Rhode Island Comic Con kicked off its 2013 event with a bang. At noon, a gaggle of eager fans filed into Ballroom A to attend the event’s first major panel. The star of the event was Billy Dee Williams, a man that needs no introduction to many. While Williams is best known for his roles as the swashbuckling Lando Calrissian and Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman adaptations, he enjoyed a career that spans fifty years and numerous mediums.
When Williams entered the room, a wave of people rose in a standing ovation. The panel began on a light note, with Williams mentioning that his daughter attended Brown University, followed by a nod to Providence’s food culture. He then continued into a short discussion of his history in schooling and art. Williams grew up in New York City, and attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art in Manhattan. On graduation, he was granted a scholarship to the National Academy of Fine Arts, where he spent two years painting. By the age of 19, Williams was nominated for a Guggenheim Fellowship, and received a , which is comparable to the Guggenheim. The Smithsonian museum owns one of his pieces, as does the Kansas City Jazz Museum. Williams did a lot of exhibiting from the 1980s into the early 2000s, and still has galleries host exhibitions of his work. The latest of these galleries is the Brian Liss Gallery in Toronto.
After the introduction, the floor was opened to questions and answers. The first question was straight-forward: What medium does he prefer for his art? Williams replied, stating that he used to prefer oil for his paintings, but currently uses acrylic. He paints in a style that he calls “Abstract Reality,” in which the art is representational and obvious to the eye, but invites spectators to bring their own thoughts into the work.
At this point, the announcer chimed in with an inquiry of his own, which asked about his first appearance in the acting world. Williams recalled that he was six years old when he entered show business. His mother was a “very pretty person who had great dreams of being a movie star.” She worked at the Lycene Theater for Ben Boyer and Max Gordon, and was studying opera at the time. The theater was putting on The Firebrand of Florence, a production written by Kurt Weill and produced by George S. Kaufmann. The theater was looking for a young boy to play one of the stars. They knew Williams’s mother had a son, and asked her to bring Billy in to audition. They had him walk across the stage twice, and dismissed him. Williams wanted to walk across the stage a third time, though. They tried dismissing him again, when Williams blurted out “But I want to!” and started crying. He likes to joke that he literally cried his way into the industry.
The inquiries continued, as a con-goer asked whether Williams’s acting fed his art, or vice versa. Williams replied that the two feed each other, and that the two forms of expression are very much the same, though they use different mediums.
With his answer, the conversation shifted toward more popular works and films. One guest asked if Williams would have preferred to play Two Face, or a more straight-laced Harvey Dent in the Batman films. Williams replied that he wanted to do Two Face, though Sony decided to change direction. He actually went with the role of Harvey Dent because he wanted to play Two Face. He feels that the initial idea for the film was a good idea that should have been followed through.
The next user asked whether there was a piece of memorabilia from his career that Williams particularly valued. He remarked that he managed to talk George Lucas into letting him keep an Ewok head. He joked that he should have kept the cape as well, though. Another attendee piped up, asking whether Williams felt that sense of spirituality in the Star Wars films, such as the balance of good and evil, and the like. Williams responded, noting that, as far as his character’s concerned, he was a swashbuckling, roguish, handsome type of guy. Williams joked that, when he saw the cape, he said “whoa! That’s it, let’s do this!” As far as the whole theme of the films, though, he felt that good and evil were certainly a part of the fabric of the saga. It resonates with the fans, especially today. Technology managed to give a lot of advantages to the world, but also reveals a lot of craziness.
The question that followed was in regards to Brian’s Song – specifically, what was it like to portray a person that is still alive. Williams replied, stating that Brian’s Song is a very special film, an act of love. It was the perfect moment that a person only gets once or twice in his live. He got to meet Gale Sayers, but they always shared an interesting relationship. They didn’t talk much, but they were both reticent individuals and shared a feeling of camaraderie. Williams always watched Gale to pick up his idiosyncracies, and Gale always watched back. The two became friends, to the point that Williams would call him a true gentleman – something he does not say about many.
The air of nostalgia was quickly swept from the room, when a fan piped up to ask whether Williams would reprise his role in Star Wars Episode VII. To this, Williams stated that he had no idea, and that he had no clue where the studio wanted to go with it. He did mention that, if he does come back, he wants to have a daughter that’s a Jedi, or a son that’s a villain. The announced mentioned that a campaign began at Dragon Con on Twitter, using the hash tag #BringBackLando, which even JJ Abrams, who is directing the film, is aware of. Williams recalled that he was recently on Jimmy Kimmel Live with William Shatner, and Abrams was talking to Kimmel about the project. The plan was for Williams to stand in the audience and give his suggestion about what he should be doing. It was scripted, and the idea was that the film should be two hours of Lando, surrounded by women.
The next inquiry continued this line of reasoning, and asked whether Williams felt about Star Wars going to Disney. He replied that it was a great idea, and that there was no better group to do Star Wars. He mentioned that he felt that Disney is the perfect home for Star Wars, and that Abrams is the perfect person to handle the project. The questioner replied with a snarky retort, mentioning that he didn’t think there should be another movie, before going into the opening phases of a rant. He was quickly shut down by the announcer, who gave a snarky “shut up, and let JJ make Star Wars VII!”
The next guest asked a question that would get to the heart of many fan debates that have raged over the years. Specifically, why was Lando wearing Han Solo’s clothing at the end of Empire Strikes Back? The question had two potential answers: the first was that Lando owned the Millennium Falcon first. Han opened the closet, tried on some of the clothes, and realized just how good he looked in them. The other was that Han and Lando were an item, and that Lando had put them on inadvertently after a secret meeting. The room erupted in laughter at this, before moving on to the next attendee.
