What better way to start off Fan Expo Vancouver 2019 with none other than Billy Dee Williams? To most of us he’s Lando Calrissian, our favourite betrayer of friends (come on, he did it to save his people! Think of the guy with the salad spinner, if Lando hadn’t betrayed Han what would have happened to him?! Yes, I was the girl on the playground), but there is so much more to Billy Dee Williams. A painter, a singer, he’s pretty much done it all and then some. At his Fan Expo Vancouver 2019 panel, he discussed everything from his art, his career and whether or not if given the chance would he take the Millennium Falcon for a spin.
Born on April 6, 1937, in New York City, Billy Dee attended The High School of Music & Art (which would later become the Fiorelle H. LaGuardia High School). He first appeared on Broadway in 1945 in The Fireband and Florence, he would go on to appear in The Cool Word and notably I Have a Dream where he played Martin Luther King Jr.
His film debut came in 1959 in The Last Angry Man. He shot to stardom in the television movie Brian’s Song (1971), a biopic about Gale Sayers who played for the Chicago Cubs. The film was so popular it was given a theatrical release and earned both Billy Dee and co-star James Caan Emmy nominations. It was at this time he became known as one of America’s best known African American actors.
Then came 1980 and the role of a lifetime. Lando Calrissian. Which launched him into becoming an icon in pop culture. In 1989 he also played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman. They had originally planned to develop him into Two-Face Harvey’s alter ego but alas it never happened. Billy Dee did get a chance to play Two-Face in The Lego Batman Movie and the character was even modelled after his appearance.
After seeing his panel at Fan Expo Vancouver, it’s easy to say that Billy Dee is just as charming as Lando is. Or Lando is as charming as he is. They’re both charming. Really charming. Since first appearing as Lando in The Empire Strikes Back, he’d reprise the role in The Return of the Jedi as well as audio dramas, audiobooks, video games and the cartoon Star Wars: Rebels. With the exception of Solo: A Star Wars story, Billy Dee has played Lando every single time he has appeared in something. And he is set to make his return in the upcoming Episode XIV (FINALLY)!
And that brings us to this past weekend’s panel at Fan Expo Vancouver. Obviously a lot of people wanted to know about the upcoming Star Wars movie and obviously, he can’t talk about it. That didn’t stop people from asking though, and really I don’t blame them. He did say that J.J. Abrams is a “sweetheart,” and that he had a lot of fun on set. “I don’t want to tell anyone anything and spoil it for you,” he smiled, “Because it’s going to be so much fun.”
He spoke of how painting had become a “power line” for him and how he drew a lot of inspiration from muralists of the 1920s such as Thomas Hart Betton. His film inspirations were Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He loves old romantic comedies. “I love romance and talking about characters in a romantic way.” It didn’t necessarily have to be love romance, but romantic in the sense that the characters were larger than life. When it comes to inspiration “you’re always going to use someone else’s ideas, but bring it to [your] own point of view.”
Billy Dee said one of the hardest roles he ever played was that of Randall in Slow Dance on the Killing Ground. He described Randall as a very complex individual with a “hole in his heart.” (Apparently there is a CBC recording of this, someone find it!) He said that he thinks the best performance he’s ever given was in 1992’s Giant Steps.
“I just enjoy it,” Billy Dee said when asked about acting and if there were hard parts. “Actors are crazy people. They’re all like little children who want to be patted on the head and told how wonderful they are.” When he was asked about failure Billy Dee replied “I’ve done a lot of failure in my life. Everybody fails. There is nothing unique about failure. You can learn a lot from failure you can either go AHHH! or ahhhh and I chose to go ahhhh.”
We were also treated to two songs from Billy Dee (he has an album on iTunes go buy it!) and to be honest I would have been fine if that was the entire panel.
He talked about how he created a larger than life character named the Bonvivonte who walks through life with his cane observing all the absurdities of life. “I see myself as a walking absurdity which gives me excuses to be a weird old man.”
The panel then concluded with what might have been the one question everyone was waiting for (other than what happens in Episode XIV): When asked if given the chance he would take the Millennium Falcon for a spin, Billy Dee smiled and said “absolutely.”