Long before his dashing turn as the man to whom Han Solo turned for help — interstellar bureaucrat, Lando Calrissian — Billy Dee Williams was simply The Man. With his butter-on-a-hot-skillet performance as Billie Holiday’s lover in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, Williams became the model for future black romantic leading men. He was to black cinema what Ellington had been to jazz, composing his characters with an almost narcissistic sophistication and nickel-slick bravado. Currently, the actor and accomplished painter can be seen on the small screen in the direct-to-video chase thriller, Moving Target, and on the big screen in…guess.
How do you feel about the rebirth of Lando Calrissian?
Are you kidding? I love every single moment of it. The things that I did were things that I knew would always be lasting. I used to say that The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings would be much more popular 15, 20 years [after we made it]. So I was always looking at stuff that I knew young people would embrace.
You were great as Harvey Dent in Batman. Were you surprised when you weren’t cast to play Dent’s alter ego, Two Face, in Batman Forever?
The [producers] never really told me that I wasn’t going to get it. I later found out when what’s-his-name [Tommy Lee Jones] got the part.
You’ve done a lot of direct-to-video work. Besides keeping you busy, how has it challenged you?
As long as I’m creating characters and exercising my craft, that’s the challenge.
We know you’re a painter. What’s the latest on that side of your creative life?
I did four paintings for Nissan for the Olympics last year, and I’m now doing some paintings for Walt Disney for their new sports center.
What’s the greatest stumbling block in your career?
Racism. Plain prejudice from both sides, black and white. It’s become such a hassle, man. Because everybody is looking at that rather than at much more important things. I see the changes happening now. The success of all of these black actors right now is so important.
Do you drink Colt 45?
Oh yeah, well, it’s [made from] good water. This company makes good beer from spring water. My nephew said, ”They don’t call it Colt 45; they say it’s Billy Dee’s Beer.”
A new generation now associates you with ”Don’t Let the Smooth Taste Fool You,” instead of your classic line from Lady Sings the Blues — ”Darling, you want my arm to fall off?” What does this say about your career?
I’ve done wonderful films but did not make any money….So when you run into that kind of stuff, you have to keep your career going. You have to stay in the ball game.
Which explains your Psychic Readers Network?
An actor has to keep working, making a living, making money. It’s also keeping my face out there. So when the thing that you’re really looking for happens, at least you’ve got a better shot.