Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute

8 Suave Facts About Billy Dee Williams

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute

He might have drawn the ire of viewers everywhere for double-crossing Han Solo as Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, but it’s easy to forgive Billy Dee Williams. The dude has looks and talent to spare. Not only is he legendarily known as “the black Clark Gable,” he’s a veritable performing arts renaissance man whose stage and screen career has spanned more than 70 years.

Williams—who described his career thusly: "I go and I do my work, and I try to do the best I can, and I collect my money and I go home, and then I go on to the next thing. That's my attitude."—turns 80 years old today. To honor his storied career, here are a few facts about the man who is much more than just Lando Calrissian.

1. THE “DEE” STANDS FOR DECEMBER.

Born in New York City in 1937 along with a twin sister named Loretta, Billy Dee Williams’s moniker is half stage name, half given name. Williams’s full name is William December Williams Jr., so named after his father, a janitor from Texas who juggled jobs in Harlem to support his family. Billy and his sister were largely raised by their maternal grandmother.

2. HE BEGAN HIS ACTING CAREER AS A YOUNGSTER, AND THEN PROMPTLY QUIT FOR A DECADE.

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Williams's mother, an aspiring performer also named Loretta, worked as an elevator operator at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, and volunteered her 7-year-old son to appear in the theater’s production of the Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin musical The Firebrand of Florence when she learned they needed children to appear as background page boys.

A much older Williams didn’t think much of the performance in retrospect, telling Mademoiselle in an interview, “They had me walk across the stage twice,” which is perhaps why he abandoned acting altogether afterwards for a decade.

“I think kids should do the things kids do, not be pushed into careers," Williams said in a 1975 interview with Roger Ebert. "I went to school, I played baseball as a kid. I almost ruined my arm, trying to get that professional look. It's still sore!”

3. HE WENT TO SCHOOL TO BE A PAINTER.

Though he made sure to play sports, Williams didn’t abandon the arts altogether. He attended New York City's famed LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the same school featured on the popular television series and movie Fame, and focused on visual arts. He later won a scholarship to the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design in New York to continue his studies with a particular focus on “classical principles of painting.”

While he would later become a full-fledged actor, Williams has never abandoned painting. His work currently hangs in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Schomburg Museum in Harlem, and galleries all over the world. He has also created the program artwork for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Washington, D.C. every year since 1990. If you’re into his art, you can even buy various Williams pieces on Amazon if you happen to have $50,000 lying around.

"I call my paintings 'abstract reality,'” Williams says on the official website for his artwork. “Sometimes I refer to them as 'impressions/expression.' It's the best way I can explain them."

4. HE GOT BACK INTO ACTING TO PAY FOR PAINT.

A Taste of Honey // By Bill Doll and Company, New York, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Creativity costs money, even when you’re on a two-year art scholarship. The story goes that when Williams once ran out of money to pay for his art supplies, he decided to do something he hadn’t done since he was seven years old: acting.

“They were looking for an actor for Take a Giant Step, and a producer liked my look and asked if I could act,” Williams recalled to Roger Ebert. “I said, ‘Yep!’ Then I got into acting more or less just to make money for paints and canvases.”

The role Williams was tapped to play on stage for that 1953 production eventually went to Louis Gossett Jr., but Williams would eventually begin working regularly in stage performances, getting his first big break on Broadway in a play called A Taste of Honey.

"Either I want to drop dead with a paintbrush in my hand or I want to drop dead doing a soliloquy on the stage," Williams said in a 2001 interview.

5. AN INJURY LED TO HIS BIG BREAK.

Williams may have lost out to Gossett Jr. for that coveted on-stage role, but another role reversal with Gossett Jr. kickstarted Williams’s big-screen career.

Gossett, Jr. was set to appear as star Chicago Bears halfback Gale Sayers in the 1971 TV film Brian’s Song, but he ended up tearing his Achilles tendon while training for the role a few days before filming was supposed to begin. The filmmakers scrambled to find someone who would play opposite James Caan as Sayers’s friend, Brian Piccolo, who was battling terminal cancer. Williams was able to step right into the role.

The film earned Williams an Emmy nomination (Caan earned one, too—in the same category), and propelled him to be cast as Billie Holiday's husband, Louis McKay, in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, with Diana Ross.

6. HE WAS GEORGE LUCAS’S FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY LANDO CALRISSIAN.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Despite appearances in the Oscar-nominated Lady Sings the Blues and 1975's Mahogany, which re-teamed him with Ross, Williams’s most well-known performance remains his role as the suave swindler Lando Calrissian in George Lucas’s original Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

While Lucas envisioned the part of Han Solo's buddy without a specific actor or race in mind, Williams was one of Lucas’s earliest choices to fill the role. While reviewing the initial drafts of the screenplay, Lucas even made a note: “Actor–Billy Dee Williams—Cloud City leader.”

