At 86 years old, Billy Dee Williams has this physical status:
Williams first appeared on Broadway in 1945 in The Firebrand of Florence. He returned to Broadway as an adult in 1960 in the adaptation of The Cool World. He appeared in A Taste of Honey in 1960. A 1976 Broadway production, I Have a Dream, was directed by Robert Greenwald and starred Williams as Martin Luther King Jr. His most recent Broadway appearance was in August Wilson's Fences, as a replacement for James Earl Jones in the role of Troy Maxson in 1988.
Williams made his film debut in 1959 in The Last Angry Man, opposite Paul Muni, in which he portrayed a delinquent young man. He was frustrated in the 1960s with the "paucity of parts for leading black men," the majority of roles he wanted went to Sidney Poitier. He enjoyed doing theater and television, but "his slow-building film career ate at him." He found LSD, a popular hallucinogenic drug with the era's hippie movement to be a cure, "LSD saved my life ... I wasn't doing it to get high. It let me get inside of myself." Otherwise he is anti-drug.
He rose to stardom after starring in the critically acclaimed television film Brian's Song (1971), in which he played Chicago Bears star football player Gale Sayers, who stood by his friend Brian Piccolo (James Caan), during Piccolo's struggle with terminal cancer. Both Williams and Caan were nominated for Emmy Awards for best actor for their performances. Williams said the role was the one of which he was most proud "It was a love story, really. Between two guys. Without sex. ... It ended up being a kind of breakthrough in terms of racial division."
Williams' success with Brian's Song earned him a seven-year contract with Motown's Berry Gordy. He became one of America's most well-known black film actors of the 1970s, after starring in a string of critically acclaimed and popular movies, many of them in the "blaxploitation" genre. In 1972, he starred as Billie Holiday's husband Louis McKay in Motown Productions' Academy Award-nominated Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues. Through his portrayal he became "a full-fledged sex symbol, touted as the 'black Clark Gable.'" Diana Ross starred in Lady Sings the Blues opposite Williams; Motown paired the two of them again three years later in the successful follow-up project Mahogany.
Williams was cast as Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), becoming the first African-American actor with a role in the Star Wars series. J. J. Abrams, who would direct Williams in the ninth installment film in 2019, noted, "Lando was always written as a complex, contradictory, nuanced character. And Billy Dee played him to suave perfection, ... It wasn't just that people of color were seeing themselves represented; they were seeing themselves represented in a rich, wonderful, intriguing way." He would reprise the role in Return of the Jedi (1983). Between the latter two films, he starred alongside Sylvester Stallone as a cop in the thriller Nighthawks (1981). The charm of his role as Lando Calrissian proved to be popular with audiences. Williams has voiced the character in the 2002 video game Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, the audio dramatization of Dark Empire, the National Public Radio adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back, two productions for the Star Wars: Battlefront series, The Lego Movie, and in two episodes of the animated TV series Star Wars Rebels. Some fans were disappointed with Calrissian's absence from the first film in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, but in July 2018 it was announced that he would reprise his role in The Rise of Skywalker (2019), marking one of the longest intervals between onscreen portrayals of a character by the same actor in American film history.
Williams co-starred in 1989's Batman as district attorney Harvey Dent, a role that was planned to develop into Dent's alter-ego, the villain Two-Face, in sequels. However, that never came to pass; he was set to reprise the role in the sequel Batman Returns, but his character was deleted and replaced with villain Max Shreck. When Joel Schumacher stepped in to direct Batman Forever, where Two-Face was to be a secondary villain, Schumacher decided to hire Tommy Lee Jones for the role. There was a rumor that Schumacher had to pay Williams a fee in order to hire Jones, but Williams said that it was not true: "You only get paid if you do the movie. I had a two-picture deal with Star Wars. They paid me for that, but I only had a one picture deal for Batman." Williams eventually voiced Two-Face in the 2017 film The Lego Batman Movie.
Williams' television work included a recurring guest-starring role on the short-lived show Gideon's Crossing. He is also known for his advertisements for Colt 45, a malt liquor, for a five-year period starting in the mid-1980s; he would reprise his spokesperson role in 2016. Williams brushed off criticism—for the subtext of the ad campaign, 'works every time,' and the target audience—of the choice, "I drink, you drink. Hell, if marijuana was legal, I'd appear in a commercial for it." Colt 45 hired Williams "simply because he was so cool," and went from trailing behind Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company in barrels produced, to "skyrocketing" a year after the 1986 ads ran to two million barrels in the top spot for malt liquor.
In the 1984–1985 season of Dynasty, he played Brady Lloyd opposite Diahann Carroll. Williams was paired with actress Marla Gibbs on three situation comedies: The Jeffersons (Gibbs's character, Florence, was a major fan of Williams and challenged him on everything because she thought Williams was an imposter); 227 (her character, Mary, pretending to be royalty, met Williams at a banquet); and The Hughleys (Gibbs and Williams portrayed Darryl's parents). In 1992, he portrayed Berry Gordy in The Jacksons: An American Dream. In 1993, Williams made a guest appearance on the spin-off to The Cosby Show, A Different World, as Langston Paige, a grumpy landlord, in a backdoor pilot for his own series. Williams appeared as himself on Martin where he provided Martin Lawrence's character with advice on getting back together with Gina.
