Billy Dee Williams
Moving freely between the gritty, street-level world of Blaxploitation and the dreamy realms of science fiction and comic book fantasy, Billy Dee Williams enjoyed a diverse five-decade career in legitimate theatre, television and cinema, often being called the "black Clark Gable. " A talented artist whose work went on to hang in museums around the world, Williams was compelled by poverty to turn his back on a potential career as a painter to make a living as an actor in New York. Studying briefly with Sidney Poitier, Williams seemed poised at one point to inherit Poitier's mantle of Hollywood's go-to black leading man after prominent roles in "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) and "Mahogany" (1975) with Diana Ross and by reinterpreting Poitier's famous "Homer Smith" character in the 1979 telefilm "Christmas Lilies of the Field," Ralph Nelson's belated sequel to "Lilies of the Field" (1963). The actor's classical good looks and roguish appeal won him a prominent part in the "Star Wars" (1977) sequels "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983), which cemented his status as an American cultural icon. Maturing over the years from firebrand leading man to assured character player, Williams' innate sense of humor about his career choices and reputation as a ladies man allowed him to remain a familiar face and a beloved presence in films and on television long after he ceased being an A-list actor.