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‘I’m just like a kid’: Billy Dee Williams chronicles his ‘full life’ in new memoir

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Billy Dee Williams first started on a Broadway stage when he was 7, blasted off into the “Star Wars” universe as one of its most charismatic personalities, and in between hasn’t had a whole lot of time to be bored.

“I would say it’s been a full life,” Williams says, an understatement considering his packed new memoir What Have We Here? Portrait of a Life” (out Tuesday). “I don’t normally talk about myself, but I think this is probably a good time.”

The 86-year-old actor, painter and now author regales readers with details about his many loves and his great works: how he made grown men cry with “Brian’s Song,” made sweet music with Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues,” and had quite the galactic debut as Lando Calrissian thanks to “The Empire Strikes Back.”

There are tales of hanging with icons and legends like Duke Ellington and Barbra Streisand, being “best buddies” with his son (and sometime stuntman) Corey, but also tough times finding work as a Black performer during the civil-rights era. And fans might not have to wait long for a sequel: Williams hopes to also put out a coffee-table book that “tells my story through my paintings.” (He has more than 300 pieces of art to choose from there.)

He’s also now “at that stage where I’m thinking about legacy and all that kind of stuff.” Williams recalls a time while growing up in Harlem when he first read J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and identified with main character Holden Caulfield. 

“I remember reading about that kid and I thought, nah, that’s me. A kid that’s always having an adventure. Without malice, but with a kind of innocence and naivete,” Williams says. “And I’m still that way, actually, to tell you the truth. I’m just like a kid. I’m like a sponge – this person who’s interested in life, interested in what’s going on.”

Williams chats with USA TODAY about his close family ties, famous friends and what his future holds.

Early on, you write about having the mindset of “Do a good job. Make Mommy proud. Entertain the audience.” Do you feel you kept that throughout your career?

She got me started in this business. When she was young, she had dreams of being a movie star, but of course, in those years that wasn’t possible. But she studied opera for many years, and she was very pretty and a sweetheart of a person. So for her, I lived out a lot of her aspirations.

I come from a really great family. I’m the last of everybody right now. If I had to come back to this life again, I’d want the same exact same parents, my mommy and my daddy, my grandmommy and my twin sister. They really shaped my life, and I feel very fortunate.

You come clean on having “a weakness when it came to love and romance,” and are honest about affairs, infidelities and your marriages. Was that difficult being so open about matters of the heart?

At this stage in my life, I find it all amusing and I think probably anybody who knows me will find it amusing. I’m pretty whimsical about these things, really. But I never do anything out of pure selfishness. It’s more about curiosity than anything else. Life for me has really been this wonderful, interesting adventure.

That’s for sure: On one page, you write about having your first ménage à trois and on the very next you’re being attacked by a girlfriend with scissors.

Well, it’s entertainment. (Laughs) And I managed to live through it.

Marlon Brando was an early idol of yours. So how trippy was it when he hit on you at a party once?

I had a great admiration for Brando, and James Baldwin, a very close friend of mine, was writing for Columbia Pictures the life of Malcolm X. He wanted me to play Malcolm X. Jimmy took me up to (Brando’s) house, he was having a party, and it was really quite interesting. He and I ended up sitting in his library and having a long chat that lasted about an hour. He was like a little kid. He was wonderful. But he’s an Aries and I’m an Aries so there was that kind of kinship.

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You write about how Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher partied with the Rolling Stones the night before your first day working with them on “Empire Strikes Back.” How much fun was that experience? 

Meeting the original cast from the first “Star Wars” movie was a big thrill. I loved Carrie. She was a really wonderful young woman, and extremely bright. And Harrison and I became good friends. 

Anytime you do a character, you bring a lot of yourself. But I wanted to really do something a little bit special with Lando. He was a person of the future, really, basically. And then of course, when I got the cape, that was like Errol Flynn time for me. I was trying to really make a real hero, a dubious hero, which is always best because it makes the character much more interesting. I wanted to give that character a certain vulnerability, and I think it worked out just fine. Even though I got accused of betraying Han Solo for a while there.

Do you feel you and your generation paved the way for Black actors who finally found more of a foothold in Hollywood during the 1990s and 2000s?

I guess I paved the way for a lot of stuff, for a lot of Black actors. But I don’t really think along those lines necessarily. I’m just a free spirit who’s a creative person in search of doing stuff that’s interesting creatively. That’s pretty much where I put my energy. I don’t get into politicizing, it’s just not in my nature.

Do you ever think you’ll retire?

No. (Pauses) I don’t know. From day to day, I live from moment to moment. Each moment will dictate to me what and how I should conduct my life. The main thing is to stay healthy and that’s what I’m trying to do.

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