Billy Dee Williams was tagged as the "black Clark Gable" early in his career, and the description wasn't that far off the mark: His striking good looks, wealth of charisma, and easygoing acting style made him an overnight leading man of the old school. After his star turn in the 1971 TV tearjerker Brian's Song, Williams worked both ends of the Hollywood spectrum, from low-budget blaxploitation fare like The Final Comedown and Hit! to mainstream dramas with African-American casts like Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. He had all the makings of a classic movie star.
But then George Lucas came calling, and Williams was vaulted into a whole other universe with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
And that's what's bringing him to Knoxville for the Fanboy Expo (May 31-June 2), where he will be signing autographs: the undying fervor of Star Wars fans who want to see Lando Calrissian in person. (And he's not the only genre celebrity at the convention—there's also Lee Majors, Nicholas Brendon, Roddy Piper, Margot Kidder, and nearly an entire crew of zombies from The Walking Dead, among many others.) We asked him a few questions about this new occupation of being an autograph-signer.
Do you ever feel frustration with Star Wars perhaps overshadowing the rest of your filmography?
Not at all. I am very happy to have been part of the most successful film franchise in the world! George Lucas and Irvin Kershner were masters of their craft and I am lucky to have been a part of it. Also, you will notice that I am still very active in keeping Lando alive. I have voiced him for Star Wars video games, TV shows, and the new series Detours, and even in a slot machine that you can play in Vegas! I would not have done those things if I felt that it overshadowed me or what I have done. I was an icon in the industry before I did Star Wars; that role just put me in a different realm of demographics. Lando means so much to me and I hope to be able to reprise him on the big screen again should J.J. Abrams feel that having Lando in Star Wars VII is viable. I sure hope so!
What's it like to attend these fan conventions and autograph sessions?
I think it's great. I've been able to travel around the world to meet fans and it always amazes me on how many there are. I enjoy seeing the different things they bring in to be signed and I enjoy being out there having Lando live on!
What kind of interaction with fans do you have at these shows?
Most fans bring things to me to be signed and we also do photo ops. Some ask questions, and I don't mind answering them. The kids are the best part—they are so cute and have the best questions.
What sort of expectations do they have of you? Any weird experiences?
Fans always state how good I still look. I may not see it that way, but it makes me feel good. They have no real expectations. I think they are just happy to meet these icons that they grew up with.
Have you ever wanted to get the autograph of someone else at one of these shows? Did you get it?
I am not an autograph collector. But from time to time I do like to buy some cool toys for my grandkids.
Why do you think autographs are something people want and are willing to pay for?
I have never really thought about it. I think its just their way of being close to the characters they hold so dear. Actors have been signing autographs for decades, even back in the day of the silver screen—people like Clark Gable and John Wayne all had to do it. I would imagine we all feel it an honor to have fans that want just that small piece of us.