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VOL 3. NO. 17 Friday, April 27 - Thursday, May 10, 2001
Billy Dee Williams: Talent that Transcend Time
By Avonie BROWN

Billie Dee Williams, courtesy photo

Billy Dee Williams has been an actor for nearly 50 of his 64 years. And during the last five decades he has amassed an impressive list of film credits. Most recently he has been seen in films like "The Last Place On Earth," "The Ladies Man" and "Fear Runs Silent." On television this past season he guest starred on the ABC series "Gideon's Crossing" as the prodigal father of one of the young doctors who is dying of lung cancer.

But for a whole generation of moviegoers he is the icon of the smooth and sexy "man's man" in films like "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) and "Mahogany" (1975). Fans of the Stars Wars series know him as the space pirate Lando Calrissian from two of George Lucas' blockbuster films of the 1980s "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi" (1983). Still others are familiar with the suave and ultra cool persona from the "Colt 45" commercials. Or you may know him as Billie Dee Williams, the acclaimed painter.

Regardless of the vision of Williams you may hold, he wants you to know that he has had an absolutely fabulous career thus far and he is excited about all that he still has available to him. He is receiving a lot of attention lately for his impressive portrayal of Henry Waters in the new film "The Visit," written, produced and directed by Jordan Walker-Pearlman. The film and Williams have racked up several nominations. First came a Best Supporting Male nod from the IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards as well as Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Best Male Lead for Hill Harper. The film also received special recognition from the National Board Review of Motion Pictures, as well as Best Supporting Actor and Actress nomination for Williams and Marla Gibbs from the NAACP Image Awards.

AVONIE: Mr. Billie Dee Williams playing the role of father. You did an absolutely wonderful job in the role of Henry.

BILLIE DEE: Henry was a great character to play. I guess I am now in that age category where I'm now basically considered a father figure, a role I seem to be doing a lot of lately. But Henry brings a wonderful new twist to things. Its amazing just how many people I've run into who are the children of men like Henry.

AVONIE: How would you define Henry?

BILLIE DEE: Henry is a man of courage, a man who loves his family. He's a man from the old school who just knows that life is difficult out there and certain things have to be done in a certain way and if its not done that way then things can fall apart. So then he finds himself in a dilemma because his son is in trouble and he can't quite figure out what's happened. He almost feels obligated to make it all really clear and those kinds of people can be a real pain in the ass.

AVONIE: Are there aspects of Henry in you?

BILLIE DEE: I think so. Well, my family definitely thinks so (Laughs). I have some very clear ideas when it comes to my family as well and I too can be a pain in the ass. But it's all because I love and care about their wellbeing.

AVONIE: Part of the beauty of this film, though is that characters like Henry are shown as complex individuals, not just a cardboard cutout.

BILLIE DEE: Absolutely, Henry has much compassion and caring. Some people express their emotions in obvious ways but when men, some men make the commitment to take care of the welfare of their wives and children, it is their statement of their love. Henry is from that school where you had to fight and struggle to keep it all together. My father was like that.

AVONIE: You acted the heck of that character, you had me riveted.

BILLIE DEE: Good. We have gotten some wonderful responses from the film and it makes the experience that more exciting because we want to get people turned on to the material as much as we were.

AVONIE: When I spoke with Jordan earlier, he talked about how emotionally people have responded to it.

BILLIE DEE: That is one of the many things about this movie that is very interesting and I've seen it over and over again. It has been very emotionally charged for many people on many levels and it elicits and generates much discussion. Like when I showed it to my mother, my sister and other family and friends, they found themselves in full discuss about it and its been true of most of the people who have seen it. It does that to you. It grabs a hold of you in such a powerful and emotional way but it also makes you think. It is so real.

It really is a psychological journey and we rarely get to see people from this ethnic background dealt with in this kind of a subtext way. They are not just sitting around eating chitlins and involved in superficial chatter. There is so much more beneath the surface, we have so much more to say about each other and ourselves and Jordan has put it all together wonderfully to completely grab your attention.

