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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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© 2017 USPS
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Speedy Delivery: Mister Rogers Will Get His Own Stamp in 2018
© 2017 USPS
© 2017 USPS

USPS 2018 Mister Rogers stamp
© 2017 USPS

After weeks of mailing out this year’s holiday cards, postage might be the last thing you want to think about. But the U.S. Postal Service has just given us a sneak peek at the many iconic people, places, and things that will be commemorated with their own stamps in 2018, and one in particular has us excited to send out a few birthday cards: Mister Rogers.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers’s groundbreaking PBS series that the USPS says “inspired and educated young viewers with warmth, sensitivity, and honesty,” the mail service shared a mockup of what the final stamp may look like. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans (all of which were hand-knitted by his mom, by the way)—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Though no official release date for Fred’s forever stamp has been given, Mister Rogers is just one of many legendary figures whose visages will grace a piece of postage in 2018. Singer/activist Lena Horne will be the 41st figure to appear as part of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, while former Beatle John Lennon will be the face of the newest Music Icons collection. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will also be honored.

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Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
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15 Surprising Facts About Steve Buscemi
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

With his meme-worthy eyes, tireless work schedule, and penchant for playing lovable losers, Steve Buscemi is arguably the king of character actors. Moving seamlessly between big-budget films and shoestring independent projects, he’s appeared in well over 100 movies in the past 30 years. But if you think he’s anything like the oddballs and villains he regularly plays—well, you don’t know Buscemi. In celebration of the Brooklyn native's 60th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about the Golden Globe-winning actor.

1. HE WAS BORN ON A FRIDAY THE 13TH.

It only seems appropriate that Buscemi, who dies on screen so frequently, would be born on such a foreboding date. Growing up in Brooklyn and Valley Stream, New York, Buscemi also experienced plenty of real-life misfortune. As a kid, he was hit by a bus and by a car (in separate incidents). On the plus side, he used the money from the legal settlement following the bus accident to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City.

2. HE WAS A NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTER.

As a teenager, Buscemi worked a series of odd jobs: ice cream truck driver, mover, gas station attendant. He even sold newspapers in the toll lane of the Triborough Bridge. When Buscemi turned 18, his father, a sanitation worker, encouraged his son to take the civil service exam and become a New York City firefighter. Four years later, in 1980, the future star became a member of Engine Co. 55, located in New York City's Little Italy district. While he answered emergency calls during the day, at night Buscemi played improv clubs and auditioned for acting roles.

After four years working for the FDNY, Buscemi landed one of the lead roles in Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), a drama set during the early days of AIDS in New York. Buscemi took a three-month leave of absence during filming, and afterwards decided not to return.

3. HE FORMED A COMEDY DUO WITH SONS OF ANARCHY’S MARK BOONE, JR.

For a brief while, Buscemi tried his hand at stand-up comedy (he bombed). In 1984, he met fellow aspiring actor Mark Boone, Jr., and the two began performing together. Part improv, part scripted comedy, the two would often carry out power struggles that pitted thin-man Buscemi against the larger Boone. The New York Times called their act “theater in the absurdist vein.”

4. HE DID NOT AUDITION FOR THE ROLE OF GEORGE COSTANZA.

Like any hard-working actor, Buscemi has had his share of failed auditions. His tryout for Alan Parker’s Fame lasted less than 30 seconds. In the late ‘80s, Martin Scorsese brought him in four different times to read for The Last Temptation of Christ. (Buscemi ended up reading every apostle’s part before being turned away.) He also auditioned for the part of Seinfeld’s George Costanza—at least according to numerous sources, including Jason Alexander himself. But it turns out this tidbit—fueled, no doubt, by the thought of a very twitchy, bug-eyed Costanza—isn’t true. On a recent episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Buscemi addressed the rumor in his typical good-natured way: “I never did [the audition] and I don’t know how to correct it because I don’t know how the Internet works.”

5. TREES LOUNGE WAS BASICALLY HIS LIFE AT 19.

After gaining momentum with roles in Mystery Train, Reservoir Dogs, Barton Fink, and other films, Buscemi took a turn behind the camera with 1996’s Trees Lounge. The movie, which he also wrote, follows a bumbling layabout named Tommy who spends most of his time at the title bar in the town where he grew up. It’s a classic flick for Buscemi fans and, according to the actor, it was pretty much his life as a teenager living on Long Island. “I was truly directionless, living with my parents,” Buscemi said in an interview. “I was driving an ice-cream truck and working at a gas station… The drinking age was 18 then, so I spent every night hanging out with my friends in bars, drinking.”

6. HE IS FULLY AWARE THAT HIS CHARACTERS OFTEN DIE.

Steve Buscemi in 'Fargo' (1996)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

He’s been shot numerous times, stabbed with an ice pick, riddled with throwing knives, tossed off a balcony, and fed to a wood chipper. Yes, Buscemi’s characters have died a variety of deaths, and the actor isn’t without a sense of humor about the whole matter. He’ll often joke in interviews that he’s living longer and longer as the years go by. Before the 2005 release of The Island, in which the aforementioned balcony-tossing occurs (and into a glass bar no less), Buscemi said he was happy his character lived almost a third of the way through the movie. Buscemi admitted that he will actually read ahead in any script he receives to see when and how he dies.

