William December “Billy Dee” Williams, Jr. (born April 6, 1937) is an American actor, artist, singer, and writer. He is most known for playing Lando Calrissian in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Williams was born in New York City, New York, the son of Loretta Anne, a West Indian-born elevator operator from Montserrat, and William December Williams, Sr., an African-American caretaker from Texas. He has a twin sister, Loretta, and grew up in Harlem, where he was raised by his maternal grandmother while his parents worked at several jobs. Williams graduated from the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, where he was a classmate of Diahann Carroll, who coincidentally played the wife of his character Brady Lloyd on the 1980s prime-time soap Dynasty. They later met again in an episode of White Collar, starring Matthew Bomer.
Williams first appeared on Broadway in 1945 in The Firebrand of Florence. He returned to Broadway as an adult in 1960 in the play version of The Cool Word. He appeared in A Taste of Honey in 1961. 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.
He made his film debut in 1959 in the Academy Award nominated The Last Angry Man, opposite Paul Muni, in which he portrayed a delinquent. He rose to stardom after starring in the critically lauded blockbuster biographical TV movie, Brian’s Song (1971), in which he played Chicago Bears star football player Gale Sayers.
After this breakthrough, Williams became America’s leading black film actor in the 1970s after starring in a string of critically acclaimed and popular movies, many of them in the Blaxploitation genre. In 1972, starred as Billie Holliday’s husband Louis McKay in Motown Productions’ Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues. The film was a box office blockbuster, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year and received five Academy Award nominations. 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.
The early 1980s brought Williams the role of Lando Calrissian, which he played in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. In 1989 Williams appeared in another blockbuster, playing Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman. The actor claimed to have modeled his character on controversial African-American politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Williams, clearly intending to follow the dictates of his own sensibility, has moved from character actor to glamorous leading man and back again, expressing no interest in being pigeonholed. And ultimately, as he revealed to Soul, his endeavors have become linked to the spiritual: “I am an artist no matter what I do,” he proclaimed. “I live for creativity. I think everyone should. It is the antithesis of being destructive. I want to always be able to see–to walk into any situation and see the people and what is going on.”