Big Willie Robinson had a surprising career in the entertainment industry, working as an actor, rubbing shoulders with A-listers, and appearing in some iconic 1970s films. He even had connections to the “The Fast and the Furious” and “Star Wars” film franchises.
In 1977, at the height of "Star Wars" mania, Big Willie Robinson staged a special night of races at Brotherhood Raceway Park with help from Lucasfilm, the production company behind the film. Stormtroopers were there. Darth Vader was there. And the event drew a huge crowd.
Willie said that he was able to secure the "Star Wars" characters for his raceway because of his friendship with Gary Kurtz, the film's producer. Willie and Kurtz had met years earlier on the set of a street racing movie called "Two-Lane Blacktop." It was a connection that paid dividends. Willie boasted his was "the only racetrack on the planet" to get a visit from the "Star Wars" characters — and he was right.
The "Star Wars" race day drew a diverse crowd, including Mayor Tom Bradley, City Councilman Robert Farrell, Big Willie's family and even Tookie Williams, the co-founder of the Crips.
Doing it again in 1980
There was a second "Star Wars" event in 1980, after "The Empire Strikes Back" was released. Home video footage of that night shows Big Willie hamming it up with the Darth Vader and Boba Fett characters on the drag strip. "Let me get on the starting line with Darth Vader, because I don't want him to get mad," Willie says. "I hate to put some kung fu on him. See, Bruce Lee taught me some kung fu, Darth Vader. What do you think about Bruce Lee's kung fu?" The crowd eats it up. Before long, two jet cars compete in a fiery race.
Willie was a showman in every sense of the word. He was keen at marketing himself, and willing to swagger and brag, too. There was something that helped him create and cultivate the persona of Big Willie — he pumped iron. Willie wanted to be a professional bodybuilder. He had worked at a gym in the late 1960s and told several publications that he was training for the Mr. America competition, which drew the country’s best bodybuilders.
At 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, Willie took his training seriously. One 1973 article in Drag Racing magazine detailed Willie’s ridiculous diet. He began each day with a dozen raw eggs mixed with Tang and Carnation Instant Breakfast.
For all of Willie’s commitment to bodybuilding, he’d fall short in the only event there’s a record of him participating in: the 1976 Mr. America competition. Competing in the “Tall” category, Willie finished in sixth place — which was actually last place. The judges apparently weren’t impressed, and neither was a reporter for Muscular Development magazine, who wrote in the September 1976 issue that “Willie appeared relatively muscle-less and smooth” and that “he should never have been allowed to compete.” He quit competing, but his friend Steve Reyes said Willie learned something from his bodybuilding days that was really important: "If you are not out there doing some self-promotion, you're just one of the guys. You have [Arnold] Schwarzenegger and [Lou] Ferrigno or whatever — those guys obviously either had somebody to promote them or they self-promoted. That’s where he learned some of that early on and it carried over to the street deal — to the cars."
Down at the racetrack or out in the streets, Willie was larger than life — and that attracted attention. His celebrity led companies to offer him endorsement deals, like one with American Racing Equipment. The company ran ads for its wheels featuring Big Willie flexing in front of a fast ride.
Hollywood wanted a piece of Willie, too. He and the Brotherhood influenced the TV police procedural “Adam-12” and appeared in “CHiPs.” And Big Willie even befriended one of the biggest movie stars of all time: Paul Newman. Willie paid tribute to the man he called Brother Paul in this page from one of his scrapbooks, which are now maintained by friend Ted Moser.
In his own words
The 1970 film “WUSA” connected Willie with Newman, himself a gearhead. How it came about is strange. According to an L.A. Times article from that year, the filming of a scene in "WUSA" depicting a white power rally was scheduled to take place at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. But word got out in Watts that it was an actual rally for white supremacists. Trying to quell the growing — and misplaced — fury, Newman telephoned L.A. City Councilman Billy Mills, The Times reported. Mills called Willie, who stepped in to help smooth things over. In a show of appreciation, the article said, Newman included 100 street racers — "50 black and 50 white" — in the shoot.
The car magazines of the 1960s and ’70s also helped make Big Willie a star. And he reveled in the attention, documenting every article and every photograph in his oversized scrapbooks.
The legend grows
Perusing these magazines — which introduced Willie to the world of car fanatics outside of L.A. — there's a sense that Willie was the man for this moment.
Memorialized in music
Willie’s appearances in films and TV shows led to something else — his theme music. It comes from "Joyride to Nowhere," a 1977 movie about two young women who steal a car and lead a gang of criminals on a wild-goose chase. The B-movie features two musical interludes in which those runaways encounter Big Willie and the Brotherhood while they are staging a race. One song is called "Run Whatcha Brung," the other "Big Willie."
