Clarence Williams III talks like he acts.
His sentences soar--at times crashing into one another, at others slinking out methodically with caution and care. Intensity is the only constant.
Time has been extra-generous to the actor, who looks younger than his 55 years. Other than gray-tinged hair, the only hints of his age are mentions of "Jimmy" (author James Baldwin) as a close friend or reflections on Hollywood before the recent in-roads made by black directors and producers.
And as he shifts back and forth on a couch at a Beverly Hills hotel, Williams exhibits why director Rusty Cundieff and his co-producer, Darin Scott, sought him out to play Mr. Simms, an eerie mortician who teeters somewhere between a spooky Vincent Price and a coy Rod Sterling in the new urban horror film "Tales From the Hood," which opened last week.
In "Tales," Williams is the emotional anchor and navigator for three young men in search of a lost drug stash. He said the role was an opportunity for him to portray a ghastly villain and experience the fun of special effects and an elaborate make-over. Most important, though, it was an avenue to send a message to black youth.
"There is an awful lot of black-on-black crime and violence that these young men seem to be visiting upon each other," he said, puffing on a cigarette. "And if you pin one of them against the wall to say, 'Why are you doing this?,' they can come up with all kinds of convoluted explanations."
Williams said the film attempts to show the evils of black-on-black crime.
The chance to work with an up-and-coming director like Cundieff, who directed the spoof "Fear of a Black Hat," drew Williams in.
"To get involved with young, new filmmakers who are taking the reins and responsibility was also a lure," Williams said. "They [the writer and producer] had something they wanted to say about the urban condition. It's difficult to get a story like that, in a kind of entertaining genre, to keep the audience in the theater so you can serve up what you want to serve up to them. So I thought it was absolutely brilliant on their part to think in terms of the horror genre and then marry it with these very serious stories."
Most recently, movie fans remember Williams as Wesley Snipes' strung-out father in "Sugar Hill" or as the deeply religious detective in "Deep Cover" with Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum.
Ten years ago he won rave reviews when he starred as the troubled father, Frances L., in 1984's "Purple Rain." Working with Prince was "chaotic," but a special experience in his life, Williams said.
He described one moment during a break in the filming.
"There was an acoustic guitar laying on the set and Prince was sitting on 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 said. "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."
Despite his recent portrayals of men battling internal demons, many still envision Williams in his role on the television series "The Mod Squad," which ran from 1968 to 1973 on ABC. As crime-fighting Linc Hayes, he personified "cool." Bell-bottomed and slick, he was one of the first black men to play a strong character and have such a significant role on television.
"It was 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," he said. "I get so much feedback from that show even now and it is almost 30 years old."
Williams took the plunge into acting accidentally in 1957.
While waiting to borrow $20 from his sister, who worked at the Harlem YMCA, he decided to check out a play in the theater downstairs. He walked in through a stage door and found himself in the middle of a scene.
The director summoned him to her side.
"She asked, 'Are you an actor?' I said no. She said, 'Would you like to be one?' I said yes.
"She gave me couple of lines and obviously I read them very badly. But in that play, a fable called 'Dark of the Moon,' were Cicely Tyson, Isabel Sanford and Roscoe Lee Browne in their first or second roles."
He went from designing sets to serving in the Army. After returning from a two-year stint as a paratrooper, he jumped headfirst into acting with his first film, "A Cool World," directed by Shirley Clarke. What followed has been nearly 30 years of consistent Broadway and movie roles, including a Tony nomination for "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground."
Although he keeps an apartment here, Williams remains based in New York. He cherishes his roots in Harlem and spends most of his time at his Upper West Side home in New York with a female companion, sifting through scripts and reading. Between stage shows and movies there isn't much time for other things. But Williams, who has no children from a previous marriage, prefers it that way. And other jobs in the movie business aren't in his immediate plans.
"I think there are enough incompetent people running with Directors Guild cards," Williams said. "I like acting. My ego is not tied into walking on the set and having director on my chair. It's about the work. It truly is about the work. After the final analysis, after all the toys you've purchased and all the money you have made, I would like to have some record of some quality portraits I tried to do."