The Enduring, Intergalactic Cool of Billy Dee Williams

As the legendary actor returns to Star Wars, he talks about his masculine and feminine sides, the legacy of Lando, and how after 82 years he’s never lost his style.

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Billy Dee Williams’s guide to being cool involves one simple step: “Be yourself.” He tells me this while sipping a Tito’s vodka neat with a little bit of Emergen-C sprinkled into it (a perhaps healthier choice than the Colt 45 with which he will be eternally associated after a string of ads for the drink in the ’80s). “I never tried to be anything except myself. I think of myself as a relatively colorful character who doesn’t take himself or herself too seriously.”

That’s a humble way of putting it. For nearly half a century, he’s been one of the coolest actors ever to appear onscreen. As Lando Calrissian, the suave, cape-wearing hero of the Star Wars universe, he’s immortalized as the quintessential figure of intergalactic chic. But beyond the sci-fi saga that has captivated generations, he’s a prolific actor and artist—he even designs his own clothes, showing up to our early-October photo shoot in a beautiful brown belted overcoat he made himself. When he starts telling me about what it takes to be cool, we’re at the beginning of our interview at the Russian Tea Room in midtown Manhattan. He’s already had a long day of graciously appeasing legions of fans at New York Comic Con. Williams hasn’t been to the restaurant in “a hundred years,” he says, but it was a regular haunt of his as a 20-something Broadway actor. (He lived a few blocks away before moving to California in 1971.)

The place hasn’t changed much since then; his favorite dish, the chicken Kiev, is still on the menu. In fact, he was so excited about this dish that we called the restaurant beforehand to make sure they could still make it. And, of course, I order it, too, because if Williams says you try the chicken Kiev, only a fool wouldn’t order the chicken Kiev. Over the course of our nearly-four hours of drinking and eating, we have more vodka, a bottle of red picked by Williams, caviar, a cheese plate, and a boozy dessert. Williams knows how to entertain. He knows how to eat. And he certainly knows how to drink. Sitting to my left in a plush, red booth, he seems like he runs the place, like it’s one of Lando’s regular joints in a far off galaxy. He’s kind to the fawning restaurant staff. And, when a group comes in, wearing what appears to be attire from a wedding or a formal party, Williams notes—always with an eye for style—that they look chic. Some of the paintings that’ve inspired his own artwork cover almost every inch of the green walls—like the Tamara de Lempicka portrait of a woman reclining opposite us. Williams grew up about 50 blocks north of here, on the edge of Harlem, where he learned what it meant to be cool from the guys on the streets who had “a little more smoothness about them.” After first appearing on Broadway as a boy, he went to school for painting, something he’s done regularly and to much acclaim throughout his acting career. Though, he admits, he doesn’t paint as much as he should these days.

What haven’t diminished at age 82 are his style, his confidence, and his effortless charm. In a simple tan button-up, with his hair slicked back, Williams continues his analysis of cool: “And you see I say ‘himself’ and ‘herself,’ because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine. I’m a very soft person. I’m not afraid to show that side of myself.”

When I point out that Donald Glover talked about that type of gender fluidity when playing a young Lando in 2018’s Solo, Williams lights up. “Really? That kid is brilliant—just look at those videos,” he says, referencing Glover’s “This Is America” (as Childish Gambino).

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Although he will forever be known as Lando, Williams is proudest of his Emmy-nominated performance as Gale Sayers in the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song. “It was a love story, really. Between two guys. Without sex. It ended up being a kind of breakthrough in terms of racial division,” he tells me. The same could be said about his portrayal of Lando in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, which marked the inclusion of a complex black character in a genre that was—and remains—notoriously white. In fact, over the summer, when he was at Disney’s D23 Expo in support of the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (for which he is reprising his iconic role), he hung out with the Rock and Jamie Foxx, both of whom said their careers are indebted to Lando. “The Rock calls me the OG,” Williams says. “What I presented on that screen people didn’t expect to see. And I deliberately presented something that nobody had experienced before: a romantic brown-skinned boy.”

