No movie in Hollywood history has matched the combined artistic and commercial triumph of George Lucas’ 1977 epic, Star Wars. But there were reservations from social critics. For all its ecumenical menagerie of creatures and droids, the film restricted its human heroes to white-bread types like Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. A few observers insinuated that, Chewbacca the Wookie notwithstanding, the besieged Republic was not an Equal Opportunity Employer. Worse, the only black associated with the production was the sinister garb of villain Darth Vader. There were no black actors onscreen, though, oddly, one—James Earl Jones—dubbed in the doomsday voice of Darth.
Now, in the sequel, it is not only the Empire that strikes back. The most complicated human character in Star Wars II and the one most likely to grow as the multimovie saga continues is Billy Dee Williams, 43. He is the silky heir apparent to Sidney Poitier as the most bankable black leading man in Hollywood, the star pitched by his ex-manager (and Motown mogul) Berry Gordy to be “the black Clark Gable” long before Muhammad Ali got the idea. As Lando Calrissian, the swaggering, jive-talking, morally ambiguous leader of the Cloud City of Bespin, Williams has helped turn his heretofore callow colleagues into more intriguing musketeers of the millennium—and the 1980s’ answer to the Fab Four.
Or is Calrissian something else? Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away—say, Hollywood in the ’60s—they called it tokenism. Whatever the label is today, Sid Ganis, VP of Lucasfilm, emphatically denies the charge, saying: “We were just looking for a wonderful romantic hero.” Williams accepts that. “The reason I was attracted to this role was because it wasn’t written for a black person,” he snaps. “I wish people could get past all these categories.”
Billy Dee does not deny his qualms about the original Star Wars. “It was perpetuating the same old myths,” he says. But after meeting with Lucas and Irvin Kershner, who took over as director for The Empire Strikes Back, Williams softened his view. “Lucas wasn’t trying to be a racist,” he figures. “He was just going with the old cowboy syndrome—the white hat/ black hat conflict that creates drama.” Indeed, continues Williams, “What Lucas did in casting me was to make it clear that everybody is involved in the struggle between good and evil.” And it pays. Although he was on straight salary, Williams stands to become a millionaire should Lucas again grant his stars a percentage of the movie’s profits. (Billy Dee, alas, will not cash in on the fast-moving Lando Calrissian doll.)
The sensitive and intensely private Williams may come to feel that he has earned it. Recently he and his Japanese-American third wife, Teruko, were mobbed at a taco stand at Knott’s Berry Farm, the kind of attention that grates on her. Billy Dee is pleased at least that “kids liked the character, which is a joy to me.”
But the new adulation is not nirvana to Williams, who for all his acclaim still feels frustrated and sometimes sounds self-pitying. “Even in a crowd I am alone,” he muses. “I don’t know what happiness is. I am always on a search. I am really a tragic person, full of deep pain and frustration.”
Raised in a Harlem tenement, Williams is the son of a maintenance man father and a mother who studied opera but worked as an elevator operator and then as a secretary at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre to help support Billy Dee and his twin sister, Loretta. The childrens’ maternal grandmother, a West Indian, lived with them and instilled what Billy Dee calls “a sense of drama.” At 7, the then chubby kid met producer Max Gordon at the theater and won a small role on Broadway with Lotte Lenya in husband Kurt Weill’s The Firebrand of Florence. But acting didn’t interest him, and he preferred creating his own comic books and dreamed of a career as a fashion illustrator. Though shy and withdrawn, he was admitted to the rigorous High School of Music and Art. He recalls that “during the last two years I barely spoke at all. When I read a poem once in class, they were totally amazed that I could talk.”
