Spending a few days in Toronto in bone-chilling wintry weather last weekend was certainly not appealing, particularly if you reside in California.
Veteran American actor, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, didn’t mind coming north for a brief period.
Given the cold shoulder in the United States despite his long and illustrious career as an actor, director and producer, Williamson was honoured to be recognized in Toronto for his extensive body of work that revolutionized the role of Black talent in Hollywood in the 1970s.
He emerged in that era as a tough, smooth-talking and slick cult hero in Blaxploitation (he hates the word) movies that portrayed Black actors playing lead roles and always coming out on top in action-packed classics.
The recipient of the Toronto Black Film Festival (TBFF) inaugural Pioneer Award presented last Friday night at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Williamson said he was flattered to be receiving the prestigious honour in Canada.
“It’s very strange that I am receiving such an award in Canada,” he said. “I have never been honoured in this way in my own country.”
Williamson, who has four martial arts black belts, didn’t mince words when asked about the American snub.
“You can’t always explain idiots,” he said. “You know that idiocy exists and you move on. That’s what I have been doing in my life. I don’t really expect anything from anybody. I am not in this business for the accolades. I am in it for my personal satisfaction and helping to spread the message that all Black people are not funny. That’s the reason why I got involved in the industry.”
A professional football player prior to entering the movie industry, Williamson was introduced to Canada in 1968, when he finished his career with the Montreal Alouettes.
“I didn’t care about coming to a new league,” he said. “All I cared about was the country. I wanted to come to a place where I knew there was less stress and I could have more fun while playing in a wide open and much more easier game for me. I like exploring other countries and cultures. And that’s the reason why I spend so much time in Europe these days. In the United States, you are only as good as your last movie or football game. In Canada and in Europe, people see what you accomplish and they gave you your due. They acknowledge hard work and respect you for it. America is a land of plenty where you are never satisfied and you always want to do something bigger and better.”
Williamson, who started his own production company in 1974, has appeared in over 100 feature films, including Three the Hard Way, which also featured Jim Brown and the late Jim Kelly, who died in June 2013.
“When we did that movie, we had a close relationship which has endured during the years,” said Williamson, whose only demand of his scripts was that he get the girl and win his fights. “I play golf with Jim at least three times weekly and I went to Kelly’s funeral. I am the only one left standing that’s still working. Jim had a couple of hip operations and knee surgery, Kelly has passed, Richard Roundtree gave up his image of Shaft and Billy Dee Williams weighs about 270 pounds. I am the only one left from the 70s that’s still making the kind of films that I want to produce. I represent the Black hero that we don’t have and need more of and that’s what keeps me going. It’s about showing that all Black people are not funny. Some of us will kick your butt and some of us will laugh. I like balance.”
Graduating in 1960 from Northwestern University with an architectural engineering degree, Williamson worked as an architect during the off-season for a decade while playing defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, which lost to the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl.
“After I became bored with football and quit the sport because I wasn’t being mentally and physically challenged anymore, I worked full-time as an architect,” he said. “But it was a 9-5 job with an hour lunch break and that didn’t fit with my personality. One night I was watching TV and Diahann Carroll had this show called ‘Julia’. I noticed that each week the guest star was a new boyfriend and I said that I am better looking than any of those guys. I told myself I am going to Hollywood to become her boyfriend. It took me three days.”
Nicknamed “The Hammer” for his punishing hits on wide receivers, Williamson was one of the first professional athletes to exploit celebrity culture and engage in personal branding.
“I drew little hammers on my pants and forearm pads and was fined $100 by the league because they thought I was promoting violence,” said Williamson, who was also fined $100 a game for wearing white shoes on the football field. “I said ‘OK’ and paid the fines with a smile. I knew what I was doing. I was creating an image and marketability. If I didn’t find a job after football, I was going to sell Hammer hotdogs or Hammer hamburgers. That was what I was promoting. People knew who ‘The Hammer’ was and I made sure they did.”
Now 76 and still making movies, Williamson said he hardly watches the National Football League (NFL).
“I prefer to watch college football,” he said. “It’s hard for me to watch guys making $4 million who can’t cover anybody. When I came into the league, my salary was $9,500 and after 10 years, I was making $34,000. If I was making the kind of money those guys are making today, I would be all over the wide receiver I am covering. I would be bleeding on him and blowing snot on him.”
Haitian-born award-winning actress, Fabienne Colas, started the TBFF in 2012.