Excerpt from the book "What Have We Here?" by Billy Dee Williams

Excerpt from the book “What Have We Here?” by Billy Dee Williams



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In his latest book, “What Have We Here?: Portraits of a Life” (published by Knopf), experienced actor Billy Dee Williams reflects on a past performance from his career, showcasing his versatility as both a romantic lead and a daring “Star Wars” protagonist.

Please read the following excerpt and be sure to catch Ben Mankiewicz’s interview with Billy Dee Williams on “CBS News Sunday Morning” airing on February 25.

“What is this?” by Billy Dee Williams

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At the age of almost eight, I found myself precisely where the universe intended me to be. I had a deep intuition about this and it gave me the ability to approach a potentially anxiety-inducing situation with a sense of peace and self-assurance, despite being a young child.

My mother and I were at a studio in the middle of Manhattan. On the way there, I reassured her that I wasn’t feeling anxious. I was trying out for a role in the Broadway musical The Firebrand of Florence, which featured music by Kurt Weil, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, a book by Edwin Justus Mayer, and staging by John Murray Anderson. All of them were highly respected in their respective industries. The show’s main star was Lotte Lenya, Weil’s wife.

My mother reassured, “You’ll be alright, Sonny.”

“I understand, Mom,” I reassured, giving her hand a gentle squeeze and returning her comforting gaze with a smile. “You don’t need to worry.”

Producer Max Gordon was in charge. He was my mother’s boss. At the start of World War II, my mother took a job as the elevator operator at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street between Sixth and Sev­enth Avenues. She had studied opera singing in school and dreamed of performing at the Metropolitan Opera House, but so far, this was the closest she got to the stage.

The Lyceum, located on Broadway, was a highly esteemed venue that my mother thoroughly enjoyed working at. After showcasing her talents as a stenographer and typist, she was offered a promotion to a secretary role, which led to her interacting with Gordon.

Gordon informed her of his upcoming production on Broadway, The Firebrand of Florence. He expressed his search for a young, adorable boy to portray the role of a page in the show.

My mother quickly brought up my name. He requested for him to be brought in. Let’s take a look at him.

She put me in my finest attire, which included a bow tie, jacket, shorts, high socks, and shiny shoes, for my audition. We then went to the theater downtown where I performed for director John Murray Anderson, playwright George S. Kaufman, and choreographer Catherine Littlefield, all esteemed figures in the theater industry. I was unaware of their status at the time.

In the first row, they were seated. John instructed me to make my way across the stage.

I meticulously adhered to his instructions, moving at a deliberate pace while keeping an eye on the crowd.

John praised, “Excellent!”

“May I repeat it?” I inquired.

“All right.”

I hurriedly returned to the stage and retraced my movements, this time interrupting my walk with a grin. After John complimented my performance and expressed gratitude for my presence, tears began to well up. He glanced at my mother, curious about the cause of my emotions. She turned to me, attempting to understand why I was distressed.

I expressed my desire to do it again.

Despite the circumstances, I was aware that I had a superior perspective within me.

John then inquired if I was able to sing. I immediately responded with enthusiasm, “Absolutely!”

I was hired, and I’ve been jokingly saying that I cried my way into the entertainment industry ever since.

My mother was filled with pride. Years later, she sent me a letter where she mentioned noticing “star quality” in my smile on that day. I still hold onto the letter. However, the memory that has always stayed with me is the warm hug I received from her after my audition. Making my mother happy was my top priority and that never changed. Although my work over the past eighty years has become more complex than simply walking on stage, my drive has remained constant. To do my best. To make my mother proud. To entertain the audience.


This excerpt is taken from the book “What Have We Here?” written by Billy Dee Williams in 2024. It is being shared with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction or reprinting of this excerpt is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.

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“What is This?” by Billy Dee Williams

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