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Fred Williamson was one of the major stars of Black action films in the 70s. He was trained as an architect but ended up playing professional football after graduating from Northwestern University. He played in the first Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs.
His first role was Steve Bruce on the late 60s, early 70s sitcom, Julia, which starred Diahann Carroll. He played Carroll's boyfriend and felt the role was too mild-mannered for him.
"It was a wonderful acting experience," says Williamson in an interview for What it Is...What it Was, "But it didn't satisfy me. It wasn't the way that I perceived myself. I mean, here I am tall, dark, handsome, in shape. Why can't I be an action hero? Why can't I be the kind of hero that I saw and admired on screen?"
After his first movie, M*A*S*H, where he played the supporting role of Captain Oliver Harmon Jones, he decided to move forward with the character he envisioned. He formed his own production company, Po'Boy Productions and began selling his vision to Hollywood. The first movie he sold (to Paramount) was The Legend of Nigger Charley.
"[Hollywood] never had a Black cowboy before, not a really standup kind of cowboy: A guy who starts off as a slave, beats up his slave master, escapes from the plantation, goes West, and becomes a gunfighter. This is the kind of character that I perceived myself as playing in Hollywood."
Williamson called the film "Nigger Charley" because it was controversial, which sells. Because of the incendiary word in the title, aliases included Black Charley and The Legend of Charley when it was talked about in the press.
Williamson went on to star in several cult Black action films including Black Caesar, Hell Up In Harlem, Three the Hard Way, Bucktown, and several more. He's appeared in over 30 films (some of which he wrote, produced and directed) since he began acting, and is likened to his White counterparts, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds.
According to IMDB, Williamson turned down a role in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka because he didn't want to parody the "Cool Action Hero," an image which he helped to create.
The lead role in Black Caesar was originally offered to Sammy Davis Jr. who turned it down.
It seems there's a slight resurgence in the Black male action hero, and rapper Common is poised to take the reigns. He has Smokin' Aces and Wanted under his belt, but with his role in the forthcoming Terminator, he might solidify his status in Hollywood as the next Black action hero. I'd love to see some if Williamson's flicks ie, Black Caesar, remade, starring Common.