Remembering 'Mod Squad' Actor Clarence Williams III
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to our interview with Clarence Williams III, best known for playing Linc Hayes, one of three hippie-delinquents-turned-undercover-cops in the ABC series "The Mod Squad." Williams died June 4 at the age of 81. The cause was colon cancer.
Williams got his start on Broadway, but his big break was being cast on "The Mod Squad," which ran from 1968 to 1973. It was one of the first shows to focus on the counterculture generation and one of the first to feature an interracial cast. In the 1980s, Clarence Williams became known for specializing in quirky, sometimes brutal characters. He played a killer in "52 Pick-Up," an abusive father in Prince's film "Purple Rain" and a heroin addict in "Sugar Hill." He also had comedic roles in Dave Chappelle's film "Half Baked" and in Keenen Ivory Wayans blaxploitation parody "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka." And he had guest appearances in nearly 40 TV series, including "Hill Street Blues" and "Empire."
When Terry spoke to him in 1995, he was in the comic horror film "Tales From The Hood," about three young dealers looking for a lost drug shipment at an address that turns out to be a funeral home. The mortician, who seems to come from the world of the dead, is played by Clarence Williams. He opens up a series of coffins and terrifies the dealers with supernatural stories behind the death of each of the corpses.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TALES FROM THE HOOD")
CLARENCE WILLIAMS III: (As Mr. Simms) Hell, this is all new to me. I'm not a drug dealer. I'm a mortician. The only drugs I know about are those that have to do with the deceased.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yo, man, what kind of drug do their people be needing?
WILLIAMS: (As Mr. Simms) All kinds. We shoot them real good with embalming fluid mainly. You know, it keeps them from smelling and decomposing before the service.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Cool. Hey, so what happened to him?
WILLIAMS: (As Mr. Simms) Oh, they say he went crazy. Death - it comes in many strange packages.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Now, I read that you grew up over a funeral parlor, yes?
WILLIAMS: That's true. And while - I lived over one - 135th St. & 7th Ave. in New York City, in Harlem, there was a Griffin-Peters Funeral Home, which a lot of people may have seen because it was like four doors down from the world-famous Smalls Paradise nightclub, where a lot of the magnificent jazz musicians all through the years have played back in the heyday of the '40s, '50s and part of the '60s. And my grandmother, she was an organist. And she used to play for funerals. And we lived - my sister and I lived with her for a part of the time, and we lived above the funeral parlor. And when you took the trash out, you'd have to go through the embalming room to the back alley to put it away.
WILLIAMS: And so it was it was my first encounter with Gray's anatomy without having "Gray's Anatomy."
GROSS: Were you impressionable and superstitious?
WILLIAMS: Not at all. Not at all. And I don't know why. You know, it's true - it's an interesting question. I never really thought about it. I mean, it's sort of like that's where I lived, and so it was normal. And plus, with my grandmother, obviously, you know, working at funeral parlors - 'cause I used to - when I used to come home from school sometimes - because unfortunately, a lot of times, I mean, she was booked like four or five, you know, a day, and and so she would go from one to the other. And sometimes I'd have to bring her lunch when I came home from school or early dinner. And I would bring it to the funeral parlor. And then I would wait.
And she would play because a lot of times - I remember this one particular funeral. Well, it wasn't a funeral. It was called the viewing of the body. And it was a man whose name I don't know. But evidently, he was a big-time underworld-type figure. And his lady had passed away. And he had hired my grandmother to play music all day long. If persons were there or if they were not there, he wanted music playing while she was laying in repose and had this big glass coffin of sort of - Cinderella-ish. And so she was playing there. And that's stuck in my mind, but that's the only time I really think about it. I never really thought about it that much.
GROSS: So when you were young, though, you were constantly exposed to other people's tragedies.
WILLIAMS: Well, no, not really, because, I mean, I didn't spend my time around it. And also, interestingly, my grandmother played the organ for church services at the prison on Rikers Island in New York City - prison in the harbor. She played there for many, many years prior to her passing. But no, I mean, she didn't bring that stuff home. I mean, we'd never talked about it at home at all. And the only reason why I did see a bit of it from time to time because we lived over the funeral parlor. But no, it wasn't a major thing in our lives at all.