Williams was on Lucas’s radar because the actor appeared in a movie called The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings in 1976, which had been written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, two of Lucas's friends. Eventual Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner explained that Williams’s “romantic onscreen image is what got him the part” in The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner said that Williams “really looks like a Mississippi riverboat hustler. Billy can do that charm fantastically.”

In a 1981 interview with Ebony, Williams explained that Lando was “a great role in terms of transcending all the clichés and values, all the stereotypes.” He continued: “The name alone—Lando Calrissian—it’s an Armenian name. It gets away from all those questions. He’s a person of the universe.”

7. HE’S A CERTIFIED PLATINUM, BILLBOARD-CHARTING RECORDING ARTIST.

If you thought acting, painting, and being the suavest guy in the room were the only things Williams could do, you’d be wrong. He’s also a singer.

In 1961, Williams cut an album of jazz and swing standards called Let’s Misbehave. And while that was a commercial success at the time, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that he flexed his vocal cords straight to the music charts—and he wasn’t alone.

Williams participated in the celebrity-packed charity single “Voices That Care,” which was an effort to honor U.S. troops involved in Operation Desert Storm and support the International Red Cross. The laundry list of random celebrities who also lent their voices to the song included Wayne Gretzky, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chevy Chase, Sally Field, Don King, Meryl Streep, Michael Jordan, and more.

While the single had good intentions, it might have been a bit too late. The single was released on March 13, 1991—roughly two weeks after the Gulf War ended. The track still peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and eventually earned a platinum certification.

8. HE BECAME COLT 45'S SPOKESMAN BECAUSE HE WAS THE “COOLEST.”

Another one of Williams's most memorable performances didn't happen on the big screen or on stage. In the late 1980s, Williams was tapped to be the on-air spokesperson for malt liquor brand Colt 45. While controversy remains about the subtext of the ad campaign and its target audience, Williams got the gig—with his signature “works every time” line—simply because he was so cool.

"It was, for better or worse, my idea," ad exec Jim Dale said in 2016. "He had done the first Star Wars movie at that point. Women and men both thought he was about the coolest fu**in' guy there was."

Before Williams became the spokesperson, Colt 45 trailed behind similar brand Schlitz in barrels produced; a year after Williams’s 1986 ads ran everywhere, Colt 45 production skyrocketed to 2 million barrels, putting it into the top spot for malt liquor. Williams returned to pitch Colt 45 as a brand spokesman in 2016.

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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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NBC Universal
12 Wild Facts About The Jerry Springer Show
NBC Universal
NBC Universal

Trash TV will never be the same: NBC Universal just announced that after more than a quarter-century on the air, The Jerry Springer Show has been canceled. Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati, has taped more than 4000 episodes over the course of 27 seasons, and featured more than 35,000 guests. Because the format allowed for crass topics and guests who weren’t afraid to throw chairs at each other, in the late 1990s the show’s ratings topped Oprah Winfrey’s. Over the years, guests have accused the producers of staging and encouraging the fights for ratings. Still, it’s been popular enough to remain on the air since September 30, 1991. Here are 12 final thoughts about the controversial talk show.

1. THE FIRST SEASON TAPED IN CINCINNATI.

Before he stepped in front of the cameras, Springer’s main gig was in politics. He (unsuccessfully) ran for Congress in 1970, but was elected to Cincinnati’s city council a year later. In 1977, he served as the city’s mayor for one year and made a run for governor in 1982, but was derailed by a sex scandal.

In September 1991, Cincinnati NBC affiliate WLWT needed to replace The Phil Donahue Show, so they tapped Springer to host his own politically-focused daytime talk show, The Jerry Springer Show. At the same time, he was also appearing as a nighttime co-anchor on WLWT. In 1992, Springer moved The Jerry Springer Show to Chicago; he flew back and forth between Cincy and Chicago every day so that he could continue hosting his nightly broadcast. But in 1993 he resigned from Channel 5, after the ratings slid

2. TWO ANCHORS QUIT BECAUSE SPRINGER APPEARED ON THEIR NEWS SHOW.

In 1997, Springer began a temporary job on Chicago’s WMAQ as a news commentator. Anchor Carol Marin, who had worked at the station for 19 years, refused to share airtime with Springer and quit the show. “I am sorry she found it necessary this week to use me as the stepping stone to martyrdom,” Springer said at the time. In solidarity with Marin’s decision, co-anchor Ron Magers departed a few weeks later. Dozens of people from religious and women’s organizations protested the station’s nighttime addition as well.

The heat ended up being too much for the station; in May 1998, it dropped the Springer Show, though a Fox affiliate quickly snatched it up. To cover costs, they had to air the show not once, but twice a day.

3. SECURITY DIRECTOR STEVE WILKOS THOUGHT HIS JOB WAS A “ONE-TIME GIG.”

The show hired Steve Wilkos, a former Chicago cop and marine, for a 1994 KKK-themed episode. “The pay was good and I figured it was a one-time gig,” Wilkos told Mediaweek. “But I ended up doing another show, and another, and before I knew it, I was hired as the full-time director of security. So, I left my career as a cop to give this a shot.”

