At Super Bowl I, back in 1967, Fred (“The Hammer”) Williamson, the Kansas City Chiefs’ cocksure cornerback, was cold-cocked, carted off the field unconscious and presumed dead—professionally. He was never the same in his remaining season, but this year The Hammer will be back in the NFL—between the tongs of Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford on ABC’s Monday Night football telecasts. He replaces Dandy Don Meredith, who was raided away by NBC. Joe Namath and Alex Karras were both considered by ABC, but Williamson was, quite literally, a dark horse. Upon hearing of the choice, Meredith said, “I don’t think it hurts that he’s black.”
It also didn’t hurt that Williamson had become the top box-office draw in the black exploitation films—having made 14 movies in just four years, including this summer’s smash hit, Three the Hard Way. “I’m doing this,” Williamson says of the ABC job, “because I’m not a one-career guy. I’ll be able to produce and star in ABC TV movies and go out for a more sensitive character, not the violent movie image I have.” The final analysis of Williamson’s decision, naturally enough, comes from colleague Cosell: “He takes himself seriously even if others don’t. The constancy of exposure on national TV means he’ll get to do a movie with Redford or Newman.”
Williamson, of course, can take care of himself. “I don’t have an agent and I negotiate my own deals,” he says. “Now I’m even writing my own scripts. I don’t believe anyone can work harder for me than me.” He is more than a little defensive about criticism of his modern-day “B” pictures. “I just try to give audiences an interesting character they dig,” he says, “and they do, or else they wouldn’t buy tickets. Black movies are in an embryo stage, and you can’t start at the top of the ladder.”
Williamson didn’t. He was born in the ghetto of Gary, Ind., the son of a steel welder. Like other black youths, sports were his entrée. After Northwestern and 10 years of pro ball, he brashly opened his own architecture firm in Montreal. Luckily, he found the job “too confining,” and one night when he was watching the Julia show he said to himself: “This show is lacking something.” It turned out to be Williamson. He drove to California, bluffed an introduction to the show’s producer and within weeks, without any acting experience, was cast as Julia’s boyfriend.
His personal life is karate, other sports and girls, girls, girls. “I’ve got quite a little black book,” he smirks. He doesn’t date actresses but sticks with stewardesses and secretaries. He has never married, but has a son Jeff, who is 7½ years old. “The only thing about my son that doesn’t look like me is his blond hair,” Williamson explains, for the child’s mother is of Swedish descent. “He definitely has my features and my devil-may-care smile. Eventually I may make another deal with some girl to have more kids.” A deal? “You see, I’m a very progressive young man. You sit down and you enjoy a girl’s company, but you are not right for marriage. So why louse it up by marrying and divorcing? Instead, you say let’s have a kid and we’ll go to an attorney and draw up some papers. I’ll take care of you and the child for the rest of your lives.” As to Jeff: “He probably gets more love than a kid who has two parents together.” Jeff sees his father on weekends in the winter and lives with him during the summer vacation.
As for the future, Williamson’s tenure on ABC is precarious (Namath is still in the wings), but he couldn’t care less. “I don’t want to stick around anywhere too long. After all, there are a lot of things to do in this world, and earning a living is the easiest thing for me to do.” But, as Frank Gifford cautions, “The one thing I’ve learned about TV is that the image doesn’t mean a hell of a lot. It’s a very honest medium, and it will strip you down to the real person. With Freddie, it will all come out on Monday night.”