WHAT HAVE WE HERE? Portraits of a Life, by Billy Dee Williams
My first awareness of Billy Dee Williams was the stuff of hushed beauty parlor conversation I was too young to appreciate. “After all these years he’s still fine,” elders whispered in my periphery as they flipped through an interview in an Ebony magazine that was treated as an heirloom. His piercing gaze leaped out across time. “That’s our Billy!” another giggled.
As he tells it in “What Have We Here?,” his effortlessly charming new memoir, the actor’s only ambition was to be everyone’s Billy — a star to cross color lines. Modeling his life on visions of old Hollywood glamour, he wanted to be heralded not just by Black women fantasizing about their chance to be with him, but by teens, men, children, and people of all colors and circumstances.
Playing Lando Calrissian in the “Star Wars” trilogy — the debonair, cape-wearing and bravado-filled hero of interstellar proportions — eventually granted Williams his wish, catapulting him into the public stratosphere. “He wasn’t written Black or white,” Williams points out. “He was beyond that. Bigger than that. … He was a star.”
Williams was born in 1937 at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, the artistic and cultural movement of the 1920s and ’30s when Black possibility bloomed. Nina Mae McKinney, believed to be the first Black actress with a Hollywood contract, and Hulan Jack, Manhattan’s first Black borough president, lived on his block on West 110th Street.
He and his twin sister, nicknamed Lady, were welcomed into a world stitched together with love he would spend his life emulating. Their grandmother Annette Lewis Bodkin, the “Queen Dowager” of the home, laid down the rule of law. Loretta Bodkin, their mother, was a trained opera singer and friend of Lena Horne who dreamed of fame and toiled to ensure her children could do what she was unable to. Their father, William December Williams, was a laborer who worked long hours to support his family — and helped his son develop a sense of style.
“He taught me how to put a hat on,” Williams writes, “using two fingers and a thumb, grasping the brim in a way that prevented my fingerprints from smearing the crown.”
Making his stage debut at 7 years old in “The Firebrand of Florence,” Billy Dee knew he was destined to be an artist. He graduated from the High School of Music & Art with a concentration in painting, a craft through which he continues to express himself.
While attending the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Manhattan, he overheard a classmate talking about getting acting work as an extra and figured he should also give it a shot. A CBS casting director spotted Williams in a clothing store in 1956 and set in motion the first phase of his career.
The versatile actor came to mass consciousness in the 1971 television tear-jerker “Brian’s Song,” where he played the football player Gale Sayers, opposite James Caan. He has the rare gift to convincingly be tough, suave or romantic — a leading man in movies like “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany” who came to be dubbed “the Black Clark Gable.” By necessity, though, he made a career from the scraps of precarity offered to him.
“I wanted to be known as one of the best actors of my generation, period,” Williams maintains. “But the opportunities weren’t the same for me as they were for Gable, and I was frustrated.”
Like many celebrity memoirs, “What Have We Here?” is a chance for Williams to reclaim the public record. He writes with clarity and intimacy, revealing the person behind the persona. And he doesn’t scrimp on the dirty details, weighing in on the marriages (and yes, the many affairs); friendships with James Baldwin, Diahann Carroll and Marlon Brando; and becoming Mr. Colt 45.
At 86, he still enjoys the ride, but hasn’t forgotten to savor the magic. This book is an invitation to join him.
WHAT HAVE WE HERE?: Portraits of a Life | By Billy Dee Williams | Knopf | 288 pp. | $32