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In 'What Have We Here,' Billy Dee Williams looks back on a lifetime of acting

Actor Billy Dee Williams arrives for the Premiere Of Disney Pictures And Lucasfilm's "Solo: A Star Wars Story." (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)
Actor Billy Dee Williams arrives for the Premiere Of Disney Pictures And Lucasfilm's "Solo: A Star Wars Story." (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

Host Scott Tong speaks with Billy Dee Williams about his memoir “What Have We Here: Portraits of a Life,” which reflects on his almost eight decades in theater, film, and television.

The cover of “What Have We Here” by Billy Dee Williams. (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘What Have We Here’

By Billy Dee Williams

January 1988. I was in New York, starring in August Wilson’s play Fences. I took over the lead role from James Earl Jones, something I don’t recommend to any actor. I’d known James Earl and his prodigious talent since my early twenties. We’d worked together in films and on the stage many times. He had workshopped Fences at the Yale Reper­tory Theatre and won the Tony Award for his portrayal on Broadway. He owned the part of former Negro Leagues baseball player–turned–Pittsburgh trash collector Troy Maxson in this powerful play about the effects of racism on an individual and his family.

The challenge of stepping into this role consumed me. Taking over from James Earl was only one part of it, and not the hardest part. No, the hardest part was the effect the work had on me, the conversation it inspired me to have with myself, the voice in my head that asked hard-to-answer questions.

At fifty years old, I wanted to reestablish myself as an actor and in the process find the clarity about my life that I’d always wanted and felt was still out of reach. It wasn’t a midlife crisis as much as a reckoning, an assessment, an inventory of what I’d done, what I was doing, and what I thought I still wanted to accomplish. Who the hell was I?

I was aware of the irony of that question. My two turns as Lando Calrissian in George Lucas’s Star Wars saga had given me a rare type of movie stardom, and before I visited that faraway galaxy, two films made with Berry Gordy, Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany, had established me as a romantic leading man—“the Black Clark Gable.” I wanted to be known as one of the best actors of my generation, period. But the opportunities weren’t the same for me as they were for Gable, and I was frustrated.

Prior to acting, I was a serious artist. After graduating from New York City’s prestigious High School of Music and Art, where I focused on painting, I attended the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design, winning awards and scholarships. Creating art was something I had done every day of my life. I was an introverted kid, and drawing and painting were the ways I expressed myself. It poured out of me. I wanted to be great. By the time I signed onto Fences, though, I hadn’t painted for more than a decade. I didn’t know why I’d stopped or how much that had affected me until I started the play in New York.

Suddenly, for no obvious reason, the old desire to create returned. At first, an idea or two would come to me, something that hadn’t hap­pened in a long time, and I was like Lando seeing Princess Leia for the first time. “Hello, what have we here?” Then I couldn’t stop the flow of ideas. With them came the urge to paint again. It was upon me at once, overwhelming in a sense, the ideas and the desire to see them on canvas. After six months in the play, I returned to L.A., walked through the front door, and, after greeting my wife and daughter, went straight into my studio.

I’ll never forget that day. It was early evening, and I worked straight through until the next morning. After a brief rest, I was back at it. I could barely sleep. A decade of silence had ended. The drought was over. I had so much inside me that I needed to get out. It was like being possessed, which I suppose I was at the time. Each canvas began with a solid black background. Then I would find the light in that darkness. Somehow it would come to me—a glimmer at first, and then I’d see the picture—and the life within it.

It was the same thing that every brown-skinned boy or girl faces as they grow up and pursue their dreams. It was what every human being regardless of skin color faces as they journey through life. It was what I had been going through, asking myself questions, wondering if I was moving forward. We’re all trying to find the light in the darkness.

I lived in that studio for much of the next two years, creating several hundred paintings, each of which told a story—my story. This book reminds me of those paintings. Only now it’s thirty-some years later and I am a little gentler and a lot older, with a few more stories to tell, and I think I have a better sense of what in my life has been silly, what has been meaningful, what has been remarkable, and what makes sense to share with you.

As you will discover, I don’t think exclusively in terms of the Black experience, the White experience, or any other experience, except the human experience. All of us enter this world the same way. We’re brought from the darkness of the womb into the light of this world, and this gift of life. Keeping that light in focus is the challenge. We hit many junctures in our lives where we lose sight of it, feel the chill of darkness, and ask ourselves, “Where is the light?”

I have had my share of those periods. The world has had its share of those periods. What I’ve learned, and what I hope to convey on these pages, is that the light is always there. Even when it’s darkest, the light is inside us.

So settle in and let’s spend some time together. I just ordered another glass of wine and have some stories to tell.

From ‘What Have We Here?’ © 2024 by Billy Dee Williams. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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