Oh, sure, you know him as Lando Calrissian; everybody knows him as Lando Calrissian. Beyond that, though, most people know Billy Dee Williams simply for being Billy Dee Williams. Between his work as a Colt .45 pitchman and his enjoyment of poking fun at himself, he's become a cult hero of sorts. Now, however, Williams is going somewhere he's never gone before: into a role as a cast member of a nighttime soap. Yes, we know, he did several episodes of "Dynasty" in the ‘80s, but in SoapNet's new "General Hospital" spin-off, "Night Shift," he's a series regular, and that's a first for him. We spoke to Williams on the occasion of the show's premiere (Thursdays at 11 p.m. check it out) but, of course, we asked him about his role in the "Star Wars" universe, as well as several of his other films and TV appearances. Oh, yes, and we also got hung up on by him. Why? Surely you don't think we're going to give that away in the intro, do you?
Billy Dee Williams: Yes?
Bullz-Eye: Hi, Mr. Williams?
BE: Hi, this is Will Harris.
BE: How're you doing?
BDW: I'm OK. How're you doing?
BE: Not bad. It's a pleasure to speak with you.
BDW: Well, thank you.
BE: Well, I guess, first off, what brings you back to television?
BDW: Um, I dunno. Something to do. (laughs) I like to stay busy. No, it was very interesting, this whole idea, anyway. It's a very interesting character; that's what appealed to me…and, even more so, the fact that I'm going to sing in this thing!
BE: I did not know that. Wow.
BDW: Yeah, I do a whole number of songs, which is gonna be real interesting. (chuckles)
BE: I saw your character described as "a hospital worker with a haunted past," which sounds like a one-liner with a lot of potential.
BDW: Yeah, absolutely! That's a good way to put it, too. That's exactly what it is. But it's very interesting to do the whole soap format. It's different from anything I've ever done…and that's not that easy! But it's a real education.
BE: Well, I know you've done a nighttime soap. In fact, I guess "Dynasty" was probably your last really lengthy stint on a show, wasn't it?
BDW: Yeah. Well, I did maybe, I think, about eight of those. But that was a real classy one. But this is classy, too! I'm not saying this isn't classy! It's just a whole different thing. It's not an Aaron Spelling kind of format. But it's very interesting and, certainly, doing prime-time soaps is even more interesting, because it's a lot more edgy.
BE: Now, I feel a little bit like Senator McCarthy with this question, but are you now or have you ever been a "General Hospital" fan?
BDW: Well, the lady who started it was a good friend of mine: Gloria Monty. And, occasionally, I'll watch soaps, and I find soaps…I've always found them pretty interesting. I think it requires a kind of spontaneity where, in order to make it really interesting, you really have to kind of conjure up your improvisational skills to a certain degree, because those things move very, very fast. I mean, it's not like doing a movie, where you do a master shot, you do a two-shot, you do singles, and if you're not happy, you go back and you do it again. This is pretty much…you're, like, once you've done it and you think you wanna go back, all of a sudden, you see cameras moving to the next set. (laughs) So I'm getting a kick out of it. I'm really enjoying it. It's fun. And, y'know, I've done just about everything there is to do, as far as this business is concerned. It's not like I'm trying to build a career or anything, y'know? It's just fun. And I'm enjoying myself, really.
BE: Did you ever have any hesitation about taking on the role of a janitor, or did they just paint him as such a unique character that it didn't matter what his profession was?
BDW: Well, that's it. That's exactly what it is -- he's a unique character. And it's a departure to a certain degree, but I think that what will emerge is the kind of character that I think people kind of know me for, as far as having kind of a romantic presence. So it's sort of evolved into that.
BE: Based on the descriptions I've read online, it seems like you're the sort of character who shows up, dispenses wisdom, and walks away, whistling.
BDW: Yeah, exactly. You got it! (laughs)
BE: And I haven't even seen an episode yet! I'm just guessing!
