INTERVIEW: Billy Dee Williams discusses his life, career and Lando

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I was truly honored to have the chance recently to interview one of my childhood favorites, actor Billy Dee Williams, for the Buffalo News.

We’re only five months into 2017, but it’s already been a memorable year for Billy Dee Williams. He recently turned 80, provided a voice in the hit “Lego Batman Movie,” and joined the likes of Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford at the “Star Wars” Celebration fan festival in Orlando.

The actor best known for his role as ultra-suave “Star Wars” hero Lando Calrissian in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” is set to appear at Nickel City Con  from May 19 to 21 in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. The actor, who recently took time for a telephone interview, said he’s not in the next film, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and has no knowledge of plans for Lando in “Episode IX” (“Nobody has talked to me about it,” he said). But he still often often voices the beloved character in TV series like “Star Wars Rebels” and video games like “Star Wars: Battlefront.”

Beyond being a part of iconic franchises like “Star Wars” and “Batman,” he has starred in such well-remembered favorites as “Brian’s Song,” the 1971 movie-of-of-the-week with Williams as Gayle Sayers and James Caan as the late Brian Piccolo, and cult classics like “Nighthawks” with Sylvester Stallone. When asked what he’s most proud of, he points to a few favorites. “I’ve done a lot of films over a lot of years, but certainly ‘Brian’s Song’ – I was nominated for an Emmy for that. ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ [the 1972 Billie Holliday biopic starring Diana Ross] started a whole new kind of career for me. There’s ‘Mahogany.’ One of my favorite experiences was the Negro League baseball movie, ‘The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.’ I’ve had a pretty good career.”

Here’s more from our interview. 

Question: You’ve had a very busy 2017. What’s been the high point of the year so far?

Answer: Turning 80 years old is certainly a highlight (laughs). That’s a big one. And it’s ironic that I ended up doing Two-Face in “The Lego Batman Movie” after having played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989). I thought that was interesting. I was a little surprised, but I got a big chuckle out of it. They called me up and I was very happy to do it.

Q: “Star Wars” Celebration was just a few weeks ago. What was it like to see everyone? And did it feel strange to be there without Carrie Fisher?

A: We certainly all missed Carrie. It’s a tragedy — such an early point in her life — but we celebrated her. It was very nice to see everyone. I hadn’t seen any of them in quite some time. Every now and then I run into them, but it was nice to see everyone together.

Q: Does the ongoing growth of “Star Wars” surprise you?

A: It’s amazing. The “Star Wars” experience is a phenomenal experience, and it just picks up more fans with every generation. I think it’ll probably go on for another 40 years.

Q: You were the first African-American actor with a major role in the “Star Wars” saga, and you blazed a trail for actors like John Boyega in “The Force Awakens,” not to mention the diverse roster of stars in “Rogue One.” Is it accurate to consider you a pioneer?

A: I don’t really look at it that way. I just think of myself as an actor who is always looking for interesting things to do. That’s pretty much how I’ve conducted my life and my career.

Q: You’re also known for your painting. How did that passion develop?

A: It’s something I’ve been doing all my life. I spent three years at the National Academy of Design on a scholarship painting, and was nominated for a Guggenheim when I was 18 years old. I won a Hallgarten Prize, which is comparable to a Guggenheim. The Smithsonian National Gallery in Washington, D.C., owns one of my paintings, as does the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York and the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. I’ve exhibited for a number of years, so it’s very much a part of my life.

Q: I hear you met recently with Donald Glover, who is playing young Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo spin-off film. What are your thoughts on him?

A: I hope he does well with it. For me, Lando is me. I can’t see anybody else as Lando. But he’s a very good actor, a very talented musician and writer, and a very nice young man. So I wish him the best.

May Coming Attractions: ‘Carol’ is worth a drive to Toronto (from Buffalo Spree)

(L-R) KYLE CHANDLER and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL

(L-R) KYLE CHANDLER and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL

It’s a busy May in Buffalo. Check out my latest Buffalo Spree Coming Attractions column.

It’s nearly outdoor screening season, but until then, let’s stay indoors for some May treats. A number of our favorite series come to an end this month, but don’t fret—they’ll all be back soon. 

