William December “Billy Dee” Williams, Jr., born April 6, 1937, is a actor, artist, singer, and writer. Williams was born in New York City, New York, the son of Loretta Anne, a West Indian-born elevator operator from Montserrat, and William December Williams, Sr., an African-American caretaker from Texas. He has a twin sister, Loretta, and grew up in Harlem, where he was raised by his maternal grandmother while his parents worked at several jobs. Williams graduated from the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, where he was a classmate of Diahann Carroll, who coincidentally played the wife of his character Brady Lloyd on the 1980s prime-time soap Dynasty.
He first appeared on Broadway in 1945 in The Firebrand of Florence. He returned to Broadway as an adult in 1960 in the play version of The Cool Word. He appeared in A Taste of Honey in 1961. A 1976 Broadway production, I Have a Dream, was directed by Robert Greenwald and starred Williams as Martin Luther King, Jr. His most recent Broadway appearance was in August Wilson‘s Fences, as a replacement for James Earl Jones in the role of Troy Maxson in 1988.
He made his film debut in 1959 in the Academy Award nominated The Last Angry Man, opposite Paul Muni, in which he portrayed a delinquent young man.He rose to stardom after starring in the critically lauded blockbuster biographical TV movie, Brian’s Song (1971), in which he played Chicago Bears star football player Gale Sayers, who stood by his friend Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan), during his struggle with terminal cancer. Both Williams and Caan were nominated for Emmy Awards for best actor for their performances.
Williams became America’s leading black film actor in the 1970s after starring in a string of critically acclaimed and popular movies, many of them in the Blaxploitation genre. In 1972, starred as Billie Holliday’s husband Louis McKay in Motown Productions’ Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues. The film was a box office blockbuster, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year and received five Academy Award nominations. Diana Ross starred in Lady Sings the Blues opposite Williams; Motown paired the two of them again three years later in the successful follow-up project Mahogany.
In 1961, Williams recorded a jazz LP produced by Prestige Records entitled Let’s Misbehave, on which he sang several swing standards. The album is currently out of print.
In 1992, he portrayed Berry Gordy in The Jacksons: An American Dream.
Even before he began acting, Williams attended the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design in New York. In the late 1980s, he resumed painting. Some of his work can be seen at his online gallery BDW World Art. He has had solo exhibitions in various galleries around the U.S., and his work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, The Smithsonian Institution, and The Schomburg Museum.