Billy Dee Williams Is the Best Kind of Name-Dropper — a Bookish One

Billy Dee Williams might be best known for his roles in “Star Wars,” “Brian’s Song” and “Mahogany,” but his best-selling memoir proves that he has bookish chops as well. In “What Have We Here?,” the 86-year-old actor, who landed his first Broadway role at 7, looks back on a lifetime of art, music, barrier breaking and hobnobbing, occasionally with iconic authors. Williams unfurls some entertaining yarns about his share of thespians, too, but, for the purposes of this column, Maya Angelou trumps Harrison Ford. (Angelou threatened to have Williams fired after he poured a bag of sugar over a co-star’s head during a production of Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks.”)

Of all the stories attached to the household names in Williams’s 15-page index, the ones about James Baldwin are the most poignant. “He saw me in a musical called ‘Hallelujah, Baby!’ with Leslie Uggams, and he came backstage to meet me,” Williams said in a phone interview. Baldwin was adapting “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” for Columbia Pictures: “He wanted me to play Malcolm.”

The studio had other ideas, Williams writes, going so far as to propose Marlon Brando for the role, but, in the meantime, Williams and Baldwin became close friends. Williams describes their escapades: ordering custom-made suits, dining with Gore Vidal (whom Williams liked more than Norman Mailer) and traveling for four months, from Paris to New York to Los Angeles.

In the spring of 1968, the men were lounging by a pool in Palm Springs when they learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. “We were shocked, obviously,” Williams said. “It was a very, very moving situation.”

Baldwin later described the day in an essay for Esquire — the brightness of the sun, their jubilance in the moments before the phone rang, the way the music seemed to stop: “Yet, though I know — or I think — the record was still playing, silence fell.” He continued, “I remember weeping, briefly, more in helpless rage than in sorrow, and Billy comforting me.”

In his memoir, Williams writes of Baldwin, “His intellect was like a giant roller coaster. It drew you in, and then you just held on for a thrilling ride.”

Weary as he might be from another thrilling ride — his book tour — Williams sounded eager to get cracking on a project he’s been percolating for 20 years. “It’s a coffee-table book,” he said. “It talks about my life through my paintings. Now that I’m having all of this wonderful response to ‘What Have We Here?,’ I think I’d like to go ahead and do that.”

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