BDW: You don't need to see it! Everything you're saying is exactly what it is.
BE: OK, well, I'm gonna hold off asking you about your most famous role for a few minutes, just to avoid seeming too overzealous, but I did want to ask you about a couple of others things that you've done, like, say, "Nighthawks."
"I'm getting a kick out of ("Night Shift.") I'm really enjoying it. It's fun. And, y'know, I've done just about everything there is to do, as far as this business is concerned. It's not like I'm trying to build a career or anything, y'know? It's just fun. And I'm enjoying myself, really."BE: I know sequels weren't nearly as in vogue back then as they are now, but did you ever think, "Man, I wish they'd bring back those characters?" (Writer's note: Before you read on, I should provide you with some context for Billy's response. Although I was completely confused at the time, I now realize that he misheard "sequels" as "CGI," and, in turn, responded as if I'd posed a question about CGI-heavy films versus character-driven films.)
BDW: You mean like the "Nighthawks" characters?
BDW: Well, when we did "Nighthawks," we weren't inundated with a lot of the CGI and all the new technologies that they use in movies today to make them more palatable and much more interesting for the current fans. I think a "Nighthawks" situation really required more…it was more about actors than special effects. So, I don't know. Listen, it is what it is. I think you have to accommodate the kind of sensibilities that exist today. So I don't know if it's a question about, "Do I wish it?" I mean, every now and then, you have something like that, in smaller movies. But is it what it is. I think when you do television, you have a greater opportunity to sort of focus on the acting aspect, as opposed to all of the technology. So television serves a really good purpose, I think, for people who just want to get into a whole characterization thing.
BE: You played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's "Batman."
BE: I get the impression that you were at least enough of a comic book fan to know that your character was destined to become a member of Batman's rogues' gallery.
BDW: Right, yeah, Two-Face. Which is one of the reasons why I decided, why I took on the role -- because I was hoping to play Two-Face. But there was a change of hands, so that opportunity was lost. So you win some, you lose some.
BE: Was Tim Burton ready to go with you in the role of Two-Face if he'd stayed on for another film?
BDW: I hope so! (laughs)
BE: I didn't know if there'd even been talks beyond your appearance in the first film.
BDW: Yeah, I thought it was a real interesting idea to do it that way, because, originally, it wasn't written that way. But to carry on the character in -- how do I say it? -- in a different ethnicity? I thought it was a very interesting idea. A forward idea.
BE: I've always found that jumping from you in the part, to Tommy Lee Jones, is an insurmountable continuity problem.
BDW: (laughs) Yeah, I would say so. But, c'mon, it's the movies. They can do anything they want to do in the movies, and either people will buy it or they won't buy it. But if you've got enough going on, I guess they'll buy into anything.
BE: What's your favorite film role that you feel people don't make enough mention of?
BDW: Well, I've done a couple of movies that I really enjoyed that nobody knows anything about, or that very few people know about. There was one movie I did up in Canada several years ago called "Giant Steps" – that was about a jazz musician – and I think that was one of the best roles I'd ever done. But it was one of those situations where it'll turn up somewhere and it'll be kind of a cult movie.
BE: Of course, you've played musicians before. I know you played Scott Joplin as well.
BDW: Yeah. Well, you know, I have a real affinity for musicians. I work with the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute in Washington, D.C. We put on competitions every year, and people like Joshua Redman, Christian McBride and a lot of great young jazz performers have emerged from that whole situation. Jazz has been very much a part of my life since I was a kid, especially be-bop. I was raised around music, anyway. So it was fun.
BE: I was looking at your IMDB listing, and there are a couple of movies toward the beginning of your career that I wasn't familiar with, but they've scored a fair amount of praise in their comments sections: "Hit" and "The Take."
