A long time ago (1980) in a galaxy far, far away (where a movie ticket cost about $5), Billy Dee Williams first played Lando Calrissian, the smooth-talking smuggler-turned-administrator of Cloud City in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Despite having about 15 minutes of total screen time in “Empire” and “Return of the Jedi,” the character stole “Star Wars” fans’ hearts. It made sense, considering Williams did the same thing alongside Diana Ross in the films “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) and “Mahogany” (1975). Now, 36 years after “Empire,” he’ll don Lando’s cape for “The Rise of Skywalker,” which bows Dec. 20. The actor cites “Empire Strikes Back” as one of his favorite films and says the final movie of the Skywalker saga will be a high point for the franchise.
How did it feel to put Lando’s costume back on?
It was fun. I really enjoyed it. I’m older now, so for me, it’s more a source of amusement than anything else. I never expected to really be back in that costume or in the movie, so I still kind of chuckle about the whole thing. I knew people were clamoring for Lando to come back, but I didn’t feel like that would happen. It’s a nice feeling to be welcomed back.
What did you think of Lando when you read the “Empire Strikes Back” script?
There are two things that drew me to the character. The cape and the name “Calrissian,” which is Armenian. I thought those were two interesting things to build a character around. It really suits my approach to expressing myself as a creative entity. It took me in a direction that said to me, “This is going to be a bigger-than-life character.”
How much of his personality comes from your own?
I always looked at Lando as a charming, roguish kind of character. There’s certainly a lot of me in that character. I think I’m a pretty cool guy. The whole idea is to build yourself into a franchise, at least for me. I’ve built my whole career around branding myself.
What is your brand?
I was the first brown-skinned boy to be a real magic figure on the screen, what they used to call a matinee idol. That pretty much describes a lot of who I am as far as my brand is concerned. I’m a romantic person with a heroic presentation.
What did it mean to play the first black character in “Star Wars”?
I never looked at myself as a black character in “Star Wars.” I looked at myself as Billy Dee Williams in “Star Wars.” It’s beyond a question of race and color. I’m an actor and performer who has his own original point of view about how one should present oneself.
How do fans react when they meet you?
I’ve had people thank me when they see me, and I’ve had people bring babies for me to touch. I think people admire me. I’m not trying to pat myself on the head like most actors love to be patted on the head and told how wonderful they are, but I’ve had some really interesting experiences as far as my career is concerned. I’ve had a tremendous amount of admiration from a lot of people throughout the years because of these movies I’ve done. I think people enjoy my individuality.
How do you like the new trilogy compared with the original?
“Empire Strikes Back” will probably go down as really one of my favorites, but I think this experience will go down as one of the greatest moments in the whole “Star Wars” saga.
Things You Didn’t Know About Billy Dee Williams
Birthplace: New York City
First role: “The Last Angry Man” in 1959
Color lightsaber he’d have: “Blue. No, red.”
Strangest place he was recognized by a fan: “I don’t go to many strange places.”