Brilliant and groundbreaking actor Clarence Williams III – known for iconic roles in “The Mod Squad,” “Purple Rain,” “Hoodlum,” and others – died Friday, June 4 after a battle with colon cancer. He was 81.
Born Aug. 21, 1939 in New York, Williams came from an artistically-inclined family. He was the son of musician Clay Williams and singer and actress Eva Taylor; and his grandfather, Clarence Williams, was a composer, pianist and recurrent collaborator of blues legend Bessie Smith, according to USA Today.
Williams first caught the acting bug in 1957 when he mistakenly walked into the middle of a scene of a play at a Harlem YMCA, he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1995 interview.
He then went on to serve in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper, but upon returning home made his professional acting debut on Broadway in “The Long Dream” in 1960. While Williams went onto star in several other Broadway productions, it was his role in the 1964 staging of William Henley’s “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground” that earned him a Tony nomination and garnered the attention of a wider audience.
After attaining success in theatre, Williams went on to star in ABC’s police series “The Mod Squad” as Detective Lincoln “Linc” Hayes from 1968 to 1973. Unapologetic with a full afro and bell bottoms, Williams portrayal of a juvenile delinquent-turned-undercover detective was groundbreaking as he became one of the first Black actors to star as a strong lead in a mainstream television series.
“It was a very different role for an African American and a wonderful lead character that a lot of youngsters, black and white, and principally African American youngsters could identify with,” Williams told the Times in 1995. “I get so much feedback from that show even now and it is almost 30 years old.”
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Williams also played many other notable roles over the course of his five-decade career. They included his portrayal of Prince’s abusive father in “Purple Rain” in 1984; Kalinga in “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” in 1988; Detective Taft in “Deep Cover” in 1992; Wesley Snipes’ father Arthur Romello “A.R.” Skuggs in “Sugar Hill” in 1994; Mr. Simms in “Tales from the Hood” in 1995; ‘Bub’ Hewlett in “Hoodlum” in 1997; Samson Simpson in “Half Baked” in 1998; Merlin in “Reindeer Games” in 2000; Bumpy Robinson in “American Gangsters” in 2007; Maynard in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” in 2013; The Oracle in the first two “Matrix” films and more.
He was nominated for several NAACP Image Awards during his career. Celebrity and lay fans alike acknowledged Williams greatness when they learned the news of his death.
“When I was a kid growing up in NYC Clarence Williams III was a face on TV that I identified with and that inspired me,” Lenny Kravitz tweeted. “From the Mod Squad, to Purple Rain and Sugar Hill, he always performed with dynamic energy. Rest in power, king.”
“Yes, “Sugar Hill” was the one for me; such heartbreaking yet eye-opening authenticity re: those who personally or professionally contend with addiction. I always appreciated the strength of this Black man’s lovely facial features and skill to enliven characters with intensity,” @4TheCrownofLife responded.
“Clarence Williams III has died. He broke ground playing Linc Hayes on the Mod Squad from 1968-73. Few Blacks were seen on TV back then, especially those with perfect ‘fro! His movie credits including: Hoodlum, American Gangster, Deep Cover & Purple Rain. RIP,” author Ed Gordon tweeted.
“He was also MASTERFUL playing Wesley Sniper father in Sugar Hill when he had the scene overdosing in front of his other son. And loved him in Half Baked #RIP,” Twitter user @BiggHall responded.
“I remember how scary he was in Tales from the Hood awesome actor Rest Well Sir,” @Tonice Shenell added. The New York Times also dubbed Williams a “reflectively intense actor” in a tweet,
Williams was married to actress Gloria Foster from 1967 to 1984, however the couple never had any children. They remained good friends until Foster died in 2001.
According to Variety, he is survived by his daughter from another relationship, Jamey Phillips; his sister Sondra Pugh, niece Suyin Shaw, grandnephews Elliot Shaw and Ese Shaw and grandniece Azaria Verdin.
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