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9 Quick Questions for Billy Dee Williams

Legendary actor pens memoir, ‘What Have We Here? Portraits of a Life’


spinner image billy dee williams against green ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Albert L Ortega)

In his new memoir, What Have We Here? Portraits of a Life, actor, novelist and painter Billy Dee Williams, 86, shares the challenges and triumphs of his remarkable professional career, which began with his Broadway debut in 1945 at age 7. He tells AARP why he finally decided to write down his story, what inspires him to make art and which Star Wars movie is his favorite.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What inspired you to write your memoir?

spinner image book cover with words what have we here, billy dee williams
In his new memoir, Billy Dee Williams recalls his remarkable life.
Penguin Random House

Well, I’m at that stage in my life now — I’ll be 87 in April — where I’m thinking about things like legacy. I felt maybe there would be some interest about my life and the kind of experiences I’ve had over the years. I think what I’ve experienced has been interesting and unique since I was a very, very young person. I thought it’s time to maybe talk about it a little bit. I felt like I really exposed myself.

How do you view your legacy?

Of course, family — my kids and my grandkids. ... I see myself as a full spectrum of colors. I’m not one of these people who goes through life trying to hold on to one point of view as opposed to another point of view. And the wonderful thing about that is that, as a painter, you learn to use color, you learn to use perspective, you learn to use shading. So you don’t live … in this sort of small myopic kind of existence. In this book, for instance, I try to allude to that. I try to talk about that — the whole idea of staying open and not burdening yourself with this whole idea of having to be one thing or another, but to try and be all things. Which is crazy, I guess, but I think it’s much more interesting. And much more fun. And I think that’s what I want to really say to people about my life, specifically.

Do you paint every day?

spinner image self-portrait painting of billy dee williams
Williams painted this ‘Farewell’ self-portrait in 1957.
Billy Dee Williams

No ... I’m still working at it. I’ll never give it up entirely. I’ve already accumulated over 300 paintings, which I have in storage. That’s part of my legacy. That’s part of who I am. And I’m a pretty good painter. You know what’s funny about painting? Well, for me anyway, it’s prolific [only] if I have something I need desperately to say or talk about. I have to be inspired. There has to be something that I need desperately to talk about.

In your book, you talk about your incredible parents. What’s the most valuable thing you learned from them?

Well, family, that’s the primary thing. The whole idea of experiencing and going through all of the machinations and all of the trials and tribulations and all the good times. I’m very proud to be from a working-class family, so that kind of perspective is something that really I feel is very — for me specifically — is very valuable.

Is there a favorite role you’ve played?

There are certain roles that I’ve done, a few, that I’ve enjoyed doing in movies, as well as on stage. But there’s never really one thing, no. All of the experiences I’ve had have been pretty rewarding and a lot of fun. Of course, the Star Wars movies and the movies I’ve done with Diana Ross and Brian’s Song. And a lot of the stuff I did on stage: [playing] Martin Luther King [on Broadway in I Have A Dream]; a play [off-Broadway] I had a great deal of fun doing called Slow Dance on the Killing Ground.

Did you ever expect Star Wars to become such a big phenomenon?

Well, it was a big thing before I entered the picture. At that time, all of these new young filmmakers like [George] Lucas and [Martin] Scorsese and [Francis Ford] Coppola … they were all a bunch of young guys who were changing cinema at that time. I felt very fortunate that I was asked to participate in the Star Wars saga.

Do you have a favorite movie in the Star Wars series?

[The] Empire Strikes Back is one that I really like a lot. I think most people like that one a lot. Irvin Kershner was the director on that, and he was phenomenal.

spinner image billy dee williams in a still from star wars episode five - the empire strikes back
Williams is known for his role as Lando Calrissian in the ‘Star Wars’ movie franchise.
Courtesy: Everett Collection

Are there any roles you turned down that you wish you hadn’t?

Oh no, I can’t think of anything really. My life and my point of view and perspective on the whole business of acting in movies — for me, it’s when I want to go right, something always tells me go left. I pretty much live my life that way. Obviously, I take life seriously, but at times I don’t take it. It’s all a kind of an adventure. I remember when I was a kid, I read The Challengers [by Grace Livingston Hill, about a family of five children and their adventures]. [The characters] really hit home for me. I always thought of myself as [a character in that book] — just going through life and having these wonderful, interesting experiences. As a matter of fact, I came up with a character [in my paintings] called “the bon vivant.” He’s me actually, strolling through life and observing and being a kind of a sponge and giving interpretation to it. The realities and the absurdities of it. That’s pretty much where I am.

How are you handling life at age 86?

Well, sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes — most of the time — it’s relatively easy. I have a good time. I’ve got my family here [in Los Angeles], I’ve got my friends here, and so it’s good.

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