One of the most handsome leading men in Hollywood with his soulful brown eyes, neat, thick moustache, great physique, and natural poise, Billy Dee Williams was a major star during the 1970s, but his acting career dates back to 1947 when he debuted on the Broadway stage opposite German actress Lotte Lenya in the play The Firebrand of Florence. It was Williams' mother, an elevator operator at the Lyceum Theater where the play was produced, who brought him before the producers after she heard that they needed a child. As a teen, Williams studied drama at the prestigious High School of Music and Art in New York; he also studied at the National Academy of Fine Arts and then at the Harlem Actors Workshop where he was tutored by Sidney Poitier. As an adult, he returned to Broadway, but did not make his feature film debut until he landed a substantial supporting role in The Last Angry Man (1959). It would be a decade before Williams starred in another film. He made a favorable impression playing Gayle Sayers in the touching made-for-TV movie Brian's Song, but did not become a movie star until he appeared opposite Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). In 1975, the pair reteamed for the highly successful melodrama Mahogany (1975). At his popularity's peak, Williams was referred to as "the black Gable." Though he went on to star in other pictures throughout the decade, Williams' star was beginning to fade by 1980 until he played a dashing role in George Lucas' Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back and its sequel, Return of the Jedi (1983). He was also particularly memorable as the district attorney in Tim Burton's Batman (1989). Through the '90s, Williams' career slowed, but for a few television movies in 1993, his appearances became sporadic. Highlights in this later part of his career include Woo, The Visit, Constellation, Fanboys, and 2008's Barry Munday.
Biography by Sandra Brennan
- Made his stage debut at age 7.
- Studied at Sidney Poitier's acting workshop in the late '50s.
- Breakthrough roles were Gale Sayers in the classic 1971 TV-movie Brian's Song and Louis McKay in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), opposite Diana Ross.
- Best known for his work as Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). He was the first African-American to appear in the Star Wars films.
- Made a cameo as himself in a 2007 episode of Lost, portraying an actor on the show-within-a-show Exposé.
- Trained as a painter and has had several exhibitions of his work.