Portraits of a Life

The debonair actor crafts a memoir that rivals his greatest characters.

The narrative often reads like fiction, especially the chronicle of his early years, when Williams (b. 1937) describes growing up in Harlem with his mother, singer, and actor Loretta Bodkin, who counted Lena Horne among her friends and was the sister of Bill Bodkin, a singer who made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1948. The author always retains his cool, laid-back style, whether he’s discussing how he landed breakthrough roles as Gale Sayers in Brian’s Song and Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars franchise or his friendships with great actors such as Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando or author James Baldwin. “I sensed he was a revolutionary at heart, someone who was driven to give voice to the voiceless and power to those without it,” Williams writes about Brando. “Like Jimmy [Baldwin], a fire burned inside him.” Despite his numerous issues with racism and discrimination, Williams has always maintained a cool head and used his experiences as a Black man to inform his art in a way that is relatable to all people. When he was working on Lady Sings the Blues, Williams wanted to create “something that nobody had ever seen before on a 30-foot-tall and 90-foot-wide movie screen: a romantic leading man with brown skin who women of all colors—Black, White and everything else—were going to talk about as they left the theater and think about as they got ready for bed that night.” That’s a goal he’s accomplished while remaining the same suave personality he’s cultivated in real life. Though he discusses his three marriages and the occasional moments he lost his temper, the author focuses on blessings and gratitude.

Normally, the successes of an attractive actor wouldn’t make for great reading, but Williams makes it all sound fascinating.

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Author: Billy Dee Williams

Page Count: 280

Rating: 4.8 Stars

Reviewer: Mary Owens

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