GROSS: Did you ever go with her to Rikers Island?
WILLIAMS: No. No. I was in school. And I was a child. I doubt seriously they'll let children go over there. And so, no, I never did. I do remember one thing was she was a - her name was Helen (ph). And she was very, very kind woman. And so she was out at Rikers Island one time at the church service. And she's playing the organ. And some of the guys were all sniffling and coughing and sniffling and coughing. And they were saying, oh, Mrs. Williams, you know, we have colds. And we can't get, you know, cough syrup and so on, so on. And she was an impressionable lady, totally, totally devoid of any knowledge of underworld and nefarious activity. So the next week, when she was going back out to the island to play for church services, she had stopped by the drugstore and bought inhalers and codeine cough syrup and all these things.
WILLIAMS: And she's going to distribute this stuff to these people. And obviously, she was a fixture going in and out of the place, so she's never searched or anything like that. But she presents the stuff to the guard. She says, you must give this to the boys because they have colds.
WILLIAMS: And the guard looks at this bag, and he says, Mrs. Williams, these are narcotics. We don't allow that stuff in here. And that's the kind of lady she was. I mean, one of the grand things that she did for my sister and I - and I guess this - we're going back in, oh, so many, many years. My sister and I, we had a charge account, believe it or not, at a local candy store. And we could go in and charge like $2 or $3 worth of comic books and a half a pint of - and back in those days, ice cream, they used to freshly dip it. You know, the guy would pack it right behind the counter. That's not like now. You just buy the carton already packed at the factory. But - and they were dipping it. It was a really great thing. And she was a wonderful lady.
GROSS: Clarence Williams is my guest. So how old were you when you started to think about acting, and what made you start to think about it?
WILLIAMS: It started quite accidentally. I was out of - I was way out of high school. I was maybe two years - not way out of, but about two years out of high school. And I was working here in New York at Grey advertising agency when they were at 430 Park Ave. And I was working basically, you know, in the daytime. They had two guys who were just not quite maintenance men, but sort of jack-of-all-trades kind of guys. And I was one of those. And I also served on the executive dining room for Mr. Fat (ph), who was the president of the company at the time. And he had a private dining room. And he had, you know, count people and prospective clients to come in and talk business, whatever. And so I would serve the dinner and the cocktails and all that sort of stuff. But they paid every two weeks. And being at that age, you know, money was not a serious thing to me. So I was always broke the second week, you know. Budgeting was not a part of my vocabulary. And so I had a date to take a girl to a dance.
And so I called my sister up, who was married at the time and living in Brooklyn. But she had a job working at the Harlem YMCA at night as a switchboard operator. And during the day, she worked for the hospital union, Local 1199. And so I called her. I said, I got to borrow $20 because I was going to this dance. And she said, sure, but you have to get here before, you know, 5:30 before I get off work. And, of course, she's going home to Brooklyn. And I said, sure, no problem. And so I went by. And she gave me the $20. And obviously, that's all I had. And I had the date that evening so, I couldn't spend it or do anything.
So she says they're rehearsing a play downstairs. Why don't you go down there and watch some of that? I said, sure, and then I did. So I went downstairs, and I opened the door. And the play was in - and the theater was in blackout. And they were having a run-through. So when I opened the door, this shaft of light shot across the auditorium. And the director was Vinnette Carroll. And this voice boomed out, shut that G-D door. And I shut the door. But I was on the inside and literally was too embarrassed to open the door and have the shaft of light shoot across the auditorium and disturb these people further to leave. So I crouched down in the back. And the run-through was houselights came up. And she turned around and she said, come here.