AVONIE: In some sense I was surprised by the quality of the film. And while I knew you were a wonderful actor, I was in fact surprised at how effectively you captured Henry. I guess in my mind's eye I'm still seeing you as Mr. Colt 45, Mr. Cool, and a sex symbol.

BILLIE DEE: Well from the beginning they made me into this romantic character. I've always been a character actor since I was very young. But listen I have no complaints.

AVONIE: But the marketing of that image has worked too well because our expectations then shift and in a sense it limits your creativity or at least our understanding of your full creative range, don't' you think?

BILLIE DEE: Well yeah, it limits it but it's loaded with negatives and positives. But if you look at all the characters that I have done, even though they all seem to have a romantic edge to it, they were still good characters and they weren't always the same. People may not have realized it but when I did "Ryan's Song" and "Lady Sings the Blues" that was all in the same year, in fact only months apart. In those two films you see the difference in the two characters but I was still the same age. Even the character I just did on "Gideon's Crossing" he's charming but he's a rascal. But you know I was designated the sex symbol so that has stuck in people's minds. I try to bring something different to each character so for me it's never the same thing.

AVONIE: How did you connect with Jordan?

BILLIE DEE: Jordan is one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met in my life. He's had a very interesting and diverse life and that has given him a very dynamic palate to work with and you can see it in this movie. He brings a sensibility to this film that is rarely seen and it's all based on his experiences, what he's seen and what he's learned about the human dilemma. He told me that he has wanted to work with me since seeing me on stage when he was 10. I wanted to work with him after reading his wonderful script.

AVONIE: You had no reservation about working with an unknown writer/director/producer?

BILLIE DEE: I want to work with young people. After spending so many years in the business I look forward to their fresh, new perspective. And I want them to know that I welcome and look forward to working with them. They represent the new generation of filmmakers and I want to be a part of that.

AVONIE: Your last feature film experience was "Lady's Man" thematically a far cry from "The Visit."

Yes, but I had a lot of fun doing that film and I thought it was an interesting point of view. It didn't work at the box office and that too bad because Tim Meadows is very talented. But I think the difficulty was his character, which was extremely popular on the small screen (Saturday Night Live) did not translate well to the big screen. And that has happened before, so it's not an indictment of this actor or his character. You just never know, but I had fun doing it.

AVONIE: Has your perspective on acting changed after all these years?

BILLIE DEE: Yes, I am much more willing to take risks. I don't think I have to prove anything to anyone anymore. The older I get the more I find I am willing to embrace it all. Right now I want to do more acting and in the last year or two I've been out there doing more of it than I had for a long time because I had shifted my focus to my paintings.

AVONIE: So it was a self-imposed exile from acting?

BILLIE DEE: Yes, because painting became a priority. I had been pursuing the acting for so long, most of my life in fact, that I needed to have something else going on in my life. Painting has always been a part of my life but I hadn't explored it in the way I decided to several years ago.

AVONIE: Does painting still remain a major activity?

BILLIE DEE: Oh yes, In fact I have to go to Tokyo soon to exhibit some of my painting there. I also have other exhibitions around the country. (To see samples of William's art visit www.billiedeewilliamsworldart.com). But the acting thing is also a major part of who I am creatively and I'm always looking for interesting opportunities. Somebody wants to do a one-man show in New York so we're looking into that and we'll see how that works out.

AVONIE: What dictates your choice of material?

BILLIE DEE: Interesting characters and interesting situations. I'm always getting things thrown my way and if it clicks I go for it otherwise I leave it alone. For me it has to be more than the money, it has to have substantive elements for me to do them now. "The Visit" was one such experience, there was no money in that, it was just the real satisfaction of being able to do good work with good material and good people. And if you know you're doing something good then everything else will follow. And in this case we've gotten a lot of attention and we've won some major awards. That's really important not in terms of what it may mean for us individually, but and it can set a real precedent for how we do films and tell the African-American story.

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