Billy Dee Williams - credit Albert L Ortega. Provided by publisher.

By Nick Thomas

Cover of Williams’ book, What Have We Here – provided by publisher.

As any devoted Star Wars fan can deduce, the title of Billy Dee Williams’ new autobiography, “What Have We Here?” released in February, is a nod to the actor’s most famous character – Lando Calrissian. The smooth-talking caped space smuggler first greets Princess Leia with that line in 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.”
While the feisty cinnamon-bunned princess may not have swooned on-screen when the charming Lando gently kissed her hand before eventually joining forces to save their galaxy (although Leia’s fleeting smirk suggests her royal knees might have buckled slightly), other screen characters were not so demure when confronted with the suave actor.
For instance, Diana Ross (playing singer Billie Holiday) first glimpses Williams (portraying her future lover, Louis McKay) in 1972’s hit movie “Lady Sings the Blues.” Her character promptly sinks to the floor, emotionally melting – mouth agape – captivated by the dreamy, white-suited Williams gracefully descending a staircase.
“When I saw film of myself walking down those stairs, I fell in love with me!” said Williams, laughing, from his home in Los Angeles. In real life, too, fans were similarly drawn to Williams’ charisma.
“I even had a woman faint right in front of me and it’s all very flattering,” he recalled. “But I don’t take myself too seriously.”
Beyond his Hollywood status as a heartthrob or swashbuckling space pirate, Williams was a solid, compelling actor throughout his long career that began when he stepped onto a Broadway stage, barely 8 years old.
Raised in Harlem during the 40s in a moderately well-off household, young Billy’s family supported his interest in the arts which also included painting – a career he originally planned to pursue. But in 1956, on a chilly winter’s day in New York City, he literally bumped into a TV casting director emerging from a clothing store, striking up a conversation.
The chance encounter led to an offer of work as an extra in East Coast television series, reinvigorating his interest in acting. After moving to Hollywood, Williams would amass hundreds of film, television, and theater credits over the next six decades.
“For a young, brown-skinned boy like me growing up in Harlem, getting to Hollywood was a far-fetched dream in those early days,” Williams said. “I’m not a very competitive person when it comes to something like sports, but I am when it comes to acting. I was determined to make it.”
And he did, with lead roles in feature films such as “Mahogany” (1975), “Scott Joplin” (1977), “Nighthawks” (1981), as well as ABC’s “Dynasty” series and the acclaimed TV sports bio-pic “Brian’s Song.”
“I didn’t want people to just see a young black kid from Harlem on the screen, but to appreciate the full spectrum of the characters I was playing,” said Williams.
It’s been almost 45 years since Williams first entered the Star Wars universe as Lando Calrissian. With his broad appeal and extensive acting experience, he was a popular addition to the franchise.
While he acknowledges that sci-fi actors rarely win Oscars or Emmys, Williams remains grateful for the recognition the character afforded.
“In the long run, I think the whole idea of creating a huge fan base gives you much more longevity,” he said. “I’ll be 87 in April, and I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences throughout my life that are described in the book. Some were not pleasant, but working on ‘Empire’ (and two other Star Wars movies) was. I’m always observing, learning, and trying to be a sponge, so to speak, to make myself a better actor.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama and writes features, columns, and interviews for newspapers and magazines around the country. See