Billy Dee Williams is no stranger to New York City, he was born and raised near Central Park North. His birth name is William December Williams, explaining that Billy Dee was a showbiz name.
“It’s my father’s name actually,” he said. “He was born in December; I was born in April. My father had a great sense of humor. William December Williams. That’s kind of interesting, I think.”
Williams, now 82-years old, got his start in acting at the age of six. He auditioned for a part as a pageboy to the duchess in a Broadway production of The Firebrand of Florence.
“They had me walk across the stage one time. Second time they had me walk across and said thank you very much Billy that’s fine. I decided I wanted to do it for a third time. They said, no that’s cool, that’s alright and I started crying because they wouldn’t let me do it. So, I always say I cried my way into show business,” Williams said.
Williams had several critically acclaimed roles in in the 1970’s. He portrayed Gale Sayers in the sports biopic Brian’s Song. He costarred in Lady Sings the Blues, a film loosely based off of Billie Holliday’s 1956 autobiography of the same name. But it was the character Lando Calrissian in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back that established Billy Dee Williams as the smooth-talking ladies’ man that would become a controversial fan favorite in Star Wars canon.
“When I was presented the cape and also the name Calrissian, I thought those were two interesting ideas to work from,” he said. “Calrissian is an Armenian name with the I, A, N, and I thought that was interesting. With the cape I put those ideas together and it developed. This whole character.”
Besides appearing as the voice of Lando Calrissian in several animated series, Billy Dee Williams hasn’t physically played the character in over thirty years. Just last year, Williams watched actor Donald Glover take on the role as a young Lando in the spinoff movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.
“He’s a wonderful young man and quite brilliant, but there’s only one Lando Calrissian,” Williams said.
And thanks to director J.J. Abrams, Billy Dee Williams will reprise the role in the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.
“Lando has never left me. Lando has been in my life for forty years. I had a lot of fun doing it. I was just trying to execute what ideas J.J. had. It was relatively simple to get back into it.”
Star Wars fans only have until December to see Billy Dee Williams return to the big screen.