If we could put the suave, space-faring ladies’ man that is Lando Calrissian aside for a moment, we’d note that actor Billy Dee Williams has a long and distinguished career without the guy. Coming off of Broadway, the handsome young actor with the million-dollar smile established his bona fides in the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song. In that award-winning film, Williams played Gale Sayers, pal and biographer of terminally ill football pro Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan). Williams went on to star opposite Diana Ross in the music industry dramas Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. During the ’80s, he spent a few years classing up the nighttime soap “Dynasty.” In 1989, he played District Attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman.
And yes, he played the badass, cape-wearing, friend-betraying, Empire-
We’re super excited to have you coming to town for the Albuquerque Comic Expo. Have you been to New Mexico before?
I’ve been to Albuquerque. I did a movie there many, many years ago. I was just trying to think of the name. [It was the 1974 cop drama The Take, co-starring Eddie Albert and Frankie Avalon.] I remember staying in a condo out in the desert. I remember seeing Georgia O’Keefe’s house. Is it still there?
Absolutely. Up in Abiquiú.
She was pretty amazing.
Speaking of which, you’re a painter yourself.
Yeah. I’ve been painting all my life, actually. I grew up in New York City. I went to LaGuardia High School where I majored in art. Then I got a scholarship to a school called The National Academy of Design. That’s where I spent two years painting. I was nominated for a Guggenheim when I was 18 to 19 years old. I won a Hallgarten, which is comparable to a Guggenheim. So, art’s been very much a part of my life. I have paintings in the Smithsonian and the Schönberg in New York and the Kansas City Jazz Museum.
“The fact that people recognize me for that character—besides all the other stuff I’ve done—it doesn’t bother me whatsoever.”
The first film of yours that really caught the public’s attention was Brian’s Song. What was it like getting that role as Gale Sayers?
Oh, it was pretty amazing. That whole experience was an act of love, really. It was one of those rare moments in a career.
Even today, that stands as one of the great “guy movies.”
Absolutely. It’s a classic. I was nominated for an Emmy for that one.
One of the reasons people want to see you at ACE is, of course, your introduction to the Star Wars universe. Is it true you auditioned for the role of Han Solo back in the day?
No. That’s a rumor that’s not true. They came to me and asked me to play Lando Calrissian. I met with [The Empire Strikes Back director] Irv Kirshner. He came to my house, and we sat and we talked, talked about a lot of things: philosophy, Eastern philosophy. He was involved in Buddhism, and I had been at some point in my life. We hit it off. It was a great rapport, and that’s how it all started.
Because of that meeting, was the character then crafted to fit your personality?
I think he felt that what I was presenting on the screen at that time really worked very well for that character. Certainly, a lot of it was crafted in a certain way. But also I brought a lot of things to it. The cape was key for me.
Was that garment your doing?
No, no. When it was presented to me, then I sort of worked around that whole idea: the whole swashbuckling, roguish, charming, good-looking guy.
That last one must have been a stretch.
Have you continued to follow any of Lando’s subsequent adventures in novels or comic books?
Yeah, I’ve seen all of the books and all of the paraphernalia and all the stuff that he’s been a part of. I’m just surprised that George Lucas didn’t do a spin-off of that character.
You’ve also lent your voice to audiobooks and video games playing Lando. Obviously, you’re dedicated to this character. You must like him to have stuck with him this long.
Oh, yeah. I even do “Robot Chicken” with Seth Green.
What’s it like working with the “Robot Chicken” crew?
I have a ball with those guys. Seth Green is like one of my sons. I really have a lot of fun with him. Seth McFarlane, all those guys. So, it’s a character that I enjoy. And the fact that people recognize me for that character—besides all the other stuff I’ve done—it doesn’t bother me whatsoever.
Is it challenging at all re-creating Lando in video games or in TV sketches?
It’s fun. Again, it’s great. It’s just keeping the character alive. And I don’t mind keeping Lando alive.