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Williams, Billy Dee (December, William)

Williams, Billy Dee (December, William)

April 6, 1937

Born in Harlem, New York, actor Billy Dee Williams originally studied art at New York's High School of Music and Art and the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design. Although he was training as an artist, Williams also participated in the Actor's Workshop in Harlem, where he was able to study with Sidney Poitier and Paul Mann. His first appearance on the stage came at the age of seven in The Firebrand of Florence (1945), but Williams did not begin regularly performing in Broadway and off-Broadway productions until the late 1950s and early 1960s. His early stage credits include Take a Giant Step (1956), A Taste of Honey (1960), The Cool World (1961), and The Blacks (1962).

After his initial success on the stage, Williams traveled to the West Coast seeking roles in movies and on television. While his first movie role, as a rebellious ghetto youth in The Last Angry Man, came in 1959, he would not gain substantial fame for more than a decade. In 1970 he received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Chicago Bears football player Gale Sayers in the made-for-TV movie Brian's Song. He also made numerous television appearances, including guest roles in Hawk, The Mod Squad, as well as soap operas such as Another World.

Williams's early success earned him a seven-year film contract with Motown's Berry Gordy. Through vehicles such as Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975), both with Diana Ross, Williams gained a reputation as a romantic male lead. He also starred in The Bingo Long Travelling All Stars and Motor Kings (1976), a movie with James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor about an itinerant baseball team of African Americans during the Negro League era. In Universal's Scott Joplin (1978), he portrayed the famous composer.

In the 1980s Williams played leading roles in George Lucas's The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) and opposite Sylvester Stallone in Nighthawks (1981). His role with Diahann Carroll on the television prime-time soap opera Dynasty in the mid-1980s further reinforced his image as a sex symbol. In 1985 he also played in Double Dare, a short-lived television detective series. In the late 1980s he had roles in Deadly Illusions (1987) and Batman (1989). Other ventures were slightly more controversial; he came under harsh attack from African-American community groups in 1989 for taking part in beer commercials.

It was also in the 1980s that Williams began to receive recognition for his professional achievements. Shortly after being inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1984, Williams received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1985. In 1988 the Black American Cinema Society awarded him its Phoenix Award.

In the early 1990s Williams continued to play parts in television movies. He also began to exhibit some of his artwork, which had become an increasingly neglected hobby as his acting career flourished. Exhibitions in galleries in New York and Washington, D.C., received favorable reviews. In 1993 the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture sponsored a display of Williams's work.

Since 1995 Williams has continued to be extremely active and has appeared in almost twenty TV movies, short films, and Hollywood productions. In addition to numerous guest appearances on a variety of television programs, he has also lent his voice to several projects, including a short film and at least one video game based on the Star Wars series. Since 2000 he has published (with coauthors) three works of fiction. He continues to paint; Sears chose his artwork to illustrate its 2004 Black History Month calendar. During the first half of 2004 Williams also toured with costar Robin Givens in the play If These Hips Could Talk.

See also Film in the United States, Contemporary


Bogle, Donald M., ed. Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1988.

Mapp, Edward, ed. Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, 2d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1990.

Williams, Billy Dee, and Elizabeth Atkins Bowman. Twilight. New York: Forge, 2002.

Williams, Billy Dee, and Rob MacGregor. Psi/Net. New York: Tor Books, 1999.

Williams, Billy Dee, and Rob MacGregor. Just/In Time. New York: Forge, 2000.

john c. stoner (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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