep. There are certain people that are so fascinating you just can’t help wanting to know what they’ve got, especially the ones who are like chameleons – they can just disappear into a character. I find that absolutely intriguing.”

Next month’s Oscars will again shine a spotlight on how much progress Hollywood has made in diversity and representation – and how far it still has to go. Williams, who lives in Los Angeles, reflects: “I see a lot of Black actors working so I would imagine things are moving along. It all depends on: to whose satisfaction?

“When you when you’re living in a world that’s been a European western value system for centuries and it dominates all of the literature, the arts, politics, wars and everything, it’s not something that you can just simply dismiss. Everything will have its moment or moments.”

But Williams, whose life spans Jim Crow and Barack Obama, defies contemporary expectations that African American artists will parlay the barriers they had to overcome into a morality tale or rallying cry. Would it be fair to describe him as apolitical? “I couldn’t care less,” he replies. “Everybody else, if they want to go through the machinations, if they want to spend most of their time pissed off, that’s their prerogative. There are other ways to deal with situations. You take a negative and you make it into a positive.”

A grandfather nearing 87, he will let his work on film, canvas and now the page do the talking. “I find myself a walking absurdity and amusing. I chuckle at myself or about myself all the time. At this stage in my life I don’t need to apologise for anything.”

And Williams ends the call with an unexpected swerve into a British accent. “Cheerio, mate!” he says.

  • What Have We Here: Portraits of a Life by Billy Dee Williams is out now