“A Black Clint Eastwood with Martial Arts:” An Interview with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson
Just don't call his movies "blaxploitation."
Fred “The Hammer” Williamson earned his nickname during his years in pro football for using martial arts moves against opposing players. So, right there you know he’s a cool guy. But while Williamson’s NFL and AFL football career lasted nine years and saw him play in Super Bowl 1, his greatest legacy is as one of the biggest stars of the early ‘70s “blaxploitation” boom (though he bristles at this term).
In this first era of major studio action movies with strong black heroes, Williamson was arguably the strongest, in films such as Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, Hammer, Bucktown, Three the Hard Way, and The Legend of Nigger Charley (which Quentin Tarantino has credited as an influence on Django Unchained). Though the genre fizzled in the mid-1970s, Williamson continued directing, producing, and starring in his own successful action films, sometimes recruiting fellow heavyweights of the era (Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown) for revivals (One Down Two to Go, Original Gangstas).
Between his own projects, he found steady work in grindhouse films of all genres in Europe and America (1990: The Bronx Warriors, the original Inglorious Bastards, Fist of Fear, Touch of Death), and while refusing to accept movies that would subvert his tough-guy image, he has lent his gravitas to cheeky supporting roles in From Dusk Till Dawn and Starsky & Hutch. Now 76, he currently has 10 films in varying stages of production according to IMDB, including The Last Hit Man, which he will direct.
Williamson will visit Toronto on Friday, February 13, for the Toronto Black Film Festival. At “An Intimate Night with Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson,” he will receive the TBFF 2015 Pioneer Award, take part in a Q&A, and introduce a screening of his 1975 film, Boss. In anticipation of his Toronto appearance, we spoke to him about his 47-year acting career, and being black in Hollywood.
Torontoist: Larry Cohen [director of Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem] tells a story that American International Pictures hired him to make Black Caesar because they saw a movie he made with Yaphet Kotto, and told him he “really knew how to direct those black actors.” Which is crazy, because obviously Yaphet Kotto didn’t need Larry Cohen to be a good actor. But when you started in the movie industry, did you face this sort of condescending attitude?
Fred Williamson: I never really thought about that. I got into the business with a purpose—I had a plan and a purpose—because growing up, I had no black heroes. The only person I really saw on the screen was Sidney Poitier, who was a fantastic actor, but he didn’t fit my qualifications as a physical hero—because I’ve always been a physical person, being an athlete. On the screen, I was exposed to Mantan Moreland, and Sidney, and Harry Belafonte, and they represented whatever they represented, but it didn’t really suit my purpose. I got in the business to be an action hero.
Whatever Larry’s talking about, I don’t really know… Yaphet Kotto wasn’t making the kinds of films I was making.
I’ve heard you say that when you make movies, you have an image to maintain, and you don’t like to do things that hurt that image.
Well, I sell a brand. I’m a black Clint Eastwood with martial arts. I sell a brand—there are no surprises when you see a Fred Williamson movie. I don’t do anything to interfere with that brand, because that’s what keeps me working. I’m different. There aren’t any black heroes left over from the genre I created back in the ‘60s and ‘70s: Jim Brown’s not making them anymore; [Richard] Roundtree disappeared off into some comedy television sitcom; Billy Dee Williams disappeared, Action Jackson, they all disappeared. I’m sort of the only one left in that genre that was creating black heroes.
Do you sometimes feel a sense of responsibility, given that you are part of that first generation of black screen heroes?
Most definitely I feel a sense of responsibility. That’s why I won’t do anything or take a role that will destroy that image, because there are too many people who expect what I do, and too many parents who use me as an example to show to their kids: I graduated from college, was an athlete, got an education, and am still doing things that are creative.
You had some fun with your image in From Dusk Till Dawn, but that movie respects the image.
Well, I still was a warrior. I took out about 20 of these suckers before I went down. The role that they gave me was something that I helped create—I tell them that if I’m going to be in a film, this is the way I’m going to have to do it. I said, “I’m a martial arts person, let me do something,” so I gave them the idea about a guy walking towards me and I do a martial arts move and take his heart out. So even though I was in a strange kind of movie, I was still doing me.
Black Caesar is a very different sort of character than, for example, Superfly or Sweet Sweetback. Did you think about the other movies of the time when you made that film?
No, I didn’t really, because I knew that the genre wasn’t going to last long, because it was becoming self-destructive. The problem with the other black actors doing the films back in the day was, they were about retribution. It was, “Let’s get whitey back, let’s do to whitey what they did to us in their films.” They’d kill the black guy in the first five minutes and Schwarzenegger would avenge his death, y’know? Me: kill Schwarzenegger, let me avenge his death—that was my philosophy. I didn’t get caught up in the “Let’s get whitey”—I killed everybody, I beat up everybody. Black people, white, people, yellow people, pink people—everybody that was bad went down in my films.
You kept making movies with people like Jim Brown and Jim Kelly…
…because I brought people into the films with me who had a value to the community. The community at that time really needed black heroes, because the riots were going on, they were siccing dogs and hosing down black people, so we needed heroes. I made sure the people I worked with shared the same image I did.
Why was that hard to maintain in the studio system?
