The world is not black and white for Clarence Williams III. ”People are constantly asking me about ‘black films,”’ declares Williams, 54, who plays Wesley Snipes’ heroin-addicted father in the gritty Sugar Hill. ”I don’t think that does anybody any good. I don’t know what you classify as a ‘black film.’ Does it mean everyone on screen has to be black? Or everyone behind the camera?”
Things have certainly changed since he played one of TV’s hippest cops, Linc Hayes, on the 1968-73 series The Mod Squad. (Peggy Lipton and Michael Cole costarred as his partners.) Unimpressed by the one-dimensional action- movie roles then open to black stars, Williams says he turned offers down for years.
”The word that was bandied about was blaxploitation films. They gave a lot of people the opportunity to work. I just didn’t want to do them,” he says. Instead, Williams returned to the stage (in 1979, he costarred with Maggie Smith in Night and Day on Broadway). Then he built a film career as an intense character actor, playing Prince’s abusive dad in 1984’s Purple Rain and a righteous cop in 1992’s Deep Cover. Williams, who is divorced and divides his time between, among other places, New York and L.A. (”I just sort of float around”), played a leader of the 1971 Attica riot in the recent HBO film Against the Wall.
But no bad-guy role can ever erase the memory of his TV lawman: The Mod Squad is currently hyped in a Budweiser TV ad, while Williams himself is still stopped in the street by boomers who recall that Linc sprinkled conversations with a terse ”Solid.” And at the L.A. premiere of Sugar Hill, a young woman approached Williams. ”I thought she’d say, ‘I liked you in the movie,”’ says Williams. ”Instead, she said, ‘I’d like you to meet my sister. We’re Peggy Lipton’s daughters.’ It gave me a warm feeling. The next generation is coming on line.”