Fred Williamson is a noted actor, writer, producer, and former AFL football player from America. He has forged his own way in life, doing what he wants and learning what he needs along the way to make it happen. Discover more about him in this article based upon an
in-person interview with Kreol Magazine.
Success in life can be difficult to achieve, and along the way you are likely to encounter a great many people who will stand in your way. With perseverance and determination though, you can win against the odds and overcome those who doubt you or would otherwise stand in your way. American actor and athlete Fred Williamson could tell you all about success in the face of obstacles. A native of Gary, Indiana, Williamson overcame abject poverty to become both a star on the gridiron of American football and a legend on the big screen.
Cultivating an Image
Williamson was born into one of the poorest cities in America. Gary, Indiana has long had the lowest per capita income in the country, but he didn’t let the neighbourhood he grew up in define him or keep him down. Williamson attended Northwestern University near Chicago, Illinois, just over an hour away from his hometown. He played American football there for three seasons and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree for his studies in architecture.
However, after completing school at Northwestern and going undrafted in the American Football League (AFL), a past competitor to the modern-day NFL, Williamson became one of the first football players in American history to cultivate an image and boast about himself while playing in the league.
He played in the AFL for eight seasons. His first season was spent with the San Francisco 49ers, and then he played four seasons for the Oakland Raiders and his final three seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs. It was with the Chiefs that he cultivated his rough and tumble image. Williamson was known for “bringing down the hammer” on offensive players by delivering blows to the head with his forearm. Promoting himself as The Hammer, Williamson enjoyed a successful AFL career that included an AFL Championship with the Chiefs.
The Hammer Comes Down on the Big Screen
After eight grueling seasons on the gridiron of American football, Williamson turned his attentions elsewhere. During the offseason in the AFL he had tried to ply his trade as an architect, but he found it difficult to adjust to the life of a 9-to-5 working individual. He even spent time doing it right after his football career, but quickly found it wasn’t for him:
“So I’m an architectural engineer by trade, so I did that, but then I couldn’t adjust to 9 to 5, an hour for lunch, and a 9 to 5 job. One night I was watching television and I saw Diahann Carroll. First black actress to have her own television show and I noticed that each week the guest star role was a new boyfriend. And I said I’m going to Hollywood and become Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend on the Julia Show. So I did that. It took me two weeks to accomplish that and I was there for three years.”
From that springboard, Williamson’s career followed a progressive climb upward in terms of success. He has worked with actresses and actors around the globe as a director, writer, and producer. At one point, Williamson spent 20 years living in Rome. He fondly recalls his time spent living and working abroad. After two decades in Rome, where he still maintains a home, he looks back on the time with fondness. He recalls preferring to work with foreign actresses as opposed to American actresses:
“The foreign actress. They’re less conceited. They’re more involved in the final product than in powering themselves in becoming more popular.”
Not one to shy away from sharing his true feelings, Williamson proudly states that his acting career was built on how he views life. To him, life is acting, so building a career in acting isn’t any more or less difficult than other endeavours in life.
“Life is acting. All you have to repeat the memories what you did to accomplish something that you wanted that you didn’t really have … It’s like going to get a loan and start lying about how available you are so you can get a loan. Life is acting, right? So for me it was easy because I’m not concerned about what people think about me. Okay? So if you have that freedom of just going in and matching BS with BS cause I’m in a Hollywood venue, which is all BS. I brought my own BS to their BS and I’ll beat into them when they sign me to a contract.”
Following His Own Path
Williamson isn’t shy in pointing out that life for actors in America, particularly those of previous generations, is touched by race. Though he views himself as an African-American, he also doesn’t define himself by race. In his opinion, he’s just a man. Ask him what he thinks and he’ll tell you he is “whatever I want to be. I’m whatever is winning at the time.” Williamson might have a different take on race and acting, but he admits that it is not something that is pervasive in America. He has no hesitation in pointing out that he’s more popular in Europe than in America:
“As a matter of fact, my European popularity is ten times bigger than my US popularity. In Europe I’m an action star. In America I’m a black guy.”
He is quick to point out that early in his career he had to start creating his own projects. He wasn’t content to just sit idly by and wait for someone to call with an opportunity, he wanted to make his own. Much like he made his own persona on the football fields of the AFL, he was determined to make his own way in his acting career. He wasn’t going to let someone put together a project for him and tell him what to be. He wouldn’t sit around and wait for someone to call. Instead, he developed his own philosophy on his acting career:
“My philosophy is I only do what I like. I only do what I want, cause I’m in control of what I do. I rarely work for anybody else. All the movies I make (are) produced and directed and written by me. So I do only what I like. I sell an image. I’m like Clint Eastwood in Martial Arts. I sell an image. I would never have three roles in my movies. When they write a contract for me, One, you can’t kill me in a movie. Two, I have to win all my fights. And three, I get the girl at the end of the movie if I want her. So they have to put that in the contract so I know they’re not going to give me the third one, so I give them an out. The out is, I can’t get the girl, but they damn sure ain’t going to kill me, and I’m not going to lose my fights.”
If you’re going to cultivate your own image, develop your own path forward in life, you have to be willing to learn. One appearance on TV wasn’t good enough for Williamson. One chance at a movie role wasn’t enough. He wanted to continue learning, continue growing:
“I continued learning. You know? To be a success in any business you have to learn the business of the business. So I don’t … I stopped waiting for the phone to ring for me. Start creating my own projects. Start learning the business. How to raise money. How to put projects together. To do the things that I wanted to do.”
Encouraging His Sons to Follow Their Own Path
With such a fierce competitive streak and the determination to follow the path he wants, Williamson isn’t looking to force anyone down his road.
Williamson has been married for 30 years and is the father to five boys. All of his sons played American football for a time, but he was proud of them when they decided to walk away from the game. It wasn’t the threat of injury or a lack of ability. As a father with his own goals in life, he was proud that his sons made a choice not to live in his shadow.
“All football players, but they stopped playing football because they all started being called Little Hammer. And they don’t like being called Little Hammer so they gave up.”
Despite several of his sons earning All-American status in football, and one even becoming an Olympic track star, they focused on their own lives and moved out of their father’s shadow to find their own success in life. All sons are college graduates and have strong careers in the business field. Fred Williamson doesn’t hold back with his thoughts on life, race, acting, and career success. That’s probably a good thing too, because holding back didn’t get him where he is today.