J. J. Abrams, who is directing the conclusion to the Skywalker saga, told me via email that Williams’s charisma and charm are unmatched. While Abrams says he can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for people of color to see a character like Lando onscreen in 1980, he recognizes Williams’s place in film history. “Lando was always written as a complex, contradictory, nuanced character. And Billy Dee played him to suave perfection,” Abrams says. “It wasn’t just that people of color were seeing themselves represented; they were seeing themselves represented in a rich, wonderful, intriguing way. Also, he has the best smile in Hollywood.”

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Before he was even cast, Williams was a fan of George Lucas, beginning with 1971’s THX 1138. And director Irvin Kershner thought the actor had the right style for Lando, so Williams didn’t even have to audition for Empire. “He knew I could pull off someone who was likable and charming. The most interesting characters are those who are dubious . . . but you want the audience to really fall in love with them,” Williams tells me. (For the record, he understands why Lando had to double-cross Han and Leia. “He was up against Darth Vader. I don’t blame him for what he did.”) Kershner went to Williams’s house to persuade him to be in the film; it didn’t take much, the actor says, to get him to appear in one of the most anticipated sequels of all time. On set, he befriended costars Carrie Fisher (who he says had a brilliant mind) and Harrison Ford (whom he still considers a dear friend), and he avoided workplace gossip. “As far as I’m concerned, I mean, I don’t care what people are—if they’re fucking each other and they’re sucking each other, whatever they’re doing, that’s fine with me. I don’t care,” he says of Fisher and Ford’s romance, as described in her memoir.

If they’re fucking each other and they’re sucking each other …that’s fine with me.

Now, for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, he’ll play Lando once again. Between Jedi and the events of the new trilogy, Williams says, “I always imagined Lando being like Steve Wynn, running Las Vegas. Because he’s a gambler. But he was a bit of a showman, a bit of an entrepreneur. That’s how I see Lando. I never necessarily saw him as a general running around shooting things.”

We don’t know exactly what’s behind Lando’s return to the franchise, but trailers show the hero back in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Stepping onto that set again, Williams says, was cool—but also work. “You’re bringing something that helps move the vision that the director or producer or writer is looking for. I’m there not only for myself, but I’m there to help them bring their project to life in a way that they’re looking for.”

He admired the atmosphere Abrams (or the young mogul, as Williams calls him) created on set. “At the end of the day, there’s music that’s turned on. Everybody’s dancing and singing,” Williams says, reminding me that he once played himself in an episode of Lost. His only worry in returning to the iconic character was that he still had the fire to bring a powerful performance to the conclusion of the saga, “Do I have that same hunger, excitement, that I had years earlier?,” Williams asked himself. “This is a very difficult time for me, as far as age is concerned. When you get to be a certain age, whether you want to think about mortality or not, you think about it.”

When our food finally comes, Williams takes a bite of the chicken Kiev he remembered so fondly from his younger days, and makes a comment that could work as a good thesis statement for our entire conversation, or the nature of nostalgia like Star Wars taking hold of this moment in popular culture: “An original moment is tricky. Because you’re really trying to recall or remember your palate, your sensibility, trying to recapture something that happened a long time ago,” he tells me. “And when you anticipate it, you think you’re going to be in that moment. I’m right at that moment. So what I’m tasting is not that moment. I’m tasting this moment. And I’m happy about this moment but it’s not what I remember.”

In preparation for his return to Star Wars, Williams went on a strict healthy diet, and shared videos of himself training in a boxing gym. “When I have to go to work, my ego tells me I want to look pretty good. I don’t want to look bad. I don’t want to look like a slob,” he says, even though none of these have been adjectives ever associated with Billy Dee Williams. But, he hopes the videos of himself training serve as a reminder that people his age are capable of taking care of themselves, that there’s a way to go through later years of life happy and healthy.

Having built his career playing pivotal examples of TV and film diversity, Williams is well aware of what the new trilogy’s young leads went through—namely, racism and sexism from online trolls—when they were launched into the spotlight. “You’re always going to have people making stupid comments,” he says. “One deals with indignities all the time. Do you sit around with vengeance in your soul? You can’t do that. I’m not forcing people to listen to my point of view, but if I can present it in some creative fashion—I’m the painter, tweaking, adding, contributing, putting in something that you haven’t thought about, maybe.”