Eventually, Wilkos gave advice on a “Steve to the Rescue” segment, and started subbing for Springer when the host went off to appear on Dancing with the Stars. That led to Wilkos getting his own show, The Steve Wilkos Show, in 2007.

4. THE SHOW WAS TARGETED BY THE GOVERNMENT.

In 1998, at the peak of the show’s popularity, education secretary William Bennett and Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman spoke at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention and implored broadcasters to remove the program from their schedules. “Drop it, or if you won’t drop it, urge the producers to clean up the show,” Lieberman pleaded.

“We’re here for three reasons,” Bennett added. “The first is to remind broadcasters of the high standards they once had; the second is to remind people in the business how low much of it has sunk, and also to remind people of the enormous influence and responsibility they wield.”

“The kind of perversity and violence on that show every day has to have a bad effect on the people and children who watch it,” Lieberman said. “Springer is not a network show. You make the decision to carry it. It’s not worth it … If you can’t do that, at least put it on late at night so that fewer kids are watching.”

5. SPRINGER STARRED IN HIS OWN MOVIE.

At the apex of his popularity, Springer played a talk show host named Jerry Farrelly in the 1998 box office and critical bomb Ringmaster. The movie, like Springer's talk show, involved love triangles and cheating. It did win Springer an award, though: a Razzie for Worst New Star.

6. RELIGIOUS LEADERS FORCED THE SHOW TO TONE DOWN ITS VIOLENCE.

Under pressure from Chicago religious leaders, executives from The Jerry Springer Show promised to reduce the violence, though the fights are what helped it topple Oprah in the daytime talk show ratings. “We don’t want to take away from the show—we just think that Jerry will be able to do this show a different way,” Greg Meidel, the chief executive of then-distributor Studio USA, told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “It will still be confrontational, it will still be unpredictable, you will still sense the conflict. You will still see yelling and screaming. But we’re not going to show anyone getting hit.”

A spokeswoman for the religious Community Renewal Society felt it was a “partial victory,” but she also called for the cursing and poor treatment of women to be toned down.

7. AUSTIN POWERS PARODIED SPRINGER.

In the opening of 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Scott Evil (Seth Green) appears on The Jerry Springer Show—Springer cameos as himself—and confronts his father, Dr. Evil, who plots to take over the world. In typical Springer Show fashion, a fight breaks out and a lot of cursing spews from the guests’ mouths.

8. ONE FEATURED LOVE TRIANGLE ENDED IN A MURDER.

In 2000, during an episode called “Secret Mistresses Confronted,” a husband, his new wife, and his ex-wife appeared on the show and got into a tiff. The newlyweds accused the ex, Nancy Campbell-Panitz, of stalking them. But hours after the episode aired, a friend of Campbell-Panitz discovered her dead, beaten body inside her home. Eventually, Campbell-Panitz's ex-husband and his new wife turned themselves in. In 2002 the case went to trial and the court found the ex-husband, Ralf Panitz, guilty of second-degree murder. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.

9. SPRINGER ELIMINATED THE WORD “TRANNY.”

The Jerry Springer Show was one of the first talk shows to focus on transgender issues, but he regularly referred to his guests as “trannies,” like in a 2014 episode named “Trannies Twerk it Out.” The LGBT community felt it was time to phase out that word, and Springer immediately obliged. “I didn’t know it was offensive to them and I’m not interested in offending people, so obviously I’ll just change the term,” he told The Huffington Post. “There’s no argument there.”

10. THE SHOW PRODUCED A CONTROVERSIAL EPISODE ON BESTIALITY.

A 1998 episode entitled “I Married a Horse” featured a British man who married his horse. Cameras went overseas to film the man and his “wife.” A disclaimer opened the segment: “Sexual contact with animals is illegal in this country and most of the Western world. This is the first film to examine a subject which many find deeply disturbing.” Some stations found the episode so disturbing that they refused to air it, opting instead to broadcast a rerun of “Past Guests Do Battle.”

11. IT WAS TURNED INTO AN OPERA (WHICH ALSO CREATED CONTROVERSY).

A musical version of the show, Jerry Springer: The Opera, debuted in London in April of 2003 and toured the UK in 2006. The production drew ire from the Christian community, because it included actors playing God, Satan, and Jesus, and the actors uttered about 8000 obscenities. When the BBC decided to air a performance in 2005, 45,000 angry viewers contacted the station about the show’s content. But, that didn’t prevent the opera from expanding to the U.S. In 2007, Las Vegas became the first American city to welcome the show. In 2008, Harvey Keitel played Springer in a two-day New York City performance.

12. SPRINGER MOVED THE SHOW TO STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT—AND RESIDENTS WEREN'T HAPPY.

In 2009, after spending 17 years in Chicago, The Jerry Springer Show moved to the east coast and besieged the idyllic town of Stamford, because Connecticut offered tax breaks and built the Stamford Media Center to create a local entertainment industry. Springer’s arrival was met with protests from the community.

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