I didn’t really care about the studios. I didn’t really give a cockapoopoo about the studios. I was making Fred Williamson films, and at the same time I was learning how to make movies. I wasn’t the kind of guy who was sitting in my trailer drinking champagne and eating caviar while everybody was out working, setting up a scene. I never left the set. I asked 10,000 questions, everything—”How do you do this?” “What do you call this?” I was learning the business of the business while I was in it, because I was assuming that the phone was eventually going to stop ringing for everybody. By the time it stopped ringing for the black actors, I had already learned the business of the business, and I started producing and directing my own films.
How did you start making your own films?
Out of necessity. I had three rules. I called a press conference and said: you can’t kill me in a movie; I win all my fights in a movie; I get the girl at the end of the movie if I want her. They weren’t about to hear that, and I knew that I would have to do that myself, but I set the public up and set the press up letting them know what I was going to do: continuing to sell the brand and image that I had.
Why did you settle in Italy?
It was told to me that our films were being sold to Europe for nothing because black actors are not popular and don’t mean anything overseas. That was something that I didn’t buy into. I didn’t believe that, because I had a lot of foreign girlfriends who loved me, and they don’t love me in Europe? Forget about it. So I made my first film, Adiós Amigo, for $75,000, took it under my arm to Cannes, sat at the Carlton Terrace, gave the maître d’ $50 every day to save me a seat right in the heart of the Terrace, and I sold my own films and broke that image that black don’t sell in Europe. As a matter of fact, we’re more respected in Europe, because in Europe, I’m not a black actor—I’m an action star. In America, I’m a black actor.
What do you think is the legacy of that so-called “blaxploitation” era?
Well, y’know, first of all, I never really knew what it meant—I never knew what “black exploitation” meant. Who the hell is being exploited? The audience was being satisfied, we’ve got heroes we’re seeing, we’ve got actors working and actually starring in films… so I never really understood the connotation of “black exploitation,” and I never bought into it because I didn’t understand it.
The perfect legacy is that blacks would go to the movies if you sell them something they want to see. Hollywood all of a sudden discovered that there was a black audience there if you gave them something that they wanted to see. If you don’t, they won’t. Simple.
I recently went to a revival screening of one of the early movies in the cycle, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and was surprised to see that every single person in the audience was white. Why do you think those movies have accumulated such a large white following?
Cotton Comes to Harlem wasn’t about retribution. It wasn’t about black against white. It was guys in a caper doing their own thing, and it was blacks against blacks. It was a movie that whites felt safe to see. But Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, Three the Hard Way, all these movies that I made, whites went during lunch hour. On Wall Street during lunch hour—they didn’t want anybody to see them going to see into the movies—but at 12 o’clock and 1 o’clock, the theatres were packed with Wall Street white guys with their suits and ties sneaking in to see the movie, and sneaking out before the afternoon crowd came. And the afternoon crowd was 99 per cent black.
Was One Down, Two to Go hard to get off the ground?
One Down, Two to Go was very difficult to get off the ground, just like, I did Original Gangstas and I’m having a hell of a time trying to get that sequel off the ground. The first movie was a tremendous success, the film I did with Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Ron O’Neal. I can’t find the money to get the sequel off the ground, which is ridiculous, because the movie cost $1 million, I’ve got the same budget for the sequel, and the first film went through the roof. It would have done really big business, but Orion, for some reason, filed for bankruptcy, so the movie didn’t get the full exposure.
It ain’t easy to get it off the ground. A black film is still not a world that Hollywood totally embraces, because they feel they don’t need to make that kind of film. Every now and then they’ll stick a black actor in a film to pull in the black audience, but that’s the only reason they put a black in a film.
Do they think there’s a ceiling for movies with all-black casts, in terms of box office?
They don’t care. They’ll spend $90 million to make something with Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie and have them jumping out of planes and flying through the air with no parachute… Special effects are the star of the movies now. They don’t care about the characters, they don’t care about the people. The only people who made a living at it who were my idols—Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson—they sold an image. There were no special effects in their films; their films were about the people and about the characters and how he walked, talked, looked. That’s what made their films a success without spending a lot of money.
It sometimes seems like there’s a cyclical hype around black filmmaking in Hollywood. Last year, 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, but this year all the Oscar nominees are white. A decade before, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Oscars. And a decade before that, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend were going to usher in this era of black filmmaking. I guess my question is, is it any different for black filmmakers in Hollywood than it was in the ‘70s?
Well, when you say “black filmmakers”… I don’t really know any black filmmakers who can walk into Warner Brothers or Paramount and say, “I want to make this movie,” and they finance them. Any black actor, director, or producer that’s got a film off the ground, they’ve been trying to get that off the ground for a number of years. Hollywood is not interested in “social justice”—they’re interested in making money. So, the best way they feel they can make money is to spend a lot of money, and there’s no actor in Hollywood other than Will Smith that they spend a lot of money on to make a major film. But then, that’s going to change too, because the last two big films that Will Smith made didn’t do money.
When you look at a film starring a black actor, I guarantee you there’s a white costar. There’s a big-name white costar to carry the box office. And hopefully the blacks will come see the black actor they put out front. They’re not interested in making any social statements: they want to make money, and that’s their mentality.
What are some of the movies you’ve made that people remember the most? Three the Hard Way, maybe?
For me, it’s the character identification. It’s not so much remembering the movie; they just know that I’m a badass. I was a badass in Chicago before the movies ever came out. I was a badass on the football field—that’s why they call me “the Hammer.” I don’t lean back on one particular picture, because I’ve done so many of them. But they all have the same common thing: I’m a badass.