The actor: Fred Williamson, a former NFL star who became an action hero in countless low-budget Hollywood indies and Italian B-movies in the '70s and '80s. One of Williamson's Italian films, Inglorious Bastards, has just been released on DVD in a three-disc special edition, and has been in the headlines lately due to an upcoming film by Quentin Tarantino that borrows the title and some of the premise.
Inglorious Bastards (1978)—"Pvt. Fred Canfield"
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)—"Frost"
Fred Williamson: It was an opportunity for me to do what I do well, which is to be athletic, fight, shoot, and kick people's ass. The most exciting part of the film for me was jumping off a damn bridge onto a moving train. It was exciting. My adrenaline was flowing like the Super Bowl, man. I was ready to do that.
The A.V. Club: No stuntman?
FW: Never a stuntman when I work. I don't use stunt doubles, man. Because first of all, there's no black actors my size in Hollywood, and certainly none in Italy where we did the film. So I'm forced to do all my stunts. But if I couldn't do all my stunts, I'd do something else, because that's part of the pleasure of being in the movie business, to be fit enough to do stunts. I never used a stuntman.
AVC: You did a lot of those Italian action movies in the '70s and '80s.
FW: Oh yeah, I did that for nearly ten years. I did a series called Black Cobra, which was like a black Clint Eastwood kind of character. Then I did films like 1990: Bronx Warriors. I think they were trying to mold me into being the next Woody Strode, because Woody Strode was aging at that time, and I was going to be the next black gladiator. It was all fun. I was having a great time. I was living a good life in the movie business and having a great time.
AVC: Why did you leave?
FW: Well, because the film market died. Their ability to sell these films to the American market ceased to exist, and even today films that are made in Europe don't do well over here. They don't get distribution. Probably the last popular foreign film from Italy was Il Postino, and by American standards it didn't really make a lot of money. By European standards or Italian standards it did well. Americans are spoiled. We like everything perfect. We like to see the mouth and the words come out at the same time. The Italians, the French, all the other European countries… to them, it doesn't bother them. They don't mind.
AVC: Were you surprised to hear that Quentin Tarantino was borrowing the title for his movie?
FW: I'm not surprised by anything Quentin does, you know? Quentin is Quentin. Quentin jumps on whatever he thinks is popular. He jumped on the '70s movies that we did with the one he did with Pam Grier and Robert Forster [Jackie Brown]. That was throwback stuff. He did stuff in that movie that if we had done the same thing back in the '70s they would've laughed us off the screen. But Quentin knows how to capitalize on the public's mentality. He's good at that.
AVC: Has he asked you to be in the new Inglorious Bastards?
FW: He has not said anything to me. I don't even know if he knows that I was even in it. And I'm getting all these calls from around the world about Quentin doing Inglorious Bastards, but I have not gotten any acknowledgement from Quentin that he even knows that I was in the movie.
AVC: You worked with him on From Dusk Till Dawn, correct?
FW: Right, we became friends and we know each other. It was a good experience.
AVC: What's it like working for somebody who has grown up watching your films?
FW: It helps a lot because he understands who I am. And he knows that I will not do anything that is destructive to my image. No matter what role I play, I have a certain image to maintain. I believe I'm a role model and I take my parts accordingly. So him having seen all the films I had done in the past, he knows what kind of characterization I'm going to bring to the part and to the screen. So he would not dare ask me to do something that's destructive.
AVC: Can you think of one particular rule you have? Something you wouldn't do on film?
FW: You can't kill me, I want to win all my fights, and I get the girl at the end of the movie, if I want her. Those are my three Hollywood rules.
AVC: Those are good rules.
FW: Good for my image, yeah.
Julia (1969-1971)—"Steve Bruce"
FW: That was the beginning of my career. I had just retired from pro football, and I was an architect by trade, with a degree from Northwestern University, and I was working for Bechtel Steel. It was six months of Bechtel Steel and six months of football. That was fine with me. I could do that. When I stopped playing football and that six months turned into nine months, and then that nine months turned into ten months, those walls at the Bechtel Architectural Firm started to close in on me. So I started looking for something else to do. And I said, "Damn, I don't want to sell cars or sell insurance," which is what everybody was walking into after finishing football back in those days, because nobody made any money. So I'm watching TV and I see Julia and I said, "She's got a new boyfriend each week, and hell, I'm better-looking than any of those guys. I'm going to Hollywood and be that girl's boyfriend." So I went to Hollywood and I accomplished that feat in about a week. They signed me to a three-year contract to be Diahann Carroll's boyfriend on the Julia show.
AVC: That show was considered pretty groundbreaking for its time. Do you think it holds up today?
FW: Yeah it holds up pretty well because it was a comedy show but it was not slapstick comedy. It didn't go overboard. I think Diahann Carroll's integrity wouldn't allow her to do anything that was slapstick comedy, and my character certainly would not do that kind of eye-rolling and teeth-grinning kind of comedy, which is where the black infusion into television seemed to go. All that shuffling kind of bullshit. I wasn't doing that, she wasn't doing that, so it was a very sophisticated black show.