Thinking about struggles in the world around him, Williams mentions his encounter with Donald Trump at an event in the ’80s: “He was very charming. And very good at being charming. You know the story of Narcissus? Who looked at himself in the water, fell in love with himself, and then fell in and drowned? I mean, this might be one of those kinds of things.”

As for what’s next, Williams is writing a memoir. And he also has a collection of 300 paintings that he says is his legacy.

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So is this the end of Lando? Williams says he doesn’t know exactly how the story ends for his hero. He loved the scripts he read, he’s proud of the work he did, but, “another thing about movies, there’s a lot of editing and cutting,” he says, laughing as he eats a cup of passion-fruit sorbet with a shot of vodka poured on top. For me: a double espresso with Grand Marnier that he insisted I try (I didn’t sleep that night).

By this time, we’re both warm from the hours of drinking—I’m astonished I was able to keep up with Billy Dee Williams, even if he’s 82 years old. And before he says goodbye, he wants to sign one more autograph in a long day of doing just that. He realizes that during the shoot and convention, where everyone was clamoring for his name, written by his own hand on a piece of paper, I never asked for one. That’s not my style, I tell him, this dinner and story is memento enough. He grabs my notebook that I haven’t opened once during dinner, signs his name with the note, “Nothing but the truth.” And he gives me a hug.

Back to the question at hand though: Is this the end for Lando Calrissian? Williams has an answer in his own wry way.

“It’s a conclusion—certainly it depends on how much money is generated. That’s when they determine where’s the conclusion,” he says with a wink. “The one thing about show business, you can resurrect anything.”

NHS nurse, 35, killed herself after the stress of working 12-hour hospital shifts stopped her from settling down to have a family, inquest hears

 

  • Nurse Leona Goddard, 35, hanged herself at family home in Greater Manchester
  • Worked at mental health unit at Prestwich Hospital and was recently promoted
  • Ms Goddard had seen GP before death and said she ‘had nightmares about work’
  • For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, see http://www.samaritans.org for details.

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A dedicated NHS mental health nurse killed herself after the stress of working 12 hour hospital shifts stopped her from settling down, an inquest has heard.

Leona Goddard, 35, wanted to have a family but struggled to have a social life after being landed with unpredictable work hours and extra responsibilities.

Although colleagues at Prestwich Hospital in Manchester rated her as ‘outstanding’ Miss Goddard developed low self esteem due to the long hours.

Ms Goddard was found hanged at her family home by mother Corrine Goodridge on October 3 2018, just six months after she got a promotion.

A hand written note across two pages of A4 paper detailed her ‘negative feelings, a downward spiral and feelings of self loathing.’

The inquest was told Miss Goddard had wanted to work as an occupational therapist but studied nursing and psychology and graduated at Manchester university in 2012.

A college friend Danielle Hinds said: ‘Although she finished the course she never actually enjoyed the role. She felt trapped by qualifications and experience.

‘Leona struggled with shifts she was given and found it difficult to maintain a social life around them.

The NHS mental health nurse was rated ‘outstanding’ by her colleagues but was struggling with the pressures of her demanding schedule and new role after receiving a promotion

 

‘She was saving money for a house deposit and she was looking for a home she wanted to live in but didn’t find anything and it was difficult for her to carry out her search because of shifts she was assigned to.

‘Over the years we had a few conversations and when she felt at her worst she would make flippant jokes about pills and wine being her way out.’

A doctor’s reporter was read to the hearing which said that Miss Goddard had been to see her GP in the weeks leading up to her death.

She said she felt ‘unsupported’ and ‘had nightmares about work’ and was offered anti depressants but she refused saying if work ‘got sorted out she would feel better.’

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Claire Hilton, a ward manager at Prestwich hospital, pictured, said: ‘Leona was promoted to senior staff nurse in June 2018. She was really valued. We have nothing but fond memories’

 

Ms Goddard’s ex-boyfriend Peter Schaffer, who ended their relationship a week before her death, also spoke at the inquest.