BDW: Yeah, well, again, when I was doing those movies in those years, they were a departure from the usual stuff, which is something that I've always tried to do. I've always tried to look for things that sort of broke away from the usual stereotypical, clichéd kind of approaches to the whole ethnic thing. I mean, y'know, I'm an eclectic person. My whole life has revolved around the whole eclectic point of view, so my sensibility and my thinking is always to do characters…I was always focusing on doing heroic characters, so, y'know, that has always been my approach, is really all I'm trying to say. Even with my painting, it's the same thing. The whole idea of limiting one's self to black or white is not something that really appeals to me. It puts a big limitation on your creativity when you continue to think that way and to look at things that way.
(Billy's other line begins to ring audibly.)
BE: Do you need to get that? I can hold on.
BDW: Well (hesitates as the phone rings again) if I do something here, I might…well, let me see if I can do this.
BE: OK. And if not, I can call you right back.
(It is at this point that I can officially say that I have been hung up on by Billy Dee Williams, albeit accidentally. Fortunately, I have his number, so I do indeed call him right back.)
BDW: Yeah, OK, I screwed up. (laughs) I think you're supposed to press "hold" first? Is that how you do it?
BDW: I don't know about all this stuff. I live on a prairie somewhere. (laughs)
BE: Well, you were just talking about heroic characters, which gives me the perfect guilt-free opportunity to bring up Lando Calrissian.
BDW: Yeah, Lando is a perfect example of a heroic character of the future, or in the future. And, there again, I wasn't thinking about his ethnicity, or, at least, if I was thinking about his ethnicity, I wanted to create a character that was really devoid of that point of view. I just wanted to bring the character to the future. And, in my mind, the whole idea of ethnicity would not exist in the future. And I'm always looking to create characters that are bigger than life, that have kind of an epic feel to them. That kind of heroics is something that really appeals to me. (Writer's note: A lesser man would have entered Comic-Book-Guy-mode and interrupted with, "Excuse me, but I believe you will find that the six films within the ‘Star Wars' oeuvre are adequately described in the moments immediately following the 20th Century Fox fanfare as taking place ‘a long time ago.' Worst. Film historian. Ever." Thankfully, I am not that man.)
BE: On the subject of Lando and ethnicity, I'm sure you've seen, or are at least aware of, the scene in Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" in which your character is, um, paid tribute to.
BE: (absolutely dumbfounded) No? Really? One of the characters goes on a rant about…well, actually, it's a back-and-forth between two characters, but it revolves around Lando Calrissian being more or less the token black character of the "Star Wars" universe. It also involves one of them asking the question, "What's a Nubian?" But the humor's kind of lost without the context.
BDW: (laughs) Well, I never heard that, but, again, I don't think of myself in terms of black or white. First of all, I'm a painter, so my whole way of looking at colors…I mean, people say "people of color," but, to my way of thinking, everybody's a person of color. That's the beauty of the living experience, it seems to me. And as a painter, you're looking at the things that are really obvious, but you're also looking at all the shades that go with them. I choose to live my life that way, and I'll never change. In some ways, I always said that I belong to the future, and I still think I belong to the future. I think that people haven't even caught up to the way I look at things, for the most part.
BE: Clearly, you don't mind having a good laugh at your image. Like, for instance, in your appearance on "Scrubs," which makes me laugh out loud every single time I see, no matter how many times I see it.
BDW: (laughs) Well, I get a kick out of doing that. Anytime anybody asks me to do a little humor, I'm always looking forward to doing it. It's good practice.
BE: How did you come to be on "Lost"?
BDW: Well, I was asked! What happened was, I have a website, and on there, I have something called…it's a thing from the old "Continental" days, from back in the ‘50s. In fact, what's the name of that actor, that wonderful actor who plays villains all the time? He did it on "Saturday Night Live." Christopher Walken! He did a parody of it, and it was really funny. But, anyway, I had always wanted to do that character, because I remembered that, when I was a little boy, I used to watch him, and he would come on in the late afternoons, for about 15 minutes a day, and just talk to the ladies, serve them champagne and talk romantic smack.