And so I went over to apologize for having disturbed what was going on in this theater. And she says, are you an actor? And I said, no. And she said, would you like to be? And I said, yes. And basically what I was saying was - I just wanted to placate her and just say, please forgive me for disturbing what you were doing. And so she says, well, go on stage, and read these lines, which I did, and obviously read them not particularly well. And then she came back and she's, OK, you have the part. Come to rehearsals tomorrow night at 7 o'clock. And that's how it started. And I came in - and interestingly, in that production, was all - either doing their very first or maybe second roles was Cicely Tyson, was Roscoe Lee Browne, was Isabel Sanford from "The Jeffersons" - all totally unknown people. And they were down there doing this play, "Dark Of The Moon."
GROSS: So you started studying theater.
GROSS: As a young African American actor, did you think that you would end up building your career in the Black theater?
WILLIAMS: Well, I'd never really worked in the Black theater, and I was never a member of the Negro Ensemble Company and all that, so maybe I should fast-forward then. So I started - and so I went, and I auditioned for this play called "Doubletalk." It was written by Lewis John Carlino, and it was produced by Cheryl Crawford. And Miss Crawford was one of the founders of the Group Theatre and one of the co-founders of the Actors Studio. And so I walked in. I said, could I - my name is Clarence Williams. May I see Ms. Crawford, please? And the person says, just sign your name down here. When Miss Crawford's ready to cast, you will get a notice that she's casting. So - and I said, OK, so I signed it down there. And a card came. I had an appointment at 4, whatever it was, in the afternoon many weeks later. And I went down there thinking I had this appointment. I show up, and there's, like, 400 people there. It's - cattle calls is what they call it. And my - and I was just included. And so everybody sort of like had two minutes or a minute or 30 seconds or whatever it was - in, next person, in, next person, in, next person.
And so when I walked inside, Ms. Crawford was behind her desk. She says, OK, what have you done? And I said, I played two leads at the Harlem Y. This made her laugh because everybody else is coming and blowing smoke about, well, I played Hamlet at Northwestern University, and I did "King Lear" over here. And I did this over there. And I was just totally straight and honest. I played two leads at the Harlem Y. And this lady leaned back in her chair and smiled. And she said, sit down. And she talked to me for about a good 15 minutes, which is an awful lot of time out of her day. And so - make a long story short, they cast the play, and she tells me to come to the Martin Beck Theatre. And I walk into Martin Beck Theatre, and the play is all cast and everything. There's no jobs at all. And she just says, make Clarence the general understudy.
WILLIAMS: And that was my first job - professional job on Broadway.
DAVIES: Clarence Williams III speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EARLE HAGEN'S "THEME FROM 'THE MOD SQUAD'")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's interview with actor Clarence Williams III. He died June 4 at the age of 81. He's best known for his role as Linc, a hippie undercover cop on the TV series "The Mod Squad."
(SOUNDBITE ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: How did you get from theater to television in your role as Linc on "The Mod Squad"?
WILLIAMS: That came out of "Slow Dance On The Killing Ground." Bill Cosby and his wife happened to be in New York, and he had - he was on a break from doing "I Spy." And they were in New York. And as anybody who knows anything about Bill, they know he's a big, big jazz fan. And so he was in New York, and they were seeing all the people who were playing in New York. And his wife said, I want to see a play tonight as opposed to going to listen to some music. And so he said, OK, you pick one, and that's the one we're going to go. Camille Cosby happened to pick "Slow Dance On The Killing Ground" to come to see. And then they saw the play, did not come backstage and left.
And - I don't know - about two, three months went by, and I get a phone call from Aaron Spelling, who was partnered at the time with Danny Thomas at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, saying that they're sending me some airline tickets, and they want me to fly out to do a guest shot on "The Danny Thomas Hour," which was an anthology series that Danny Thomas had at that time. And what it was, unbeknownst to me until after I got out to Hollywood, they said, this is a screen test for a series we're going to do call "The Mod Squad." And you were recommended to us by Bill Cosby, and that's how that happened.
