He might have drawn the ire of viewers everywhere for double-crossing Han Solo as Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, but it’s easy to forgive Billy Dee Williams. The dude has looks and talent to spare. Not only is he legendarily known as “the black Clark Gable,” he’s a veritable performing arts renaissance man whose stage and screen career has spanned more than 70 years.
Williams—who described his career thusly: "I go and I do my work, and I try to do the best I can, and I collect my money and I go home, and then I go on to the next thing. That's my attitude."—turns 80 years old today. To honor his storied career, here are a few facts about the man who is much more than just Lando Calrissian.
1. THE “DEE” STANDS FOR DECEMBER.
Born in New York City in 1937 along with a twin sister named Loretta, Billy Dee Williams’s moniker is half stage name, half given name. Williams’s full name is William December Williams Jr., so named after his father, a janitor from Texas who juggled jobs in Harlem to support his family. Billy and his sister were largely raised by their maternal grandmother.
2. HE BEGAN HIS ACTING CAREER AS A YOUNGSTER, AND THEN PROMPTLY QUIT FOR A DECADE.
Williams's mother, an aspiring performer also named Loretta, worked as an elevator operator at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, and volunteered her 7-year-old son to appear in the theater’s production of the Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin musical The Firebrand of Florence when she learned they needed children to appear as background page boys.
A much older Williams didn’t think much of the performance in retrospect, telling Mademoiselle in an interview, “They had me walk across the stage twice,” which is perhaps why he abandoned acting altogether afterwards for a decade.
“I think kids should do the things kids do, not be pushed into careers," Williams said in a 1975 interview with Roger Ebert. "I went to school, I played baseball as a kid. I almost ruined my arm, trying to get that professional look. It's still sore!”
3. HE WENT TO SCHOOL TO BE A PAINTER.
Though he made sure to play sports, Williams didn’t abandon the arts altogether. He attended New York City's famed LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the same school featured on the popular television series and movie Fame, and focused on visual arts. He later won a scholarship to the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design in New York to continue his studies with a particular focus on “classical principles of painting.”
While he would later become a full-fledged actor, Williams has never abandoned painting. His work currently hangs in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Schomburg Museum in Harlem, and galleries all over the world. He has also created the program artwork for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Washington, D.C. every year since 1990. If you’re into his art, you can even buy various Williams pieces on Amazon if you happen to have $50,000 lying around.
"I call my paintings 'abstract reality,'” Williams says on the official website for his artwork. “Sometimes I refer to them as 'impressions/expression.' It's the best way I can explain them."
4. HE GOT BACK INTO ACTING TO PAY FOR PAINT.
A Taste of Honey // By Bill Doll and Company, New York, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Creativity costs money, even when you’re on a two-year art scholarship. The story goes that when Williams once ran out of money to pay for his art supplies, he decided to do something he hadn’t done since he was seven years old: acting.
“They were looking for an actor for Take a Giant Step, and a producer liked my look and asked if I could act,” Williams recalled to Roger Ebert. “I said, ‘Yep!’ Then I got into acting more or less just to make money for paints and canvases.”
The role Williams was tapped to play on stage for that 1953 production eventually went to Louis Gossett Jr., but Williams would eventually begin working regularly in stage performances, getting his first big break on Broadway in a play called A Taste of Honey.
"Either I want to drop dead with a paintbrush in my hand or I want to drop dead doing a soliloquy on the stage," Williams said in a 2001 interview.
5. AN INJURY LED TO HIS BIG BREAK.
Williams may have lost out to Gossett Jr. for that coveted on-stage role, but another role reversal with Gossett Jr. kickstarted Williams’s big-screen career.
Gossett, Jr. was set to appear as star Chicago Bears halfback Gale Sayers in the 1971 TV film Brian’s Song, but he ended up tearing his Achilles tendon while training for the role a few days before filming was supposed to begin. The filmmakers scrambled to find someone who would play opposite James Caan as Sayers’s friend, Brian Piccolo, who was battling terminal cancer. Williams was able to step right into the role.
The film earned Williams an Emmy nomination (Caan earned one, too—in the same category), and propelled him to be cast as Billie Holiday's husband, Louis McKay, in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, with Diana Ross.
6. HE WAS GEORGE LUCAS’S FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY LANDO CALRISSIAN.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Despite appearances in the Oscar-nominated Lady Sings the Blues and 1975's Mahogany, which re-teamed him with Ross, Williams’s most well-known performance remains his role as the suave swindler Lando Calrissian in George Lucas’s original Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
While Lucas envisioned the part of Han Solo's buddy without a specific actor or race in mind, Williams was one of Lucas’s earliest choices to fill the role. While reviewing the initial drafts of the screenplay, Lucas even made a note: “Actor–Billy Dee Williams—Cloud City leader.”
Williams was on Lucas’s radar because the actor appeared in a movie called The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings in 1976, which had been written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, two of Lucas's friends. Eventual Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner explained that Williams’s “romantic onscreen image is what got him the part” in The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner said that Williams “really looks like a Mississippi riverboat hustler. Billy can do that charm fantastically.”
In a 1981 interview with Ebony, Williams explained that Lando was “a great role in terms of transcending all the clichés and values, all the stereotypes.” He continued: “The name alone—Lando Calrissian—it’s an Armenian name. It gets away from all those questions. He’s a person of the universe.”
7. HE’S A CERTIFIED PLATINUM, BILLBOARD-CHARTING RECORDING ARTIST.
If you thought acting, painting, and being the suavest guy in the room were the only things Williams could do, you’d be wrong. He’s also a singer.
In 1961, Williams cut an album of jazz and swing standards called Let’s Misbehave. And while that was a commercial success at the time, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that he flexed his vocal cords straight to the music charts—and he wasn’t alone.
Williams participated in the celebrity-packed charity single “Voices That Care,” which was an effort to honor U.S. troops involved in Operation Desert Storm and support the International Red Cross. The laundry list of random celebrities who also lent their voices to the song included Wayne Gretzky, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chevy Chase, Sally Field, Don King, Meryl Streep, Michael Jordan, and more.
While the single had good intentions, it might have been a bit too late. The single was released on March 13, 1991—roughly two weeks after the Gulf War ended. The track still peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and eventually earned a platinum certification.
8. HE BECAME COLT 45'S SPOKESMAN BECAUSE HE WAS THE “COOLEST.”
Another one of Williams's most memorable performances didn't happen on the big screen or on stage. In the late 1980s, Williams was tapped to be the on-air spokesperson for malt liquor brand Colt 45. While controversy remains about the subtext of the ad campaign and its target audience, Williams got the gig—with his signature “works every time” line—simply because he was so cool.
"It was, for better or worse, my idea," ad exec Jim Dale said in 2016. "He had done the first Star Wars movie at that point. Women and men both thought he was about the coolest fu**in' guy there was."
Before Williams became the spokesperson, Colt 45 trailed behind similar brand Schlitz in barrels produced; a year after Williams’s 1986 ads ran everywhere, Colt 45 production skyrocketed to 2 million barrels, putting it into the top spot for malt liquor. Williams returned to pitch Colt 45 as a brand spokesman in 2016.