One of the pioneers of blaxploitation action films, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson played professional football for the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1960) and the AFL with the Oakland Raiders (1961–1964) and the Kansas City Chiefs (1965–1967) before he began making feature films, which launched him as a verifiable action star and sex symbol.
For over thirty years, he kept himself in the action game, starring or appearing in several films every year until he was in his late 60s, and even until this day he remains busy appearing in low-budget action films. With black belts in kenpo karate, Shotokan karate, and taekwondo, he usually uses his own blend of martial arts in his films, laying “the hammer” down on the bad guys.
He appeared in a number of films with his fellow blaxploitation titans Jim Brown and Jim Kelly, and he made a slew of films in Italy during the lucrative Italian movie boom of the 1970s and 1980s. With his signature mustache and cigarillo, Fred Williamson is one of the great “B” action stars.
Before you launched your film and television career you worked as an architect.
I worked as an architect in the off-season while I was playing ball at the same time. It was six months as a football player and six months as an architect.
Why did you decide to give that up for film and television?
I couldn’t smoothly make the transition after being a football player for six months out of the year, six months on, six months off. My time was unregulated so once I left football and went to work full time sitting at a desk, doing 9 to 5 and all that shit, it just didn’t suit my personality, man. One night I’m watching television and about nine months of that architectural stuff, I had to find something else and I didn’t know what to do. I was watching television and I saw Diahann Carroll had a TV show called Julia. The guest star for the week was playing her new boyfriend. So I said, “Shit, I’m better looking than any of those guys.” I went to Hollywood to be Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend on the Julia show and that’s what I did. It took me about a week to establish a contract for me to be the boyfriend.
What was it like making movies in the 70’s during the time black action films were thriving?
I had a plan when I went to Hollywood and I was going to be the same kind of man I was when I was playing football. I decided if I was going to go into the business it was going to be on my terms and I was going to be a hero. There were no black heroes in my era growing up, no one to look up to. The only person we had was Sidney Poitier, he was a damn good actor but not the hero type so if I was going into the business, it was going to be “Hammer Style”. When I was doing the Julia show, we were filming on the 20th Century Fox lot and one day a guy comes by and says, “Hey, you’re the Hammer right?” I said, “Yeah.” So he said, “I’m doing a movie with some football shit in it and I don’t know shit about football. Would you direct the football stuff and put the football stuff together?” Lucky for me the movie was M.A.S.H. and I played Spearchucker. I was like, “Shit, this is nothing. You guys make money by standing up here and saying lines, this is easy.” So I called a press conference and said I was going to make films. I’m not doing any more television and I’m not doing comedy. I told them I had three rules: If you want me in your movie I won’t die in the movie, I win all my fights in a movie, and I get the girl at the end of the movie……IF I want her. Give me two out of three of those and you got me in your movie. They thought I was crazy like, “Who the fuck is this guy?”. I knew I could pull it off so I went to Paramount, I says, “Hey Paramount, you never had a black cowboy, ever.” They , said, “This is true.” I told them, “Give me $500,000 and I’ll make a western.” They said, “You can’t make a movie for $500,000.” I said, “Give me the money, I’ll show ya.” They said, “O.K. I’ll give you $500,000 to make a movie. What’s the name of it?” I said, “It’s The Legend of Nigger Charley.” He about fell out of his goddamn seat and that’s the reaction I expected. If I make this movie, that was the reaction I wanted from the public. I knew coming into the business that blacks needed heroes and I wasn’t going to be the comic because 90% of the blacks in the business at that time were comics. Everybody was funny, coming from Mars and landing in America for the first time think all black people are funny. We’re not all funny, some of us can kick some ass. Nigger Charley was the beginning of it, after that there was Black Caesar, Three the Hard Way, and it was the foundation of the strong black character I was going to play.
What were some of your favorite pictures from that period in your career, some of the highlights?
Well, now, you see, I don’t do anything I don’t like. If they adhere to two of my three rules, everything I do I like. When I take a small role in someone else’s film it becomes a big role because they know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna fight and kick somebody’s ass then I’m gonna ride off into the sunset with the pretty girl. So, what I sell is an image, I’m an image seller. I’m a black Clint Eastwood who knows martial arts or a black Charles Bronson with a big gun. Those are the characters I play and I don’t stray from that image. That image is always marketable, I don’t sing, I don’t dance, and I don’t tell funnies. I can, but I won’t do them in my movies because that’s not what my fans want to see.