BDW: So I decided to do that. Anyway, "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" picked up on it, and they decided to take it, to use it – they didn't ask me, but I found out about it – but they had taken me and put me into a situation on their show, a parody situation, where instead of talking to the ladies, I'm talking smack to a guy. And when I saw it, I just thought it was hysterical. So, anyway, they asked me to come on his show and do it. He's a big fan of "Lost," and what they'd do is take a scene from "Lost" and insert me into the scene. It was real funny stuff. And the "Lost" people really liked it a lot, so they asked me to come on and play myself playing a killer. So that's how that happened. But, again, whenever I have the opportunity to do something absurd, that always appeals to me. In other words, I'm having a lot of fun! Like I said, it's not like I'm trying to build a career or anything, so when people ask me to do things like that (trails off). You know, I think I've sort of become a personality, so if they want to use that personality, if I've succeeded in becoming a personality that people recognize, then why not play around with it and use it?
BE: Yeah, I was thinking that, if you wanted to, you could pretty much spend the rest of your career just playing yourself!
BE: So I've heard you're attached to a film called "Barry Munday," but since it's still early days, I don't know if you can really talk about it or not.
BDW: Well, I don't know what's happening with it! At one point, it was going to happen. I think it's going to happen! I talked with Chris D'Arienzo, we had lunch one day, and he said they were going to go ahead and do it, so I'm just waiting for them to tell me that we're doing it.
BE: And do you still have any affiliation with Colt .45, or are you just stuck being eternally recognized as their spokesperson?
"When I do these sci-fi conventions, I get these young guys coming up to me with these huge Colt .45 bottles, wanting me to sign them, and I'm always curious how they would know about that, since most of them weren't even born when I was doing those!"BDW: No, just instantly recognized for it. It's funny, but, sometimes, when I do these sci-fi conventions, I get these young guys coming up to me with these huge Colt .45 bottles, wanting me to sign them, and I'm always curious how they would know about that, since most of them weren't even born when I was doing those! But I think I've managed to create kind of a cult following, which is interesting, and fun!
BE: Well, they've got a couple of the commercials up on YouTube now, so that's probably one way kids have seen them.
BDW: They do?
BE: Yep. I mean, I doubt if they're on there legally, but people have uploaded a few of them to the site, so your reputation as a pitchman lives on.
BDW: You mean the actual commercials I did are on there? On the web?
BE: Yep. Just go to YouTube and type in the words "Colt .45 Billy Dee."
BDW: Are you serious?
BDW: Well, I've gotta look into that. It's YouTube.com?
BE: That's right. I mean, literally, I typed in those words, and it brought up one of your old commercials.
BDW: I wonder how they got their hands on them. Huh.
BE: Well, judging from the quality, I'd say they just transferred an old VHS tape to a DVD, then uploaded them that way.
BDW: Huh. That's interesting. I gotta check that out.
BE: Well, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I'd been looking forward to the opportunity to meet you in person in L.A. for the "Night Shift" panel at the TCA Press Tour, but I understand your schedule didn't work out.
BDW: Yeah, I'll be gone. I'm going to London the day after tomorrow. But you have a good time!
BE: You as well. Oh, one thing I neglected to ask a minute ago: you mentioned your website, and I wanted to include the link to it.
BDW: It's http://www.bdwworldart.com. And that's where I show all my paintings. Well, not all of them. Some of them. In fact, I need to change them and put some new ones on there.
BE: And you continue to do art on the side?
BDW: Oh, I've been painting all my life. It's very much a part of my life.
BE: From even before you started acting?
BDW: Well, everything's sort of simultaneous, but, y'know, I was six-and-a-half years old when I started acting on Broadway. But, yeah, they've both been a part of my life for pretty much all of my life.
BE: Great, well, I'll be sure to put the gallery's link in the piece.
BE: And, again, it's been great talking to you.
BDW: Nice talking to you, too.