Williams made a special guest appearance on the hit sketch comedy show In Living Color in 1990. He portrayed Pastor Dan in an episode of That '70s Show. In this episode, "Baby Don't You Do It" (2004), his character is obsessed with Star Wars, and uses this to help counsel Eric Forman (himself a Star Wars fan) and Donna Pinciotti about his premarital relationship. Williams made a cameo appearance as himself on the television series Lost in the episode "Exposé". He also appears regularly on short clips on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! as a semi-parody of himself. In February 2006, Williams guest starred as himself in the season 5 episode "Her Story II" of Scrubs, where he plays the godfather of Julie (Mandy Moore). Turk hugs him, calling him "Lando", even though he prefers to be called Billy Dee. Williams played Toussaint Dubois for General Hospital: Night Shift in 2007 and 2008. Williams reprised his role as Toussaint on General Hospital beginning in June 2009. Also in 2009, Williams took on the role of the voice of Admiral Bitchface, the head of the military on the planet Titan, in the Adult Swim animated series Titan Maximum. In July 2010, Williams appeared in the animated series The Boondocks, where he voiced a fictionalized version of himself in the episode "The Story of Lando Freeman".
In February 2011, Williams appeared as a guest star on USA Network's White Collar as Ford, an old friend of Neal Caffrey's landlady June, played by Diahann Carroll. In February 2012, Williams was the surprise guest during a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show spotlighting Diana Ross. Ross and Williams were reunited after having not seen each other in 29 years. In October 2012, Williams appeared as a guest star on NCIS in Season 10 Episode 5 titled "Namesake", as Gibbs's namesake and his father's former best friend, Leroy Jethro Moore. On January 9, 2013, Williams made a cameo appearance as himself on Modern Family, season 4, episode 11 "New Year's Eve".
In 2014, Williams competed on the 18th season of Dancing with the Stars, a reality show/dancing competition partnered with professional dancer Emma Slater. The couple had to withdraw from the competition on the third week due to an injury to Williams's back.
Over the years, Williams has been a featured guest at fan conventions, mostly science fiction ones for his iconic Lando Calrissian role in the Star Wars franchise. Of his fan interactions he has said they have mostly been positive ones, "I love every single moment of it, I'll have an audience for the rest of my life."
- Primetime Emmy [Nominee] (1972) for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in "Gale Sayers" in Brian's Song (1971)
- Inducted into the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame in 1984.
- Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Star on the Walk of Fame (1985) at 1521 Vine Street.
- Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films
- Saturn Award [Nominee] (1981) for Best Supporting Actor in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Saturn Award [Nominee] (1984) for Best Supporting Actor in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)
- Film Independent Spirit Awards
- Independent Spirit Award [Nominee] (2001) for Best Supporting Male in The Visit (2000)
- Multicultural Motion Picture Association (Diversity Awards): Circa 2000–2001, Lifetime Achievement Honor
- Black Reel Awards: Nom 2002 Theatrical - Best Supporting Actor for The Visit
- NAACP Image Awards (NAACP)
- Image Award [Winner] (1972) for Best Actor - Motion Picture in Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
- Image Award [Winner] (1977) for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
- Image Award [Nominee] (2001) for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture in The Visit (2000)
- Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contributions to the arts in 2006.
- Indie Series Awards
- ISA [Winner] (2010) for Best Performance by a Guest Actor in Diary of a Single Mom (2009)
- ISA [Nominee] (2011) for Outstanding Supporting Actor in Diary of a Single Mom (2009)
- TV Land Awards
- TV Land Award [Winner] (2006) for Blockbuster Movie of the Week In Brian's Song (1971)
- TV Land Award [Nominee] (2003) for Most Memorable Male Guest Star in a Comedy as Himself In The Jeffersons (1975)
- African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA)
- Special Achievement Award [Winner] (2012)
- Behind the Voice Actors Awards
- BTVA Feature Film Voice Acting Award [Nominee] (2018) for Best Vocal Ensemble in a Feature Film in The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
- American Black Film Festival
- (2018) Hollywood Legacy Award
Star Wars icon Billy Dee Williams, 86, releasing MEMOIR covering his almost eight-decade career: 'I saw how absurd my life has been at times'
Contrary to popular belief, Black cinema was rich and abundant before the boom of blaxploitation films in the late '60s and '70s. "Is That Black Enough For You?!?," a new Netflix documentary that premiered on 11 Nov., not only gives these films their flowers, but it also magnifies the historical revolution behind Black cinema that's often gone unheard. With archival footage and interviews with Black film legends like Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, and more, "Is That Black Enough For You?!?" director and historian Elvis Mitchell examines the grandeur of Black creators in film — from their origins in the early 1900s to the landmark era of the '70s.
Mitchell tells POPSUGAR it took him roughly 23 years to finally bring his kaleidoscopic documentary to life. Pieces of his project began with Alain Locke lectures he delivered at Harvard University in 2002. Nearly two decades later, he connected with producers Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, and Netflix to tell a crucial part of Black cinematic history he felt wasn't being told.