How do you feel your career changed when you started Po Boy Productions?
Po Boy Productions only emphasized what it was I wanted to do. Now I’m in total control and I know damn well I’m not dying in my own movie. And I’m gonna whip the ass in my own movies. All it did was solidify the image I had created so I created my own company and all the roles I would play. They’re all the same, they’re an exaggeration of who I really am, a badass guy, sho enough. The only way to really find out is to challenge me and that won’t happen.
The films you did in the 80’s were some of my favorites, The Big Score, the Black Cobra films, the post-apocalyptic films, what’s your take on this period in your career?
You see what happened was all the black guys disappeared. You see all these black actors fucked up. They had the chance to extend their careers but in the 70’s all they were doing was retribution movies, they wanted to kick whitey’s ass. That’s all they talked about in the films, “Lets kill the white motherfucker.” You see me, I killed black people, white people, yellow people, I killed everybody. So my films didn’t quite fit into that genre of black exploitation. The only reason they tried to lump me in there was because I’m black. But my subject matter or my themes had nothing to do with killing whitey. I kill everybody, I’m an equal opportunity ass kicker.
One of my all-time favorite films came out of this time period, William Lustig’s Vigilante. You and Robert Forester were amazing. How do you remember the film?
Vigilante for me was the chance to write the monologue in the beginning. Lustig told me he was going to do a vigilante picture so I just told him to start it up and use my image to open the movie the right way. I come out of a dark room and start spout off at the mouth to a bunch of people telling them how we had to take our city back. That was me utilizing my image, so it was a perfect vehicle for me.
It seemed like every decade gave birth to a recurring character for you. The 70’s was Crowder, the 80’s was Malone, then the late 90’s was Dakota Smith. Each one seemed to represent their the decade they were prominent in, was this intentional?
Most definitely intentional, I wanted an identity like Dirty Harry. I started with Jesse Crowder but the story about Crowder is weird, man. When I was in high school looking for my identity and I was watching these two guys who were seniors. One guy was named Jesse Crowder and the other was Eugene Greenwaldt, they were football players. They would tell everyone in school to say hi to them but I never seen either of them fight or get angry but everyone was afraid of them. They had a style about them that scared the shit out of people. Maybe they were just dumb or stupid but you would walk down the hall and say, “Hey Jesse.” You would walk away from them and say, “Damn, that was a cool dude but maybe he’s dumb.” But he had a cool image and people were afraid of him and that was who I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be the guy who went to the party, I wanted to be the guy who the party came to. So when I came up with Jesse Crowder, I was inspired by this guy. But guess what Jesse Crowder does, he sues me. I’m using that name and this guy wants to get paid. This guy just ruined my bubble, man. I had to get a lawyer and counter-sue or he would have won. We go to court in Chicago and my lawyer pulls out fives phone books and opens them all up to the name Jesse Crowder and there were like 2000 Jesse Crowders and asked, “Which one of these are you?” We embarrassed this guy in court and all he had was some rinky-dink lawyer. We won but I had to give up Jesse Crowder. I gave this guy something to be proud of and in town he was proud to be Jesse Crowder. He had all my posters with the name on them to show people, I thought he would be proud since I was doing the name justice. Then he sues me.
A few of your films are hard to come by, why is that? I had a hell of a time tracking down The Rage Within but I managed to get a copy from Hong Kong.
Nobody took them seriously. You still can’t find a good copy of The Legend of Nigger Charley, they just didn’t think they had the legs or the impact on the community they thought they would have. They didn’t realize there was a black audience out there dying to see heroes who were black. I was there to show them that films starring a black person can make money because there was an audience out there waiting. They just discarded them, you know? Now everyone is looking for them and they disappeared, no one knows where the prints are and those films still have legs. Black Caesar plays all the time and I did Original Gangstas and that plays all the time. They were fighting me back in the day when I was in films doing big business. On one side there were the movie with the $40-50 million budgets but the lines were across the street for my little films. My movies cost less than a million dollars and all the people were lined up for me. They stopped marketing the little films because the studio didn’t like the competition.