7. HE HAS A FAVORITE DEATH—AND IT ISN’T FARGO.

For connoisseurs of Buscemi's movie deaths, the demise of Fargo’s Carl Showalter by way of axe then wood chipper is the crème de la crème. But when asked about his own favorite onscreen death, Buscemi references another Coen brothers film: The Big Lebowski. In that movie his character, Donny Kerabatsos, succumbs to a heart attack. It’s a surprise for viewers, and so out-of-the-blue that Buscemi can’t help but be tickled at the randomness of it. “They thought, ‘Well, Buscemi’s in it, so we’ve gotta kill him,'" the actor said in an appearance on The Daily Show.

8. HIS CHARACTER IN CON AIR WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR HIM.

In Con Air, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action movie filled with muscled-up prisoners, Buscemi played the most dangerous con of them all. His Garland Greene—a serial killer whose exploits “make the Manson family look like the Partridge family,” according to one character—enters the film strapped to a chair, Hannibal Lecter mask affixed to his face. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend of Buscemi’s, wrote the part with him in mind, and was tickled when Buscemi accepted the role. To this day, fans will still serenade the actor with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

9. HIS CHARACTER IN DESPERADO IS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Steve Buscemi in Desperado
Columbia Pictures

Although he inevitably dies (courtesy of Danny Trejo’s throwing knives), Buscemi commands the opening of Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s stylish revenge movie, regaling bar patrons with the story of the title gunslinger, played by Antonio Banderas. Because his character’s name is never mentioned, Rodriguez decided to have some fun and name him "Buscemi" in the credits.

10. HE WON’T FIX HIS TEETH.

Buscemi’s crooked smile has helped him portray lowlifes and losers throughout his career. Dentists have offered to fix the actor’s teeth, but he always turns them down, knowing how valuable those chompers are to the Buscemi brand. In a guest starring role on The Simpsons, Buscemi poked fun at the matter after a dentist offers to straighten his character’s teeth: “You’re going to kill my livelihood if you do that!”

11. THERE’S SOME CONFUSION OVER HOW TO PRONOUNCE HIS LAST NAME.

Many people pronounce his last name “Boo-shemmy,” but it turns out Buscemi himself pronounces it “Boo-semmy.” In interviews, Buscemi says he’s following his father’s pronunciation, and says he doesn’t begrudge anyone who says it differently. It turns out, though, that his fans have it right—or at least mostly right. On a trip to Sicily to visit family, Buscemi recounted recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he noticed everyone saying “Boo-SHAY-me.”

12. HE GOT STABBED IN A BAR FIGHT.

Steve Buscemi in 'Trees Lounge' (1996)
Live Entertainment

On April 12th, 2001, while filming Domestic Disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina, Buscemi, co-star Vince Vaughn, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg went out for late night drinks at the Firebelly Lounge. After Vaughn traded insults with another patron (whose girlfriend had apparently been flirting with Vaughn), the two stepped outside, and a brief scuffle ensued before the two were separated. Buscemi, who was among the crowd that had gathered, was then confronted by a man who, after a brief exchange, attacked the actor with a pocketknife. Buscemi suffered stab wounds to his face, throat, and hands, and had to return to New York to recuperate. His attacker, Timothy Fogerty, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. In typical good-guy fashion, Buscemi declined to press additional charges and instead insisted Fogerty enter a substance abuse program.

13. HE REJOINED HIS FIRE ENGINE IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

After the horrific attack on New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, Buscemi—like many Americans—was desperate to help. Although it had been nearly 20 years since he had strapped on his fireman’s gear, the actor reunited with his Engine 55 brethren and for days scoured the towers’ debris for survivors. Buscemi didn’t want his actions publicized; when people asked to take his picture, he declined. It took more than 10 years, in fact, before word got out, thanks to a Facebook post from Engine 55. “Brother Steve worked 12-hour shifts alongside other firefighters digging and sifting through the rubble,” the post read. “This guy is a badass!”

14. HE NARRATES THE AUDIO TOUR AT EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY.

People who take a tour of the historic Philadelphia prison may notice a familiar voice coming through their listening device. So how did Buscemi end up lending his talents to such a seemingly obscure place? It turns out Eastern State is a popular location for film and photo shoots. Scenes from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys were filmed there, as were album covers for artists like Tina Turner. In 2000, Buscemi scouted the penitentiary for a film project. The location didn’t work out, but the actor fell in love with the history and grand architecture of the 190-year-old prison. When officials asked for his help to celebrate the prison’s tenth year running tours, he agreed.

15. HE DIDN’T BELIEVE TERENCE WINTER WHEN HE OFFERED HIM THE LEAD IN BOARDWALK EMPIRE.


HBO

After years of playing disposable villains and losers on the periphery, Buscemi had grown accustomed to being passed over for leading roles. So when Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter offered him the part of corrupt politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the award-winning HBO series, Buscemi offered his usual reply. “When Terry did call me and he said that he and Marty [Scorsese] wanted me to play this role, my response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I just appreciate that my name is being thrown in,’" Buscemi recalled. "He said, ‘No, Steve, I just said we want you.’ It still didn’t sink in.” Eventually, of course, reality did sink in, and Buscemi went on to win a Golden Globe and Emmy Award across the show’s five seasons.

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