"Fred Williamson Still “The Hammer” On His Terms"

June 10th, 2015

Fred Williamson During his eight seasons as an NFL cornerback, Fred Williamson was known as “The Hammer” because of the way he judo-chopped receivers with a forearm to the head. That was 50 years ago, and now Williamson is just shy of 80. But make no mistake, The Hammer could still beat up me and 10 of my friends in a street fight with very little effort. Of course I don’t have 10 friends, but that’s another story.

After retiring from football, Fred became an actor, and attacked his film and TV roles with the same zeal as he once had with wide receivers. His big break came in 1969 when Fred was cast as Diahann Carroll’s love interest in the groundbreaking television series, Julia. I asked my friend Diahann how it was to work with Fred. “I liked him,” she said. “He had a very dry sense of humor and so do I," (laughs) "and also I thought he was quite serious about his work, which is terribly important, particularly when you’re doing a television series, and you’re together on a daily basis.”

Even then, Diahann recognized Fred’s drive and ambition, and she also predicted the course he would set for himself. “He wanted to conquer the world, which was so very difficult for black actors to do, and the few who have done it, have found it was more sensible to also be part of producing and directing.”

And that’s exactly what Williamson did. He set out to control his own image and his own destiny and has, to date, produced and directed over 30 films. I spoke with Fred late last month as he was returning from a Wounded Warriors event.

JL: Why was it so important for you to branch out from acting and become a writer/producer/director?
FW: It’s really simple. The kinds of roles they were offering blacks at the time just did not fit my image and my character. I mean, I graduated from Northwestern University with an architectural engineering degree. As a matter of fact, I worked as an architectural engineer for Bechtel Steel in the off-season when I wasn’t playing football. So I had an image of what I wanted to see in Hollywood, and it just wasn’t given to me. At that time blacks needed heroes. We didn’t have any heroes. All we had was Sidney Poitier, and Sidney is a great actor, but he didn’t represent anything to me on a physical side. Me being a physical person, coming out of football, I’m not the kind of guy who can turn the other cheek. That’s my weakness. If you hit me, I’m taking you out. Anyway, that was a time when they were siccing dogs on black people, and turning water cannons on blacks in the street. There was no stand-up guy in Hollywood to represent us.
So I took it upon myself to be that kind of guy. Also, I knew that if I was going to be successful in the film business that I would have to do it myself.

The film that launched Fred’s big screen career was The Legend of Nigger Charley.

FW: That was my step into being a black man on film. Being harassed, being a slave who kicks the master’s ass, runs away, and becomes a gunfighter in the West. That stood the black community on my side, watching me make this transition into being a tough guy.

Williamson continued that tough guy persona in a string of movies that some critics labeled as "blaxploitation" films. Fred didn’t necessarily see it that way.

FW: Back then blacks were making films that were all about “Let’s get Whitey”, “Let’s pay back Whitey”, and that’s not the kind of films I wanted to make. It’s not the way I felt. I killed all the bad guys, regardless of race. If you were bad, you went down in my movies.
JL: Speaking of race, guys like you have come under fire from blacks and whites alike for using the “N” word in your films. Do you ever wish you hadn’t done that?
FW: If people hide from the word, then it is an issue. If it’s used and overused, it doesn’t become acceptable, and it doesn’t create any negativity. Also, everything has a different interpretation when you say it, like I say “Dawg” a lot." (laughs)
JL: A couple of years ago, the NFL tried to enforce a 15-yard penalty for anyone of any race who used the “N word on the field.
FW: Yeah, well look how fast that went away. They were trying to be politically correct, but I guarantee you that word is being used out there by big fat guys staring at each other at the line of scrimmage.
JL: Speaking of the NFL, I guess with all of the new rules in place to protect the offensive guys, if you were playing now, you’d be in jail.
FW: No, they would just fine me $25,000 as soon as I stepped out onto the field, and when they kicked off, they would fine me another $25,000 because they know I was going to drop the hammer on somebody." (laughs)
JL: But a lot of NFL players have retired with concussions and suffer with the effects of long term injury, so it’s a serious issue.
FW: Yeah, but how do you know where the concussion came from? That’s the problem. You can’t prove that your concussion came from when you played in the NFL. You could have got it in high school or college. That’s the argument that the League is going to get around to. The only way to prove it, is to take a baseline MRI the first day of camp, then do a follow up periodically. Then you’ve got an argument.
JL: Did you like playing football more than making movies?
FW: No. You can’t compare an athlete to an actor. An actor is full of bullshit. You can kiss ass and get a part in a movie, but you can’t kiss ass and make a team. A team is ability, you’ve got to be good enough to do what you say you can do. An actor is in a business, and I’m lucky to be in it, but it’s not the same as being a professional athlete.
JL: Did you have as much fun making westerns as I did watching them?
FW: Yeah! I mean you try to ride a horse and look cool when you’ve never been on a horse in your whole life, and you try to ride like John Wayne—shit! That’s a challenge, that’s great, that’s creative stuff. That’s doing something different in your life, and it’s challenging.

I originally called Fred because he was scheduled to attend next month’s Western Film Fair in Winston-Salem, but that now conflicts with a movie he’s scheduled to shoot in Rome. Before we concluded our conversation, I asked Fred to repeat his oft-quoted “3 Rules of Law” that he has for anyone who wants him to star in their film.

FW: You can’t kill me in the movie. I have to win all my fights, and I get the girl at the end of the movie if I want her. If you don’t want to do that, then I ain’t interested." (laughs)

So sayeth “The Hammer”. But he better look out, ‘cause someday when he least expects it, I will actually have 10 friends, and we’ll be ready to rumble.

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