Cultivate Cinema Circle—Welcome to F.L. and Contemporary Color: CCC continually brings under-the-radar films to the area that deserve to be seen and pondered. One of these is Contemporary Color, a document of an extraordinarily unique event from 2015 curated and conceived by David Byrne. The former Talking Heads frontman and iconic solo artist brought together high school color guards and established musical performers like St. Vincent and Nelly Furtado. The documentary screens at the North Park on May 3. Also on the CCC lineup is Welcome to F.L., an acclaimed documentary about students at a Quebec high school. It’s screening at Burning Books on May 24. (Welcome to F.L.: 7 p.m. on May 24 at Burning Books, 420 Connecticut St.; Contemporary Color: 7 p.m. on May 2 at the North Park Theatre, 1428 Hertel Ave.; cultivatecinemacircle.com)

Buffalo Film Seminars: One of the most diverse Buffalo Film Seminars’ sessions in series history comes to an end this month with a rather random final two. David Ayer’s Brad Pitt-in-a-tank drama Fury screens on May 2, and it’s an odd if interesting entry from the director of Suicide Squad. (Eek!) A far stronger film closes things out on May 9: Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy. This biography of Gilbert and Sullivan features delightful performances from Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, and Timothy Spall. It ranks as one of the Secrets and Lies and Vera Drakedirector’s most ambitious efforts, and will leave you humming the songs of The Mikado(7 p.m. on May 2 and 7 at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main St.; csac.buffalo.edu/bfs.html)

Old Chestnut Film Society—Titanic: The classic film series closes its Barbara Stanwyck/Clifton Webb season with 1953’s Titanic, starring both actors. No Celine Dion songs in this version of the tale, thankfully. (7:30 p.m. on May 12 in the Community Room of the Phillip Sheridan School, 3200 Elmwood Ave., Kenmore; oldchestnut.com)

Thursday Night Terrors—Re-Animator: Perhaps the only surprise regarding Terrors’ screening of Re-Animator is that the film wasn’t part of the series’ first lineup last fall. That tells you how strong the series is, doesn’t it? In any event, it’s a fitting conclusion for the second installment of Thursday Night Terrors. Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film is a gruesome horror classic, and one with real laughs. (7:30 p.m. on May 25 at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main St.; facebook.com/thursdaynightterrors)

Hot Docs: North America’s largest documentary festival runs through May 7, and the full lineup should now be ready to peruse at hotdocs.ca. Subjects include the late Whitney Houston, comedian Gilbert Gottfried, and the Grateful Dead. (April 27-May 7; for schedule and locations, visit hotdocs.ca)

TCM Big Screen Classics—Smokey and the BanditOne could argue with the classification of Smokey and the Bandit as a “classic,” but there’s no debating the film’s fun factor. It’s the fortieth anniversary of the Burt Reynolds-Sally Field blockbuster, and there’s no better way to celebrate than to see Reynolds’ epic ’stache on the big screen. (2 and 7 p.m. on May 21 and 24 at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville; fathomevents.com)

Roycroft Film Society—Cache: If you’ve pondered taking in a Roycroft Film Society screening but haven’t made it yet, a can’t-miss arrives on May 7. Michael Haneke’s Cache is perhaps the most conversation-ready (and ambiguous) picture to date from the director of Amour and The White Ribbon, and it has earned placement on the list of the finest films of the 2000s. Starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, Cache (which means “hidden”) is the story of a French couple who are confronted with a series of anonymous videotapes on their doorstep. What’s depicted on those tapes, and how they connect with the childhood of Auteuil’s character, make the 2005 release one of the most haunting films ever made. (4 p.m. on May 7 at Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Ave., East Aurora; roycroftcampuscorp.com)

Der RosenkavalierThe latest hi-res satellite broadcast from the Met sees opera icon Renée Fleming in one of her signature roles. During intermission—run time is four hours-plus—audiences can enjoy interviews with the cast, crew, and production teams. (12:30 p.m. on May 13 at the Fredonia Opera House, 9 Church St., Fredonia;fredopera.org; 12:30 p.m. on May 13 and 6:30 p.m. on May 17 at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville; fathomevents.com)