Do you think doing From Dusk Till Dawn help to introduce you to a new generation of fans?
Probably, because the films I make are still considered to be black films, hell, I would be the only black man in the film and they’d still call it a black film. It was hard getting rid of that stigma so that was a problem and it helped.
I haven’t watched it yet but I have to know what the deal was with the film Detective Malone Umberto Lenzi did.
When I started making my own films, they started to tell me my films weren’t doing good business in Europe. I knew that was bullshit, I had a lot of foreign girlfriends and they tried to tell me they didn’t like me in Europe. They’re full of shit. My films were just as big over there as they were over here. And the reason I found out was because companies like AIP were selling every film with a black star in it for $3000 across the board no matter what the film was as long as there was a black star. That’s because these distributors in the foreign market were outsmarting the folks over here and playing against their prejudices by saying these black films weren’t gonna make money over here. I wasn’t going to sell my movies for $3000. The first one I tried to sell at the Cannes Film Festival was Adios Amigos with Richard Pryor. I paid to have a table set up with my posters and flyers, I had a bunch of girls in their t-shirts and the first offer I got was from Greece for $3000. I said, “No, no, no, no, nooooo, $25,000”. They wouldn’t shell that money out so after eight days I still had all my movies and on the very last day I had $275,000 to $300,000 in sales. Then these distributors would come to me and say, “Don’t tell anyone what I just paid for this film.” So I knew my films were doing well so I decided to stay in Europe for a little while, the first movie I did was Inglorious Bastards with Bo Svenson. Tarantino copied it later on. Enzo Castellari and I were making films like 1990: Bronx Warriors and they were trying to get me to replace Woody Strode who was very popular over there. He was smart and left the states and headed straight there making those gladiator movies and he was aging and couldn’t do them anymore. So the first films I did over there were those sort of films. Since Clint had just left, I wanted to take over and fill that void and do the police action stuff so I did the three Cobra films and they were equal to what I was doing in the states.
So then how did part four end up happening? You weren’t even it that one.
Not even close, man. They did it all behind my back, they found some black guy and shot him from the back, took some old footage from the first three films and made some sort of mish mosh. I went over there man and they did one of those office tours and at the time it was in Milan. I went in there and about tore that office up. They can’t make a fourth film starring me and I’m not really in it. They paid me off, said they were very sorry and I walked out of there with some cash money.
You’ve done numerous films with people like Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Jim Kelly, Gary Busey, and the list goes on. What are the advantages to working with these people time and again?
The advantages is something Stallone has learned that if you have all these stars in your film, singularly they don’t mean a lot, but collectively people will become very interested. They all have to work together and that’s what I did with Original Gangsta. Brown, Roundtree, Grier, they all have an audience but Hollywood don’t really care about their audience. You have everyone in the film do their thing. Unless it’s Stallone’s film then he does everything. He has Jet Li in there and doesn’t even give him a really great fight scene and he’s a damn good martial artist. Jet Li didn’t do shit in the first one. You reach a whole different audience when you bring everyone together and that’s what I did in several films. Hollywood doesn’t think we can carry a movie anymore but when we’re together there’s power in there.
One of my all-time favorite actresses is Pam Grier and she was one of the sweetest people I had ever met. What can you tell me about working with her?
Let me tell you something, they all sweet once you pay them. You pay them money and they’re all great. The key is to give them a job, something they’re noted for, maybe a sense of identity. Pam Grier resurfaced in Original Gangstas and went on to do Jackie Brown. Robert Forster got more work from being in that film. They get back their sense of identity and people take notice.
So tell me about the first time you met the director of your most recent film Atomic Eden, Nico Sentner.
I met Nico at the American Film market and he was running around being very ambitious, a determined producer, director, and writer. He was recruiting people to work in his film and he asked me to be in it. Why not? He knew the kind of roles that I play and as long as he didn’t do anything to assassinate my image or my character, I’ll be in the movie and he came up with Atomic Eden.
How was your time filming in Germany?
