Billy Dee Williams approached Lando Calrissian, his character in The Empire Strikes Back, as a swaggering intergalactic buccaneer. “When I got the cape, that sort of solidified it,” Billy tells Closer. “I started thinking of him as a swashbuckler — devoid of all of the discussions about race. I wanted to create a bigger-than-life character.”

An actor, artist and author, Billy, 87, has been leading a very large life, starting from his childhood in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. “Even at my age, I continue to stay open and childlike,” he says. “I’m still embracing and understanding life.” The performer, who was honored at the TCM Classic Film Festival, recently released his memoir, What Have We Here? Portraits of a Life.

What was your childhood like?

“I had a really wonderful upbringing in New York City, on 110th Street between Lenox and Fifth avenues, right across the street from Central Park. Mommy, Daddy, Grandmommy, me and my twin sister, Lady. They are the ones that shaped my life. My sister was eight minutes older than me. Lady was her nickname. We had a great relationship.”

You started acting at age 7. How did that come about?

“My mom was interested in becoming a movie star — she studied opera for many, many years. She was working in New York for Ben Boyer and Max Gordon, who were producers and theater managers. They were putting on this musical called The Firebrand of Florence and they needed a little boy. So she had me audition. They had me walk across the stage two times, but because I was so enamored, I decided I wanted to walk across the third time. So at that point, I started crying. I’ve always said that I cried my way into show business!”

Did you ever want to follow in your mother’s footsteps as a singer?

“When I was a little boy I did. And later on, when I was in A Taste of Honey on Broadway, I sang [the title song] to Joan Plowright. In 1961, I did an album called Let’s Misbehave With Billy Dee Williams.”

You studied acting with Sidney Poitier. That must have been thrilling.

“He was teaching classes just as he was about to have a big success in movies. I was part of the young people who were his students at the time. We were all a part of the Stanislavski school of acting — Method acting. He was a real proponent of that approach. He was about 10 years older than us, and we had tremendous admiration for him.”

Billy Dee Williams on How He Cried His Way Into Show Business
Presley Ann/Getty Images for TCM

You also studied painting. Were you more drawn to performing or fine arts?

“My whole life has revolved around the arts since I was a child. So I don’t know, I just did what I did. I didn’t think so much about wanting to be, I was just someone who’s simply being. I studied painting at the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design, where I spent two years. [During that time] I managed to get extra work on television.”

What do you remember about your big break in the TV movie Brian’s Song with James Caan?

“Lou Gossett was slated to play my character, but he injured himself playing basketball. I auditioned. When Jimmy Caan and I met, we had a great chemistry. It was just before he filmed The Godfather. [Brian’s Song] was a perfect film. It was a beautiful love story between two people who aren’t gay.”
You and James were both nominated for an Emmy but didn’t win.

“We should have gotten it. They couldn’t make a decision about who they should give it to between the two of us, so they decided to give it to an English actor [Keith Michell] who did The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which I thought was stupid.”

That year, you also costarred with Diana Ross in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues.

“We had a really wonderful time together. There was great chemistry between the two of us. That’s when I emerged as this romantic figure in movies. Nothing like that had ever happened before for a brown-skinned boy like me.”

You were called the Black Clark Gable. Were you flattered?

“It was OK, but I thought I was an original! I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. But interestingly enough, I would go to a supermarket and somebody would run up to me and say, ‘You’re the Black Clark Gable!’

You reunited with Diana for the film Mahogany in 1975.

“We had a nice time in Rome, Chicago and here in Hollywood. Diana was involved with [the film’s director] Berry [Gordy] at the time. I remember when Berry was directing the scene with the two of us kissing, he made sure that I didn’t kiss her for any length of time!”

You’ve been married to your wife, Teruko, since 1972. What’s your secret?

“We don’t see each other. [Laughs] Even in our house, she lives in her quarters and I live in mine. We meet along the way.”

Do you enjoy being a grandfather?

“I love it! When they were little, I thought about not being called ‘Grandpa’ but being called by my name instead. But then when I saw the kids, I said, ‘No, I’m Grandpa!’ There’s Finnegan, he’ll be 17 this fall. Lucy is 13. She’s a very good painter.”

Are you still painting?

“Not as much as I should be. I still do a lot of drawing. There’s another book that I’ve been wanting to do for over 20 years — a coffee-table book based on my life through my paintings.”

Is there anything else on your bucket list?

“I always have wanted to do Duke Ellington’s life story. I met him a couple of times, and I always felt like the only person who could really pull that one off with the right understanding of his sensibility would be me. He was a very charming man, and I think I am a master at that.”