Billy Dee Williams: A Journey Through His Iconic Roles

Billy Dee Williams: A Journey Through His Iconic Roles
Billy Dee Williams: A Journey Through His Iconic Roles

Billy Dee Williams represents some of the finest living talents from as far back as the 50s. His acting resúmé gives a proper definition to the meaning of an accomplished actor. Be it theater, film, television, video games, short subjects, and even music video features, Dee Williams has seen and done it all.

With a career spanning over seven decades, Dee Williams has starred in over 160 on-screen productions. Yet, besides his repertoire of credits as an actor, Dee Williams is also a talented and accomplished novelist and painter. Honoring one of Hollywood’s living legends, here’s a journey through Billy Dee Williams’ life and career.

Billy Dee Williams’ Early Life

younger Billy Dee Williams

The actor was born William December Williams Jr. in New York City on April 6, 1937, to Loretta Anne and William December Williams Sr. Besides being African-American, Dee Williams also has Native American ancestry from his father’s side and Caribbean from his mother, originally from Montserrat. Dee Williams was born a twin. Like Dee Williams, his twin sister, Loretta Williams, was named after his mother.

The actor, along with his sister, were raised in Harlem on the 110th Street. They spent most of their time with their maternal grandmother, especially because of their parent’s tight job schedules. Living around Central Park came with several benefits. As a young boy, Dee Williams visited the park to watch the Negro League players and the Cuban baseball league. Dee Williams attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and graduated in 1955 with a degree in Arts.

How He Got Interested In Visual And Performing Arts

Billy Dee Williams

Billy Dee Williams was blessed to grow around people and environments that inspired his love for the arts. His mother was an elevator operator at the Lyceum Theatre. Besides her job as an operator, she was also an aspiring performer. She also studied opera and soon became a popular opera star. Thanks to his mother, Dee Williams was exposed to performing arts and opera at an early age, which still piques his interest today.

His parents also exposed him to drawing and painting at a young age. As a young boy, Dee Williams already had hopes and dreams of being a renowned and famous painter. A month shy of his eight-year birthday, his mother helped secure him a minor role in a play. This became his acting and Broadway debut, playing the role of a Page in The Firebrand of Florence (1945). However, Dee Williams found the entire experience boring.

Billy Dee Williams’ Career As A Painter

Billy Dee Williams

At LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the gifted Billy Dee Williams was awarded a scholarship for a two-year program in the Classical Principles of Painting at the then National Academy of Fine Arts and Design. In the mid-50s, Dee Williams won the Guggenheim Fellowship grant and the Hallgarten Prize. He was so dedicated to his dream of being an accomplished painter he chose to take up roles as an actor to pay for it.

With the scholarship covering his tuition, Dee Williams used his salary as an actor to buy canvases and supplies for his paintings. Even after fame and success as an actor, Dee Williams returned to painting in the late 80s. His paintings have been displayed in many art galleries and as part of collections worldwide. As a professional painter, Dee Williams has made over 300 paintings.

His Successful Roles In Film

Billy Dee Williams in Batman

After a successful theater career, Billy Dee Williams debuted on-screen in 1959. He was cast as Josh Quincy in Daniel Mann‘s American drama The Last Angry Man (1959). He appeared in his next film, 11 years later, in The Out-of-Towners (1970). However, his breakthrough role on the big screen came the following year when he portrayed Chicago Bears football player Gale Sayers in Brian’s Song (1971). He played Billie Holiday‘s husband in the singer’s biopic film Lady Sings the Blues (1972) alongside Diana Ross. Dee Williams became one of the most famous black actors of the 70s and a sex symbol.

Dee Williams ended the 80s playing Harvey Dent in Batman (1989). When he signed the contract for the role, Dee Williams knew the character would further develop into the villain Two-Face. Although he was replaced in the sequels, Dee Williams voiced the character in The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017). In 2002, he played General Warren Boutwell in Malcolm D. Lee‘s satirical spy action blaxploitation film Undercover Brother.

Billy Dee Williams In Star Wars

Billy Dee Williams Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Billy Dee Williams’ casting in the Star Wars franchise made history. He became the first black actor in the franchise series. Dee Williams played the iconic role of Lando Calrissian. His first appearance as the character was in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and reprised the role in Return of the Jedi (1983). Fans demanded his character make an appearance in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, especially when it was absent in The Force Awakens (2015). Lando Calrissian’s was one of the highlights of the sequel trilogy and for the actor. With a 36-year gap between his last portrayal of the character in 1983 and his reprisal in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), Dee Williams made a new acting record. He holds the record for the longest time between playing and reprising a character in film.

Billy Dee Williams’ Other Works As An Actor

Billy Dee Williams in General Hospital: Night Shift

Billy Dee Williams starred in numerous TV movies throughout his career. Besides his guest appearances, he played Toussaint DuBois in General Hospital: Night Shift (2007), Admiral Bitchface in Titan Maximum (2009), and was a contestant in Dancing with the Stars (2014). Dee Williams has also worked extensively as a voice actor, mainly voicing Lando Calrissian. He has done this across television series and video games.

He’s Been Married Three Times

Billy Dee Williams’ first marriage was to Audrey Sellers in 1959. The marriage produced a child, Corey Dee Williams, in 1960. The couple divorced in 1963. He married his second wife, actress and model Marlene Clark in 1968. The marriage did not produce any children, and they divorced in 1971. His third marriage was to Teruko Nakagami in 1972. Nakagami came into the marriage with her daughter, Miyako, from her marriage with Wayne Shorter. Dee Williams and Nakagami also had a child, Hanako, in 1973. Billy Dee Williams and Teruko Nakagami had divorced amicably in 1993 but reconciled in 1997 and continued living together.

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