The following question was a two parter: Which people were his favorite to work with, and what was his favorite painting to work on? Williams mentioned that he was easy to work with, and enjoys working with everybody. He finds something interesting about everybody he works with. However, he did highlight four specific individuals above all others:
- Robert Rawson
- Sidney Furie
- David Kirschner
- Robert Ross, whom Williams called one of the great filmmakers that this country produced
Williams mentioned that his favorite paintings were those of his children. He did a lot on bebop, followed by a series he called “Journey Paintings,” in which he regurgitated his life through his art. For these paintings, Williams created a character called Von diVons, who observes things as they exist, as well as their absurdity. Williams sees himself as an absurdity, which allows a certain degree of freedom.
The next inquiry moved back to film, specifically Mahogany. He wanted to know if any real-life politicians had an influence on the part, to which Williams replied “not really.” The film wasn’t so much about the character as a politician as it was about the character as a lover.
The mood grew a bit silly afterwards, when an attendee asked which Williams felt was the most powerful weapon of all: the blaster, the lightsaber, or Colt .45. Williams responded with the obvious: Colt .45, plus lots of cards and chips! The next question was another “What if” inquiry: Did Williams ever think of doing anything other than acting and art? Williams responded that art shaped his life, in all of its stages. He tried doing other things, but wasn’t good at them.
The inquiries returned to Star Wars for the next question, which asked whether the director came to Williams, or vice versa for Empire Strikes Back. Williams mentioned that Kirschner came to him, though the opposite is the norm. The two talked about eastern philosophy and buddhism, but Kirschner absolutely went to Williams for the role.
The two questions that would follow were short and simple. The first was “What was it like to work with Seth Green on Robot Chicken?” Williams responded that Green was like a son to him, and that they always have great fun together. The second was “How is it that you’re so calm in outer space,” to which he responded “Movie magic!”
Returning once again to Star Wars, an attendee asked what Williams’s favorite scene to film was in the trilogy. He stated that it was the moment where he confronted Darth Vader for three seconds, before realizing what he was doing. That and being strangled by Chewbacca, though going against Vader was a thrill, as Lando was one of few people to survive such a feat. The next question continued this train of thought, asking what his favorite memory was while filming. Williams mentioned that he liked visiting the people behind the scenes, involved with tech, In Return of the Jedi, he enjoyed the interesting characters, many of which had sexual connotations. He found them interesting, though it caused him to look at George Lucas in a different light.
The next guest asked how he thought Jedi would be handled if Han wasn’t thawed from carbonite, to which Williams replied “I don’t know!” After this, a guest asked how he felt about Lando not being parodied in Spaceballs, to which he replied that he never saw Spaceballs, therefore can’t comment, though he doesn’t care either way.
Things got a bit sillier, as one guest asked whether Williams ever walked in on Fisher while she was changing. Williams stated that he hadn’t, though she was a pretty girl, and a very bright woman. He mentioned that they were pretty good friends and that she’s a great person, and reiterated that he never walked in on her. And if he did, he’s not telling!
The inquiry that followed was in regards to the film Nighthawks, and whether Williams looked back on the relevance of the events that transpired in the film. Williams noted that the film was tough to shoot in the middle of winter. He left the subways in 1966, and swore he’d never go back before that film. During filming, he was trying to give an elderly woman a seat. The woman shoved him out of the way, and took the seat anyway, leading him to say “not dealing with this anymore.” When he shot the film, he saw the subway system in a way that nobody had ever considered.
Questions returned to Colt 45 again, when an attendee asked where the liquor’s famous catch phrase came from. Williams gave the obvious answer, the advertising people! The questions got siller, with a guest asking if Chewbacca was choking Lando because he was jealous of the joking tryst that Williams mentioned earlier. Williams remarked that Han and Chewie did have a close relationship, and that he used to wonder about it himself. Maybe Chewie really was upset about it! Another attendee asked how Lando was doing, to which Williams replied that he suffered from “aches and pains” every so often.
Questions began to return to Williams’s career, as the panel came to its final minutes. One person asked which, of his many roles, was the most “him.” Williams replied that he doesn’t know, for sure. Certainly Lando was, where he did a charming thing. Williams then mentioned that he wanted to portray Duke Ellington, because he was a truly charming individual.
The next question continued along this line, asking which of his many roles Williams would like to befriend, if possible. Williams remarked that one character he played, Slade Thompson from Giant Steps, was one he fell in love with. He wanted to be Slade, and went into depression for two weeks when filming ended. Another attendee piped up, asking why he chose the characters he did in each movie, and if they reflected on him. Williams responded that there’s always a degree of reflection, though it varies, and it’s all quite challenging.
Inquiries continued, as a guest asked what Williams’s top five favorite films were. He was unable to pin down a clean top 5, but mentioned that he was a big Brando fan, especially in A Streetcar Named Desire, Zapata, and On the Waterfront. He noted that he was a fan of gangster flicks by James Cagne and Edward G. Robinson, and that he loved Life of Pi. He hasn’t gone to the movies lately, but he loved Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, calling the actress’s performance “brilliant.”
The questioning wound down to its final two, which would receive among the shortest answers of the day. The first inquirer asked whether Williams ever wanted to portray a different role in a film he worked on, to which Williams replied that there was none he could remember. The final question was a simple one: who was his biggest fan? Williams replied with “I dunno, my mom!” After her, it would be his son and grandkids, but none of his ex-wives!
After the final question was answered, the attendees were thanked for attending, as Williams made his way out. The room wasn’t formally cleared by staff, though many had begun to file out on their own.