UPDATE: Mr. Williams has pulled out of the Richmond Wizard World Comic Con for personal reasons, according to organizers.
For the guy who took out the second Death Star, Billy Dee Williams is surprisingly soft-spoken and self-effacing when it comes to his best-known character.
"It was something heroic to do, so I'm glad [the filmmakers] made that decision," Williams says of the apex moment in his portrayal of Lando Calrissian, the smoothest city manager in the galaxy, in "Star Wars: Episode V - the Empire Strikes Back" and "Star Wars: Episode VI - the Return of the Jedi."
For the 10 people on the planet w
ho haven't seen the original Star Wars trilogy, Lando Calrissian was a former smuggler and space pirate who presumably took some time off to earn his public administration degree before becoming the debonair, cape-rocking administrator of the floating Cloud City and later a general in the Rebel Alliance.
Williams, 78, has reprised the role in a number of platforms through the decades, in radio plays, video games, 2014's "The Lego Movie" and the new Disney animated series "Star Wars Rebels."
"Lando is a very special character for me," Williams says, noting with pride that Marvel Comics also is coming out with a new series devoted to Calrissian. "I just think it's a unique interpretation and I don't think anybody else could have done it the way I did it. I have a real strong feeling about the character."
Many of his former castmates, including Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, are starring in the new J.J. Abrams-helmed "Star Wars: Episode VII - the Force Awakens," which hits theaters in December. It's rumored that Williams will appear in a subsequent film in the new trilogy, but he says he has no idea if that's true, adding that "it would be a pleasure" to star in a new "Star Wars" movie.
"This is really a phenomenon," he says of the "Star Wars" films. "When you're working on a project you really don't have any idea how far it's going to go, but I guess I'm not surprised anymore. It's been going on for more than 30 years. And obviously it's going to continue for another 30 years or more."
Born and raised in New York, Williams lives in Los Angeles. He's been in show business for more than 50 years, first appearing at 6 in the Broadway production of Kurt Weill's "The Firebrand of Florence" with Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya — who later played the villainous Rosa Klebb in the 1963 James Bond film "From Russia with Love." Williams' first film role was in 1959's "The Last Angry Man."
Before the "Star Wars" films, he was known for the television film "Brian's Song" and his roles as a charismatic, romantic lead opposite Diana Ross in the films "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Mahogany." He later parodied his suave, ladies' man image in a series of tongue-in-cheek commercials for Colt 45 malt liquor in the 1980s. He's been a regular on television shows such as "Dynasty" and "General Hospital." And he's also a painter of note; one of his self-portraits is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
An entire generation of 40-something men grew up playing with action figures of Williams and, for many African-American boys in the 1980s, Lando Calrissian was an iconic role model who provided much-needed diversity in an otherwise homogenous "Star Wars" universe populated by lots of green and purple aliens but not that many black people.
Fans have told Williams that, but he says: "I think it's time people stopped looking at things in terms of color, you know? I find it boring. … It puts limits on your creativity when you're relegating everything to some sort of parochial, myopic point of view. … I much prefer to gamble on my own Billy Dee Williams uniqueness rather than to try to please everybody with ideas about being black or white or green or yellow or whatever."
Williams is no stranger to blockbuster films, having also starred in the 1989 "Batman" movie as Harvey Dent, the handsome district attorney fated to become the villain Two-Face. The role was later recast and played by Tommy Lee Jones after director Tim Burton left the series. "They decided to go in a different direction," Williams says. "I was disappointed but you win some and you lose some."
"People don't just think of me as necessarily just doing Lando Calrissian," he adds. "People will always remember me as a romantic figure on the screen, that's for sure. When I do the conventions folks remember me for a lot of things that I've done over 50 years in this business. … It's been a rewarding life, I must say." S
The Wizard World Comic Con Richmond is held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center on Aug. 1 and 2. Admission is $75 for a three-day convention ticket or $45 for a one-day ticket.