He said: ‘Leona had a wish to have children one day and start a family of her own and no doubt she would have been a great mother.

‘But when she was working for the NHS, there was changing shift patterns and she felt frustration at the unpredictability of shifts.

‘A new position was offered to give her new skills and responsibilities. She did want to stay in mental health and the NHS, but in a capacity that would give her more of a social life.

‘The only reason she stayed in the job that was not healthy for her was a light at the end of the tunnel. There were many difficulties when she started in the new position and she was left increasing amount of responsibilities, workload, absence of training – and not long after she was signed off work.

‘We had long conversations to try to help her to find other opportunities but over the weeks communication was deteriorating and I ended the relationship.

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Ms Goddard had visited her GP before her death and revealed  she felt ‘unsupported’ and ‘had nightmares about work’

 

‘She was upset and my intention was to give her space and then have a conversation about it. But tragically she took her own life a week later and that never materialised.’

Claire Hilton, a ward manager in charge of drug and alcohol issues at Prestwich hospital said: ‘Leona started in June 2016 and was promoted to senior staff nurse in June 2018.

‘She was very capable and on August 16 and 17 performed as the duty manager. It was a very challenging time and we did speak after this.

‘Both of us felt she was struggling in a lack of confidence in her own capabilities – although it was not justified. She was more than capable.

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‘On September 7, I received a call from Leona that she had seen her GP. Her mood was low and she was feeling anxious she was signed off for two weeks.

‘She phoned in September 20 but was not ready to come back and I anticipated another sick note. On the Monday I got a text asking if I was working and if free to meet that day.

‘She said she felt low and had not been out of bed for a week beforehand. Her death was a shock for colleagues and patients.

‘She was really valued, rated as outstanding and we had started a memory book with pictures and recollections for her family. We have nothing but fond memories for Leona.’

While work colleague Sianne Donovan said: ‘Leona’s job pattern and shifts were a big factor in her unhappiness even before she got the promotion.

‘She definitely felt unsupported and many times I told her to leave and find something else. She was looking for other jobs when she called me and was signed off when she definitely needed some rest.

‘When Leona split with her boyfriend had never heard her so upset. I encouraged her to get some air but she didn’t want anybody to see her crying.’

Leona’s mother Corrine Goodridge said: ‘The job at Prestwich involved her treating patients with drug and alcohol issues.

‘She got a promotion six months before her death but I think she was in two minds about it and I was not sure she was feeling positive about it.

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Recording a conclusion of suicide coroner Angharad Davis said it was ‘absolutely tragic’ that Leona, pictured, ‘didn’t recognise what a wonderful person she was’

 

‘The shift work in particular got her down as she did a 12 hour shift. Leona had not had any long term steady relationship and the most recent one ended by text message.

‘Despite the fact Leona might have been stressed at work none of us fully realised she was feeling depressed and sad. Her death has affected the whole family deeply all miss her, asking why this happened.’

Police coroners officer Marie Logan said: ‘Sadly Leona seems to have been suffering from low self esteem and depression and had been off sick at work.

‘She had difficulties coping with her recent promotion she had but these feelings were born out of her – rather than by other people.

‘She was seen as very much a clever, caring and very competent nurse and her colleagues felt the promotions as justified as she was more than capable.

‘Leona’s feelings were entirely about herself. The note she left indicated depression and low mood and things she felt she needed to do to get her life on track.

Recording a conclusion of suicide coroner Angharad Davis said: ‘Leona worked as a nurse in alcohol rehabilitation and recently been promoted to team manager.

‘Colleagues describe her as a bright, clever, caring nurse but it is clear from the evidence that the job role was causing Leona stress because of the difficulties working and the stress of the job itself.

‘Also Leona did not share the same views of herself as the colleagues had of her.

‘Have considered all the evidence read and heard it seems that Leona was under a great deal of stress going on for a long time. She had very low self esteem and did not recognise in herself the person that everybody else saw.

‘She was a young women who made a career helping people who were in trouble. It’s absolutely tragic that she didn’t recognise what a wonderful person she was.’

For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, see http://www.samaritans.org for details.