Not until Williams had entered Manhattan’s National Academy of Fine Arts did he find himself drifting into acting after a chance encounter with a CBS casting director. “When I needed money for paint and canvases, I would do some TV work,” he says. Later, though, he took classes at the Actors Workshop in Harlem under Sidney Poitier. After several Broadway flops, Billy made his name with Angela Lansbury in 1960’s A Taste of Honey and put away the brushes. Prejudice first touched him when he was’a 19-year-old artist trying to find studio space. Then later, in the color-conscious years, he was too black for whites, too brown for blacks. Billy’s mother once revealed that he bought a sunlamp to burn his face darker. Meanwhile his early marriage to Audrey Seller, which produced son Corey, now 19, collapsed.
He was married again, this time to model Marlene Clark, but that dissolved after two years. “It was the lowest point of my life,” he says. “I remember going to parties and sitting in a corner crying for no reason.” He experimented with LSD and in the mid-’60s became involved with a white ex-hooker and ex-drug addict, a Buddhist, who exposed him to Eastern philosophy. “She was a master,” he notes with a reverence now reserved for a Jedi. “She gave me a rebirth.”
Who’s to argue? In 1971, his role as football player Gale Sayers in TV’s Brian’s Song was as much a breakthrough for Billy Dee as it was for his then unknown co-star, James Caan. Berry Gordy turned him into a romantic lead, co-starring him with Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. Williams’ devotion to playing “thinking characters” led him to the title role in TV movies like The Scott Joplin Story and feature films like The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. But by the time he won critical praise for his 1976 portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Broadway’s / Have a Dream, even Williams acknowledged that he was becoming a race-typed actor. “I am not interested in doing things purely about the black experience,” he says now. “I want to do something we all can relate to. Some see blacks as shiftless and lazy, others as too aggressive. Where does that leave you?”
Now that he has split professionally with Motown’s Gordy (though they are still tennis buddies), Williams is worrying alone about his next career move. Fortunately, Teruko has brought him his first personal contentment. “On my own I have a tendency to lose perspective,” he admits. “My wife is fantastic. She is principled and moral, with this thing the Japanese have about honor. She forces me to deal with things. Otherwise I’d be running around like a crazy person. I need somebody to sit on me and calm me down.”
Wed eight years, they live in an unpretentious three-bedroom house above the Hollywood Hills with a pool and two living rooms. There are three children—her daughter, Miyako, 18, and their daughter, Hanako, 7, in addition to Corey. Also under their roof are three dogs and two cats, the newest a Himalayan named Yoda, after Empire’s sawed-off sage. Socially, Billy says, “I don’t hang out with anyone. I don’t even like actors.” Instead, he devotes himself to his original love, painting. The floors of his living rooms are strewn with his works waiting to be hung. Many of them are boldly stroked pastel portraits, including one of old pal Richard Pryor. Williams feels he is almost ready to hold a one-man exhibit, and he may use some of his Empire booty to buy a larger home with room for a studio.
Williams is one star who doesn’t apologize for his domesticity. “I believe the family can enhance your work,” he says. “Families don’t bullshit you. You’re just ridiculous old Daddy. When I yell and scream, they say, ‘Let him have his moment.’ ” He thinks he has a good relationship with all his children. “I get involved in what they’re doing,” he explains. “But I try not to impose. I want it to be an exchange.”
He expects the same of his audiences. “I’ve got to find something to make an impact,” he frets. “I refuse to play the black buck for anyone.” He’s just finished work as Sly Stallone’s New York detective sidekick in Hawks (due next year). He will figure even more prominently in the next Star Wars episode—perhaps saving Han Solo’s life. Titled The Revenge of the Jedi, it is scheduled to begin filming next year for a May ’83 release. Williams has also formed his own production company with business manager Gary Judas and wants to co-star with actresses like Fonda, Streisand and Dunaway. “You have to gear up people to that, get them to say okay,” he concedes. Beneath his cool exterior, Williams is cooking. “I can’t complain about my life now, but I just know I can go further,” he says. “I am highly ambitious. That makes it very difficult for me when people say, ‘You must have patience.’ ” He pauses, then asks the inevitable question: “How long must I have patience?”