‘Run Whatcha Brung’
The film’s lead actresses, Sandra Alan Lee and Leslie Ackerman, remembered Willie fondly. Lee said that Big Willie "was like a big teddy bear; he was like the nicest guy." And Ackerman said that even though she was a street racing novice, it was immediately apparent to her that Willie commanded respect among his followers. "This was someone that they looked up to," she said. "This was someone that they revered." Some of Willie's charisma is on display in this clip from "Joyride to Nowhere" featuring the "Run Whatcha Brung" tune.
Jackets and vests spread the word
Big Willie found another way to connect with Hollywood — by giving high-profile people Brotherhood jackets or vests. It was a shrewd move. By wearing them, these prominent people were essentially endorsing Willie and his effort. That gave him political capital. He gave them to people like Paul Newman's brother, Arthur Newman, who worked as the production manager on "WUSA." Another recipient was Barry Meguiar, who hosted “Car Crazy,” a TV show that Willie appeared on in 2001. "I just got to tell you it was just, it was one of the highlights of my life," Meguiar said of receiving the vest.
'Two-Lane Blacktop' turbocharges the Brotherhood
Willie also gave Brotherhood jackets and vests to filmmakers he met on the set of "Two-Lane Blacktop." The 1971 street racing film, which starred Laurie Bird, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson — pictured from left to right in this publicity image — was a box office flop. But it would become a kind of beacon that won Big Willie and the Brotherhood fans from all over. Randall Roatch saw the movie as a boy, and it "stuck with me through my whole life," he said. Despite never meeting Big Willie, Roatch founded his own Brotherhood chapter in Minnesota — more than 40 years after seeing the movie. And “Two-Lane Blacktop” was the spark. But that's not all the film did.
Big Willie and ‘Star Wars’
It was "Two-Lane Blacktop" that connected Big Willie to producer Gary Kurtz. And Kurtz didn't forget him. In the lead-up to the making of "Star Wars," Willie said that Kurtz reached out to him with an offer — the part of Darth Vader. Or as Willie claimed: "Gary Kurtz told George Lucas, 'I got Darth Vader.'"
Big Willie used Hollywood to boost his image — and that of the Brotherhood. These days, anyone remotely interested in street racing has seen at least one film from the blockbuster “Fast & Furious” franchise. Willie himself never appeared in these movies — which in total have grossed more than $5 billion worldwide — but in a way, they are part of his legacy.
To hear Brotherhood member Fabian Arroyo and other members of the group tell it, there are some uncanny connections between those movies and their real-life organization. And the most intriguing one may be this: Throughout the film series, the character of Dominic Toretto, played by Vin Diesel, drives Dodge Chargers, including some vintage ones. And in “Fast & Furious 6,” Toretto drives a 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona. That's the exact car Willie drove — the one pictured here that he called the King Daytona. Dennis McCarthy, who served as the picture car coordinator for the film, was responsible for selecting the Daytona and he knew about Big Willie. "It was my choice to put in the movie, and that’s where it stemmed from," he said. "Numerous times I looked at that red Charger of Big Willie's, so maybe subconsciously that's where it came from." Ultimately, Big Willie helped put street racing on the map, ensuring it would become part of our pop culture.
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Reported by Daniel Miller. Digital production by Sean Greene. Edited by Kimi Yoshino. Video production by Myung Chun, Robert Meeks, Jason Neubert and J.R. Lizarraga. Copy edited by Rubaina Azhar. Photography by Myung Chun, Kirk McKoy, Howard Koby and Steve Reyes. Photos edited by Mary Cooney. Research by Scott Wilson. Audience engagement by Tessa Bangs.
Reported, written and hosted by Daniel Miller. Produced by Grant Irving. Edited by Catherine Saint Louis. Story supervision by Kimi Yoshino. Executive produced by Jonathan Hirsch. Additional production by Karan Nevatia. Sound design and mixing by Daniel Tureck. Music by Nolan Schneider and Grant Irving. Sound engineering by Mike Heflin. Research by Scott Wilson. Fact checking by Laura Bullard. Copy edited by Rubaina Azhar. Additional audio work by Myung Chun, Jason Neubert and Robert Meeks. Audio rights and clearance by Alan Hagman, Paige Hymson and Erica Varela. Legal work by Jeffrey Glasser. "Larger Than Life" is a production of LA Times Studios with support from Neon Hum Media.