Long before he was cast in “Star Wars” in a role that was the epitome of sophisticated cool, Billy Dee Williams had earned the title of “the black Clark Gable” for his performances in “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany.” In 1976, he told the New York Times that he wanted to play “more historical movie roles, notably Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Alexander Pushkin, the Russian poet who was half black, Hannibal and King Solomon, ‘and other great classical figures who have never been done by men of my hue.’ ”
Those dreams never quite materialized; in subsequent years, he’d show up in television shows and movies, as well as in films such as Tim Burton’s “Batman” — but Lando Calrissian became by far Williams’s most iconic role.
“Billy Dee Williams has a complicated relationship with Lando Calrissian,” Chris Taylor wrote in “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.” “On the one hand, the … actor laments that his other movie roles were overshadowed by the suave gambler and administrator of Cloud City. On the other hand, he is strongly proprietorial of the role. When I interviewed Williams, he reminded me that he has reprised his role in every medium going: the NPR adaptation of ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ the two ‘Star Wars: Battlefront’ games, ‘Robot Chicken,’ ‘The Lego Movie, a Funnyordie.com video. If Lando were to show up in an ‘Episode VII,’ Williams is ready to go. … Says Williams, banging his cane, ‘No one’s going to play Lando but me.’ ”
That dedication to the character has put Williams in an unusual position: He both originated an iconic character, and has played a number of the riffs that comment on Calrissian and his unique place in the culture.
Some of the tensions around the character, among them the draw of his character, the risk of shading into stereotype and his status as the lone black character in an overwhelmingly white fictional galaxy, have been there from the beginning.
“It’s too bad that the character played by Billy Dee Williams, the story’s only black principal (with the possible exception of Darth Vader, whose voice is supplied most effectively by James Earl Jones), is exaggeratedly unctous, untrustworthy and loaded with jive,” Janet Maslin wrote in her initial review of “The Empire Strikes Back.” (In 1997, when the films were rereleased, she’d revise her opinion, calling Williams’s experience in the film “smashing,” and noting “enhancements to the skyline [of Cloud City], along with computer-generated window views, are the biggest technical innovation in ‘Empire.’ Though they make Cloud City look good, Mr. Williams looks better.”)
Lando’s reputation as a smoothie has become a staple reference for pop culture in the years since the character arrived onscreen in “Empire.” In “How I Met Your Mother,” Ted (Josh Radnor) adopts “Lando” as a pseudonym during a liaison. “The Boondocks,” the animated adaptation of Aaron McGruder’s comic strip about a black family in a predominantly white suburb, has an episode in which Granddad (John Witherspoon) comes to believe he has a son from a womanizing period of his life when he went by the nickname “Lando”; the younger man’s real father turns out to be Billy Dee Williams.
And during “The Lego Movie,” Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s gleefully demented take on creativity within corporate constraints, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) ditches his comrades to go party with Han Solo (Keith Ferguson) and Calrissian (Williams himself). There’s a moment where it seems like Lando’s going to argue that Han and the crew of the Millennium Falcon ought to join the fight against Lord Business (Will Ferrell). But he ultimately gives in to the allure of a good time: The scene ends with Lando and Batman talking capes.
Kevin Smith, whose movies are populated by nerdy obsessives, has some of the sharpest takes on the way audiences have responded to Calrissian over the years.
In “Chasing Amy,” his scabrous 1997 romantic comedy about a group of comic book artists and writers, Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) attend a panel on diversity in comics as part of a bit they run with their friend Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), whose public persona is that of a black militant. Hooper is giving a speech about how black characters have been historically marginalized in science fiction and fantasy, when Holden, in a planned move, interrupts Hooper to insist that “Lando Calrissian was a black guy. You know, and he got to fly the Millennium Falcon, what’s the matter with you?” It’s a deliberate piece of stagecraft, giving Hooper an opportunity to deliver a hilarious rant about “Star Wars” that begins with him declaring Calrissian an “Uncle Tom” and ends with him dubbing Darth Vader a “Nubian god.”
And it’s a point that comes up again in “Clerks,” the 2000 animated show adapted from Smith’s breakout film. In a meta moment, convenience store employees Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) introduce “our new black character, Lando!” “Hey, Lando, say ‘What up!’ ” Randal demands. “Hello,” Lando (Mario Joyner) says politely. ” ‘Clerks’! A progressive show!” Dante declares, smugly delighted.
But one good measure of the strength of a character is whether he’s still compelling after decades of analysis and references have accumulated on top of the original. And by my lights, Lando Calrissian still is.
One of Williams’s accomplishments in “Empire” and “Return of the Jedi” is how much he manages to feel like an old-fashioned movie star in a futuristic setting without making the performance seem incongruous. Lando Calrissian can flirt with a pretty woman (Princess Leia) and run a trade colony, sell out a close friend and then try to make up for a bad decision. When his deal with Darth Vader goes south, he doesn’t protest too much; he simply gets on with the next stage of things. Lando’s the only character in “Star Wars” with a truly comfortable sense of style, and it’s no mistake that despite his late introduction to the franchise, he’s the guy who gets to blow up the second Death Star on his own. He even looks reasonably dignified while getting choked out by a Wookiee.
Lando’s the Rick Blaine of “Star Wars,” with more humor and warmth. His charm’s more than unctousness, and with the distance of time, it’s hard to read his sparring with Han or his flirting with Leia as jive. If Lando Calrissian was a dispatch from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it’s a shame that the entertainment industry that’s tried to reckon with him ever since is still struggling to create his equal.