AVC: Were there still compromises?
FW: Not in my role. Maybe in Diahann Carroll's. But I think if Diahann Carroll ever had a problem, she would've spoke up and said something about it. My character was a stand-up kind of guy, which is what I am offscreen also, so I didn't do anything that anybody could say, "Hey man, why did you do that?" Because you don't want to come home and hear the boys on the street say, "Hey man, I saw this thing. You let this man kick your ass. Why'd you do that for?" Nobody ever said to me, "Hey man, I saw you in the Julia show, and why'd you do this and why'd you do that?" Your best audience is the one when you go back home, because the boys are going to lay it on you straight.
Star Trek (1969)—"Anka"
FW: I was still playing football when they talked me into doing that. I was the mole man coming out of the wall, and the only reason I agreed to do that was because I got to kick Captain Kirk's ass. So I came out of the wall and jumped on Captain Kirk, kicked his ass, and dragged him away as a captive.
AVC: So you did have some Hollywood connections before coming out to do Julia.
FW: I came out to feel it, to see if they would accept me, and to prove to me how strong they were, they put me in that thing. I don't think I said a word. I don't think I said anything, I just jumped out and kicked his ass and then went back to football. [Laughs] So I still had no real in-roads, you know?
M*A*S*H (1970)—"Capt. Oliver Harmon 'Spearchucker' Jones"
FW: I was at Twentieth Century Fox doing Julia. I'm in the commissary. A guy walks by. He says, "You're The Hammer, right?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I'm doing a movie, I got a football game in it, and I don't know shit about football. Would you put all the football sequences together?" And I said, "Yeah, no problem." The guy who was talking to me was Robert Altman. I got 10 players from the pros and brought them in. I had a semi-pro football team in Santa Barbara. I brought all those guys down, so that all the hitting would be real, all the grunts would be real, and the only fake players in the movie were the actors.
AVC: Did you have any sense making that movie of what a phenomenon it was going to become?
FW: I'm watching it and I'm going, "How's this movie going to work?" Everybody's talking at the same time, everybody's overlapping each other. My whole training has been that you can't overlap. When someone else is talking, you've got to wait until they finish talking and then you talk. Robert Altman had everybody talking at the same time, so you had to see the movie at least five times to decipher what everybody else was saying. I think he was the first to create this overlapping dialogue by miking everybody. Everybody was miked so you talked when you felt like it. It was a great, innovative experience.
AVC: Were you asked to be in the TV show?
FW: I was asked to be on the TV show, and I said, "The TV's too small for me, dawg." I'm 6' 4''. There's ain't no way they could get all of The Hammer onscreen. Forget about it.
Hammer (1972)—"B.J. Hammer"
FW: Oh dude, that was my chance to show that I had boxing talent, because I was a Golden Gloves fighter coming out of Chicago and Gary, Indiana. So this was my time to show that I could do that. You've got to understand this is pre-Rocky. This is before Rocky even knew there was a Rocky. And I was doing my thing as a boxer, as a fighter, and I made it look good. I was copying a little Muhammad Ali stuff, and making it look authentic, and making it look real. But hey man, there's been a whole bunch of boxing movies since that and nobody's ever given me any accolades about doing B.J. Hammer.
AVC: You already had the nickname "The Hammer" before making that movie, right?
FW: "The Hammer" was all about knocking people out on the football field. It was a blow struck perpendicular to the earth's latitude. That's that way I explained it.
AVC: Did you ever hear from Hank Aaron about borrowing his nickname?
FW: I don't remember that they even called him… I think they called him "Hammerin' Hank." That's specific to baseball. They didn't call me "Hammerin' Hammer." It was The Hammer. Hank was baseball, and I was never a baseball fan. I don't watch sports that have incidental contact. Basketball, baseball… You hit somebody and then you got to apologize for it? No, I never was a fan of incidental contact sports.
AVC: So it's all boxing and football for you?
FW: Boxing, football, hockey, rugby, soccer. You take a guy out and it's part of the game.
Black Caesar (1973)—Tommy Gibbs
FW: Black Caesar was my interpretation of Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar. You had a gangster with style, a gangster with class, a gangster who helps little old ladies across the street, a gangster who had morals. No drugs in my neighborhood. This was my interpretation of Little Caesar.
AVC: You got to make so many different kinds of action/adventure movies in that era. What was it like to have that opportunity to do whatever you felt like doing?
FW: It was an opportunity for me, but I was the only one who appeared to grasp the totality of it. Because first of all, I never bought in to the term "black exploitation," because I never knew who they were talking about. Who the hell was being exploited? The actors were being paid. The checks came on time. They were cashable. The fans were excited and thrilled because now all of a sudden you got the black guy still standing after the fight. The smoke clears and everybody else is dead except the black guy. But what they failed to grasp was you can't make them "Get Whitey" movies. This is not an opportunity to retaliate. This is not an opportunity to kill white people and come out a hero. In my films, I was an equal-opportunity ass-kicker. I'd kick white people's ass, black people's ass, pink people's ass, blue people's ass. If you were bad, you got your ass kicked. So my films never really fit into that genre. So I was able to survive after it finished. Because it only ran about five years. I was able to survive because I was an action star, not that "Get Whitey" guy. I was able to continue and move on to other action films, based on the notoriety I had achieved during the '70s.