Two Toronto festivals: There are two festivals worth the drive to Toronto this month: the Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs from May 4 to 14 (tjff.com) while the Toronto LGBT Film Festival is May 25 to June 4 (insideout.ca/initiatives/Toronto). (Check websites for schedules and locations)

Family-Friendly Film Series: The second Saturday of each month features a free family film at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Crane Branch; call 883-6651 with questions or for more information about the movie selections. (11 a.m. on May 13 at Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Crane Branch, 633 Elmwood Ave.; buffalolib.org)

The Nitrate Picture Show: The George Eastman Museum’s festival of film conservation is back for year three, and the fest once again features vintage nitrate prints from the Eastman’s world-renowned collection. The three days also feature lectures and workshops. (May 1 to 7 at the at the George Eastman Museum, 900 East Ave., Rochester; eastman.org/nps)

Phyllis Nagy on CarolTIFF’s Books on Film series features Nagy, the renowned playwright and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, and a screening of Carol, the film she adapted for director Todd Haynes. She will discuss the process of bringing Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt to the screen. (7 p.m. on May 8 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., Toronto; tiff.net)

Twin Peaks and more at the North Park: David Lynch returns to the world of Twin Peaks this month with the debut of a series continuation on Showtime. But before it airs, revisit the savagely reviewed (at the time) masterpiece that is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Time has been very kind to Lynch’s prequel about the last days of Laura Palmer, and Fire is now rightfully considered one of his finest, boldest films. It screens at the North Park on May 1. In other NP news, acclaimed horror film The Void is set for screenings on May 1, 2, and 3. And a series of Deconstructing the Beatles documentaries screen at various times  on May 1 through 4. Check northparktheatre.org for times and details. (Twin Peaks: 7 p.m. on May 1; The Void: May 1, 2, and 3;Deconstructing the Beatles: May 1, 2, 3, and 4; all at the North Park Theatre, 1428 Hertel Ave.; northparktheatre.org)

Thursday Night Terrors—House of Wax: The horror screening series goes back to 1953 for this Vincent Price chiller, which is being presented in 3D. How cool is that? (7:30 and 9:30 p.m. on May 11 at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main St.; facebook.com/thursdaynightterrors)

The Screening Room: The John Coltrane documentary Chasing Trane is the most noteworthy film on May’s Screening Room schedule, but the month also includes a “night at the grindhouse” on May 12 and a special movie trivia night on May 18. Plus, the Marilyn Monroe-starring, Niagara Falls-highlighting Niagara is set for May 26 and 27. (Dates follow in June, as well.) Chasing Trane: May 5-7, 9, and 11; Niagara: May 26-27; see screeningroom.net for times and additional info; all events at the Screening Room, 880 Alberta Dr., Amherst)

In the Steps of Trisha Brown at Hallwalls: Marie-Hélène Rebois’s documentary focuses on the life revolutionary choreographer Brown, using archival production footage as well as rehearsal footage of Brown herself. (7 p.m. on May 9 and 10 at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave.; hallwalls.org)

May at Squeaky Wheel: Villa Maria College will hold a film and animation screening on May 13, while Kathleen Collins’s landmark 1982 independent film Losing Ground is May 17. (Villa Maria: 1 p.m. on May 13; Losing Ground: 7 p.m. on May 17; at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center, 617 Main St.; squeaky.org)

90th Anniversary Celebration and silent movie at the Riviera Theatre: Norma Shearer’s silent classic Upstage was the opening night film at the Riviera ninety years ago. It returns to the Riv on May 5, with Clark Wilson accompanying on the Mighty WurliTzer. Another silent film (TBA) and Mighty WurliTzer concert takes place on May 5, while Pixar’s Inside Out screens on May 7. (Silent film and concert: 7:30 p.m. on May 5; Celebration and Upstage: reception at 6:30 p.m., film at 8 p.m., on May 5; Inside Out: 3 p.m. on May 7; all at the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., N. Tonawanda; rivieratheatre.org)