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Williams, Russell II

Russell Williams II


Sound mixer

Russell Williams II owns a pair of Academy Awards for best sound for his work on the films Glory and Dances with Wolves. The honors, both awarded in the early 1990s, came after Williams had been in the business nearly twenty years. When he started in Hollywood there were so few African Americans working behind the scenes that everybody knew everybody. "I introduced myself to producers, directors, and anyone who was in a crew position," he told writer Keisha Jackson in the Washington Post. "Nowadays they call it networking. Back then we called it hustling."

Born in 1952 in Washington, DC, Williams was raised by his mother's sister and her husband after his mother died when he was still an infant. The piano at his home led him, somewhat inadvertently, to his future vocation. Speaking with Donna Britt in the Washington Post, he recalled a childhood outburst of anger at having to do his chores. He began pounding on the keyboard hoping to needle his aunt; but by the time he left the piano he couldn't remember what he'd been angry about. "I said, ‘Ahhhhhh—there's an emotional connection here.’ So I began to search out music that could make me happy, could calm me." His first musical role model was jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose "playing was the first thing that taught me as a black man to go all the way," he told Britt. "Everybody else was telling me to play it safe."

Williams studied film and art history at American University in Washington, and worked at the college radio station for several years. He and a friend even launched WAMU's first black-music program, Spirits Known and Unknown, featuring jazz, blues, and R&B tracks. It proved such a success that they started to host workshops for minority students at other schools who were interested in diversifying their college radio station programming. Williams earned his undergraduate degree from American University in 1974 and also studied at the Recording Institute of America in Silver Spring, Maryland. He spent much of the 1970s as a studio engineer or sound editor at various job sites, including the Library of Congress, Washington's NBC television affiliate station, and the city's ABC radio affiliate. In 1979 he requested and received a three-month leave of absence in order to try his luck in Hollywood. "After 90 days, I had seen enough to convince me to make a go of it," he told Aldore Collier in an interview for Ebony magazine.

Launching his own company, Sound Is Ready, Williams landed his first jobs in Southern California on films made by independent producers outside of the studio system, because he had not yet obtained the union card that was required for hiring at the major studios. He worked on a few forgettable B-movies, such as 1980's Lifepod, about a spaceship cruise that goes awry, and Penitentiary 2 in 1982. His first studio production credit came as a boom-mike operator on the set of the popular teen comedy Valley Girl in 1983, and steady work as a sound mixer followed over the rest of the decade. He explained the process in the Ebony interview, telling Collier that "once my staff and I have met with the director and department heads, we watch a rehearsal of the scenes and determine the best way to capture the sound. We either do it with overhead microphones or body mikes." In 1988 he won his first Emmy for sound on the made-for-television drama Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami, about a fictional federal prosecution of a man kidnapped in the Middle East and brought to the United States.

Williams worked on the well-received Kevin Costner baseball tale Field of Dreams, which was released in 1989, the same year as Williams's most enjoyable project to date, Glory. The latter film starred Denzel Washington as one of the soldiers in the historic all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment that fought in the U.S. Civil War for the Union side. Williams already knew the story of the pioneering infantry soldiers and eagerly accepted the Glory job when it was offered to him. "Everybody felt this was going to be an important movie," he told Britt in the Washington Post interview. "A lot of films out here are put together strictly for entertainment; it's rare you get a chance to work on a piece of history."

Glory won Williams his first Academy Award in the best sound category, which he shared with colleagues Donald O. Mitchell, Gregg C. Rudloff, and Elliot Tyson. He was not the first African American to win an Oscar for sound—that achievement had gone to Willie Burton a year earlier for Bird, the biopic of jazz great Charlie Parker. Williams's second Academy Award came for Dances with Wolves, a nineteenth-century epic that starred Costner as a Civil War veteran who falls in with a band of Native Americans and also marked the actor's directorial debut. Williams had hesitated when Costner offered him the job, for it meant long stretches of filming in a remote part of South Dakota. That prairie landscape presented more than the usual challenge for Williams as a sound mixer—often times in period films modern noises like aircraft flying overhead must be masked out of the soundtrack—but in this case the constant high winds common to the plains meant that recording a few lines of dialogue was difficult. The realistic end result on Dances with Wolves won Williams his second Oscar, which he shared with colleagues Jeffrey Perkins, Bill W. Benton, and Greg Watkins. It marked a historic moment in the history of the Academy Awards: That year both he and actor Whoopi Goldberg became the first African Americans to win a second Oscar in their categories.

At a Glance …

Born on October 14, 1952, in Washington, DC; married Renee Leggett, 1989 (divorced 1994); married Rosalind, 2004; children: two (first marriage). Education: American University, BA, 1974; also studied at the Recording Institute of America, Silver Spring, MD, and the University of Sound Arts, Hollywood, CA, 1979.

Career: U.S. Library of Congress, studio engineer, 1971-73; WAMU-FM, engineer and host, 1972-79; WRC/NBC TV, engineer, 1973, 1977; WMAL-TV, documentary sound recordist, transfer engineer, and floor director, 1974-76; WMAL/ABC radio, Washington, engineer and editor, 1978-79; Sound Is Ready, founder and principal, 1979-2002; has taught sound arts in the film-school departments of the University of California-Los Angeles, University of Southern California, and California State University-Northridge; American University, School of Communication, instructor and artist in residence, 2002—.

Memberships: International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE); Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Awards: Emmy Award, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, outstanding sound mixing, 1988, for Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami (television movie, CBS); Academy Award, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, best sound, 1990, for Glory (motion picture); Academy Award, best sound, 1991, for Dances with Wolves (motion picture); Emmy Award, outstanding sound mixing, 1998, for Twelve Angry Men (television movie, Showtime/ATAS).

Addresses: Office—School of Communication, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016.

The professional accolades boosted Williams's reputation in Hollywood, and he went on to work on a number of box-office hits. These included Boomerang, Waiting to Exhale, The Negotiator, Life, Training Day, and The Sum of All Fears. In 2002 he returned to Washington, taking up a position at his alma mater as an instructor and artist in residence at American University's School of Communication. "The only reason I went to L.A. in the first place is because no one would be able to question my credentials once I returned to the area," he told Jackson in the Washington Post interview. "I just didn't plan on staying so long."

Selected works

Sound mixer

Making the Grade, 1984.

Number One with a Bullet, 1986.

Good to Go, 1986.

Invaders from Mars, 1986.

In the Mood (also known as The Woo Woo Kid), 1987.

The In Crowd, 1987.

Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami (television movie), CBS, 1987.

Field of Dreams, 1989.

Glory, 1989.

The Women of Brewster Place (television movie), ABC, 1989.

Dances with Wolves, 1990.

Jungle Fever, 1991.

The Distinguished Gentleman, 1992.

Boomerang, 1992.

Mo' Money, 1992.

Drop Zone, 1994.

Waiting to Exhale, 1995.

How to Make an American Quilt, 1995.

B*A*P*S, 1997.

The Negotiator, 1998.

The Players Club, 1998.

Life, 1999.

Rules of Engagement, 2000.

Golden Dreams, 2001.

Training Day, 2001.

Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat, 2002.

The Sum of All Fears, 2002.

Deliver Us from Eva, 2003.



Ebony, April 1991, p. 86.

Jet, April 15, 1991, p. 79.

Washington Post, April 14, 1991, p. G1; June 25, 2004.


Warren, Mitchell, "The State of Black Film," theBox-officereport, BoxOffice, (accessed August 25, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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