One of the first Black actors to lead a TV series, Williams died of colon cancer in Los Angeles on Friday.

By Rosy Cordero
June 06, 2021 at 06:28 PM EDT

Clarence Williams III, who starred in the Emmy-nominated crime-drama series The Mod Squad, died from colon cancer in Los Angeles on Friday. He was 81. A representative for Williams confirmed the news to EW.

Before the New York native landed the role of the show's undercover cop Lincoln "Linc" Hayes, he'd been steadily performing on Broadway after a stint as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. In the early 1960s, he appeared on stage in The Long Dream, Walk in Darkness, Doubletalk, and King John before scoring his first Tony nomination for his contributions to William Hanley's Slow Dance on the Killing Ground.

On the heels of Williams' success, executive producer Aaron Spelling hired him to star opposite Peggy Lipton and Michael Cole in the The Mod Squad, which ran on ABC from 1968 to 1973. The counterculture police series earned six Emmy nominations and four Golden Globe nominations. Thanks to the role, Williams became one of the first Black actors to lead a TV series.

In the show, Williams, Lipton, and Cole portrayed young undercover cops who chose to work on the right side of the law after each had run-ins with it. They were beloved by audiences for their hip ensembles and trendsetting hairdos.

In a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Williams described Linc as "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 also made appearances on other hit TV shows including Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, The Cosby Show, Twin Peaks, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Everybody Hates Chris.

The Mod Squad
Clarence Williams III, Peggy Lipton, and Michael Cole in 'The Mod Squad'
| Credit: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

He made his big-screen debut in Prince's Purple Rain, where he played the Kid's (Prince) abusive dad, known as Father, in 1984. "There was an acoustic guitar laying on the set and Prince was sitting on the floor, just staring off into space and I guess he was going through the same process I was going through — thinking about what we had shot," Williams told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. "He just picked up the guitar and started doodling. I had my eyes closed, and I was leaning back in the chair and I thought about Jimi Hendrix. I mean he was hitting some chords and the soundstage was absolutely quiet. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience."

Williams' other film credits include I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Half Baked, Reindeer Games, American Gangster, and The Butler.

Williams was married to fellow actor Gloria Foster from 1967 until 1984, when they agreed to divorce. They remained friends and had no children together. He is survived by his daughter Jamey Phillips and sister Sondra Pugh.

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