Filming in Germany is just as unusual as filming in Italy. It’s better shooting in Germany because in Italy they still shoot using those Arriflex cameras. Everyone is talking in the background, ordering tea because they know they’ll be looping the sound in later. Those cameras sound like a goddamn washing machine. Nico shot using direct sound and in Italy they just don’t care, they deal with it later.
What can you tell me about your character Stoker?
Stoker is a tough guy, a leader, he kicks ass, takes no stuff, does a little martial arts, slaps a few people around, wins the fight, and I don’t get the girl because they’re all too young, man. I didn’t get a love scene because they had all them young chicks in there. It’s a role where I’m a badass, he followed my rules, so I was in the movie.
Was there any particular scene that was difficult to shoot or are you pretty much prepared for everything?
I’m always prepared for everything, I make recommendations for things that aren’t in the script that might be something my character would do or how he would respond. Nico allowed that and it’s a sign of a good director. The script is just a guideline and you have to judge for yourself how your character should react. From the guideline, I take it four or five steps further, relative to my image or character. He was smart enough to allow me to do that. You can’t write a script perfectly for an actor when you hire him because you know what he brings to the table, you just let him loose.
Much of the cast are relative newcomers, did they look up to you as a mentor?
Sure they did, that way I could control them. The way to being a badass is to be indifferent to all of them that way they think I really am who they think I am and it forces them to pull their performance level up to mine. And I’m the kind of guy who would say to them, “What the fuck are you doing? Start that shit over. That was bullshit!” I just brought me to the table and they all had to deal with it.
I was excited to learn you were starring in the film with Mike Moller who’s a very talented action star on the rise, what were your impressions of him?
You’re right you know, it’s true. He’s got presence and the camera sees it. You can’t hide from the camera, you either have it or you don’t. The camera catches it and it likes Mike the way it likes me. If it likes you and what you have is marketable or sellable, you’re on your way.
This is the first time you appeared in a film with veteran action star Lorenzo Lamas. Do you get to share any scenes together?
First film but I was on his show Renegade. I had a big fight scene with him and no we didn’t.
Are you still practicing the martial arts? Can you tell me a bit about your discipline and background?
Yeah, of course. I have four black belts and I just came from New Jersey, I got a trophy and an award for being a sensei. I’m still connected to the martial arts, I studied with Bruce Lee when I was in Hong Kong, Aaron Banks in New York so I’m very active, it’s how I stay in shape. Why do you think I look as good as I do, I don’t look the age that I am.
You still look the same as you did in the 80’s.
No doubt, dog. Ain’t no changes here, man.
Your IMDB has you listed as being attached to quite a few new projects, there were a couple that caught my attention. It’s rumored that you’ll be revisiting two of your most famous characters, Robert Malone and Dakota Smith. Any truth to this?
Yeah, I’m gonna do that. The Last Hitman is gonna bring back Dakota Smith, I signed Franco Nero and Gary Busey. Nero is going to be the villain so yeah, I’m always trying to get projects like that going. I’m trying to sustain my identity and when I tell people I’m making one people get all excited. The guys who put up the money don’t get excited as the ones who want to see it, that’s the problem. Those movies are all made for under a million bucks and it still surprises me I have such a hard time raising money, knowing full well the films will be successful and marketable. I can’t raise a million dollars to make a film and it’s ridiculous some of the bullshit that gets made and cost more money than I need.
Are you still trying to pursue Old School Gangstas?
I got some people in Atlanta, Georgia trying to put together a package so I can make O.G. When I tell people I’m going to make a sequel to Original Gangstas people’s faces just light up. This time I got Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Antonio Fargas but I still need to find me a white villain. It’s exciting getting everyone together and people want to see it. People want to know what they look like and if they can still fight. And the ones who can’t fight, I’ll protect them. I’ll give them a character who won’t have to fight and I’ll fight for them.
After 45+years in the business, how would you sum up your career?
I’m not even there yet, man. I’m not even close to doing the things I want to do. It’s hard to find money and people who will believe in you. People are spending thirty to forty million dollars on a movie that can barely make a million. My movies cost a million and usually make thirty million. It’s frustrating, man.
Hammer, thanks for taking the time to speak with me, it’s been a real honor.