Today marks the 75th birthday of American actor, singer, writer and artist Billy Dee Williams. Best known for his work as Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars franchise, his legacy, career and impact are so much greater than standing next to Mark Hamill and David Prowse.
Why? Let's look at his most famous role, before we get into the laundry list of other accomplishments the brother has achieved.
It was 1981. For most of the world, the only idea that Black people existed — in space, in the future, in speculative or science fiction — was Nichelle Nichols, mini-skirted and largely chaste. Octavia Butler was toiling in relative obscurity. Samuel Delany was there, but not exactly easy to find. There was one Black man working in editorial for the entire comics industry, the man who would become Christopher J. Priest. In this world we barely existed.
In what many argue is the best film of the series, desperate and friendless, the iconic Harrison Ford (on the cusp of greatness) and Carrie Fisher (near the peak of her fame) stepped on to a green screened set to be greeted by a Black man …
Wearing a cape.
Running an entire flying city.
Bossing around a bunch of white people, including his own personal cyborg assistant.
LIKE A BOSS.
(technically, he was a boss, not just being similar to one … let's move on)
The impact of this was huge. Shooting bad guys, flying the ship so many of us thought was cool, macking the girl, all fifteen and twenty feet high. Sure, he played out the "hero" and got choked out by a wookie. Still. He was cool, the ineffable Black cool of literature and the President, and everybody knew it.
For Black people, it was deeper than that. "Ain't that the smooth brother from Lady Sings The Blues?" "Hey, the cat from the Colt .45 commercials is in space!" Billy Dee Williams was one of us, bred in Harlem, growing up with his grandmother while his parents grinded to make ends meet. He drank like many, many of us drank. Ladies loved him. He had an air of the streets but was infinitely comfortable wherever he was. As of 1981, he stepped indelibly and almost effortlessly into a nearly permanent place in the zeitgeist with a simple message that Nichelle Nichols also carried:
Aside from the aforementioned Lady Sings The Blues (and a follow-up, Mahogany) and the sometimes-derided Colt .45 commercials (Williams reportedly said, "I drink, you drink. Hell, if marijuana was legal, I'd appear in a commercial for it"), he made his film debut in the 1959 Academy Award nominated film The Last Angry Man. He first found acclaim after playing Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers in Brian's Song, garnering an Emmy nomination. The Jeffersons. A Different World. Scrubs. Gideon's Crossing. General Hospital. White Collar. Never far from the pulse of the people, he remained ineffable and unflappable, always just what we needed.
Other fun facts about this amazing man …
- Williams has a twin sister named Loretta
- He went to LaGuardian High School of Music and Art alongside classmate Diahann Carroll (who later starred as his wife on the 1980s prime time soap Dynasty)
- Williams first appeared on Broadway in 1945, returning as an an adult in 1960 in The Cool Word.
- He played the first film version of Harvey Dent in the 1989 movie Batman
- He played Berry Gordy in The Jacksons: An American Dream
- In 1961, Billy Dee Williams recorded a jazz LP entitled Let's Misbehave, where he sang several swing standards and — through its success — led to his appearance in 1983's Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever
- This: Vote for Lando Calrissian
Did he make a way for Denzel, for Will, for Idris, for Samuel? It almost doesn't matter. His body of work and the impact he had on a nation of little boys grabbing towels and tying them around their necks, not claiming Krypton but claiming Bespin, was enough. After all these years, he's still rocking the equivalent of a conk, and nobody in their right mind would try to clown him for it. If that doesn't show you how fly the brother is, nothing will.
He turns 75 today, and we're ever so grateful he's still with us. Happy birthday, Billy Dee. This one's for you.