Three The Hard Way (1974)—"Jagger Daniels"
Original Gangstas (1996)—"John Bookman"
FW: Three The Hard Way was in the middle of that era. Three The Hard Way was about bringing together three popular actors from that era: Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelley. Put the three top-grossing young black guys together in one film and for sure it's going to make money. Not only did it make money, but it's become a classic. I don't think there's less than two percent of the whole black community in America that has not seen Three The Hard Way.
AVC: Did all three of you get along pretty well on the set?
FW: If we didn't get along you'd be reading about it, because we all three of us think we're badass mo-fos. So if we didn't get along, we'd be punching each other out. I guarantee you, we got along.
AVC: You worked with Jim Brown again on Original Gangstas.
FW: I worked with Jim Brown on several films because I understand more than major Hollywood that black actors are marketable. We may not be marketable in $100 million films, but if you are a low-budget filmmaker, making movies under $5 million, there is a market for Jim Brown, Bernie Casey, Richard Roundtree, Billy Dee Williams. There is an audience out there that still wants to see those actors, but Hollywood don't give a shit. If we made a movie, and it made $20 million gross? Hey, we can live off of that. But that's not even enough to pay Universal's light bill. They're not interested in the $20-$30 million grosses that we can make for them. But I am. As an independent guy, if I can make that, I'm a major success.
AVC: How different was it making Original Gangstas from making the kind of films you made in the 70s?
FW: It wasn't big. It cost more, that's all. The only difference between a $5 million film and a $10 million film is the cast. So in Original Gangstas, I put together the old school. I brought in Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Ron O'Neal. I put old school into the film to show Hollywood that these stars are still marketable. And that was the whole purpose of putting them in the film was to show that they were marketable and that we could make money with them. But that went over Hollywood's head. They didn't give a shit.
Supertrain (1979)—"Al Roberts"
FW: I think I had a big-time agent at that time and he thought it might be advantageous to do a film that had… I think Rock Hudson was in it. He thought it would be advantageous to do a film of this nature. I wasn't really excited to do it, but they thought it would be good for my career to be playing opposite some big white names on the screen. It never really did nothing for me. I did the movie, but it didn't do nothing for me.
Fantasy Island (1979)—"Jackson Malone"
FW: I was a boxer. I was a heavyweight champ, I believe. A guy wanted to fight the heavyweight champ, and I was that champ. His fantasy was to fight for the heavyweight title. I think I kicked his ass, I'm not sure.
AVC: Was that fun making Fantasy Island? Did you view it as a vacation or was it just another job?
FW: No, again, at the time it was a very hot show, and I knew that if I was on the show I'd be seen by many people. So that's your first thought as an actor. You don't ever want to put yourself in a position where people say, "Whatever happened to The Hammer? I don't know man, I ain't seen him around. What you been doing?" You don't ever want to be in that situation where people have to say, "Whatever happened to The Hammer?" And so you do things occasionally. If you haven't been putting together the projects you want, you jump onto someone else's project just for the identity factor.
Vegas Vampires (2003)—uncredited (also directed by Williamson)
FW: Vegas Vampires was a film I did for fun. I didn't really make any money, I did it for fun. I had a good time in Vegas. They put me up at the Palms, and I had a good time. Lot of pretty ladies. Las Vegas was open to me, so I just had a good time doing something stupid and doing something fun, and trying to make it look good with no money. That's part of the challenge for me: making a film with no money, and still making it competitive.
AVC: Do you get a lot of opportunities to direct, or do you have to make your own opportunities?
FW: I make my own opportunities. The only reason I got into directing was because when I came into Hollywood I had this image of myself, of what I wanted to be. And I saw that Hollywood wasn't going to accept that. Wasn't going to let me be the hero. So I started directing and producing so I could make my own movies. I know damn well I ain't getting killed in my own damn movies.
AVC: What is Black Kissinger? That's listed on your IMDB page as your next movie.
FW: Black Kissinger is a film the Jamaicans want to do, but the Jamaicans have been dragging their feet. I'm not sure they want to do the film, and in the meantime I'm putting a project together called Spats. Spats is another interpretation of Edward G. Robinson. The modern-day gangster who doesn't deal in drugs, don't want drugs in the neighborhood, and is like the Godfather of the black community in Chicago. And his name is Spats.
AVC: Are you going to direct that too?
FW: Oh hell yeah.
AVC: Does it look good? Do you think you'll be able to do it?
FW: Oh yes, no doubt. It's about 95 percent. Part in Chicago, and part in Dubai My character Spats is now a retired gangster living in Dubai, having a good time enjoying the fruits of his labor when events happen back in Chicago that bring him out of retirement. He has to come back out and retaliate.