GROSS: How do they first describe "The Mod Squad" to you?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know something? It was called "The Young Detectives." (Laughter) So it was called "The Young Detectives." And these guys had - in the script, these guys were running around with all kinds of guns and machine pistols and this, that and the other the thing and dada-dada-dada (ph). And all praises to Aaron, he was the one who wrote all of that stuff out. And he says, no, there's no guns, and there's not all of this sort of stuff. And - which is interesting - I was somewhere. Somebody was telling me how much they love this show and they used to love the shootouts we had. And Michael Cole, who was in the show, and Peggy Lipton and Tige Andrews and myself, we never once carry guns - with the exception of Tige, who was really a policeman. In fact, the three of us were never really a part - officially a part of the police department. We were sort of like these sort of juvenile delinquents who were being smoothed out to be better persons. And - but we never carried guns or had any shootouts or anything like that. But...
GROSS: But you were undercover.
WILLIAMS: We definitely were undercover. We were definitely undercover, sort of like troubleshooters. And every now and then when - I can always tell when the writers were having difficulty coming up with a different show for us is because they would always do - we'd break out the old chestnut. Well, there's two chestnuts you bring out when the writers have a little trouble. The one is that the police commissioner is complaining to Captain Greer that these young kids are running around. And so you do that show about two times a season, and then toward the end of the year, when we're running low on funds because a few of the shows would go over budget, there'd always be some kind of murder at the theatrical studio. So we could shoot one on the lot without going on location.
WILLIAMS: And so - always some movie star who got knocked off or some makeup person who got knocked off and and the Mod Squad was brought in undercover. And so we'd wind up being a grip or a makeup person or something or other or a script supervisor, and we'd solve the case. But that means - because that meant we could not go off the lot for that particular episode because we used to shoot four days out and three days in.
GROSS: Now, you always used to say - Linc always used to say solid.
WILLIAMS: That came out of that - that I ad-libbed in the show because that came out of - a lot - I used to hear a lot of jazz musicians would say to an individual who was just on such, you know, terrific solo or made some really creative move with his or her instrument. And someone with a solid. You know? And so I used that a couple of times. Then all of a sudden, it started appearing in a lot of scripts, and then I stopped using it because I didn't want to make it my hook or whatever they call it when you have a line that you're noted for. But nonetheless, it still stuck.
GROSS: Were you able to tell - like, do you think one could tell, looking back at the reruns, what year it was in by your hair?
WILLIAMS: Of course they can. They knew it was that in the late '60s. And that - you know, it's interesting talking about that hair. I wore my hair long like that long before I was even an actor. My grandfather, after he came out of the Navy, for some reason, he rarely cut his hair. And his hair was always long. And I always just liked the look of his hair. So I stopped getting haircuts, just totally stopped, wasn't making any kind of political statement, I just stopped..
GROSS: So this is before the Afro. You were wearing your hair...
WILLIAMS: Long before - long, long, long before. Ask anybody who knew me of the period and they will all tell you and - that my hair was always that long. But I used to shave it all off in the summertime. And that was the only time during the year I would have a haircut. In the summertime, I would shave it all off. And then by the time it was coming to go to school again or whatever, when September would roll around, it would begin to grow back in and look, you know, have a semblance of normalcy as opposed to a shaved head. And - but no, it had nothing to do with any of that. But anyway, so I started - you know, the term - so all of a sudden, they put this term Afro to it. So it's called this Afro.
And I used to - I used to say to myself, well, the term is basically a misnomer because if you had your hair, in fact, that long and you were living in the jungle, I mean, everything would be collecting in your hair. You would have bugs in your hair. I mean, as you ran through the jungle chasing your equivalent of Jane, it would get snagged on trees, and all kinds of things like that would happen to it. But that's how that really happened.
But - and interestingly, when I first got out to California - and so - and they decided that they were going to use me in the pilot for this - for the television show. And so I was in Mr. Spelling's office, and he was sitting behind his desk, and he was puffing on his pipe. And you can tell when Aaron is really thinking hard because the puffs on the pipe get more puffier. And so these puffs were puffing and then all of a sudden he finally said, we've got to do something about your hair. And so I said, well, what do you mean do something about my hair? He says, we got to do something about your hair.
So what he did was - this is truly funny. And he says to - I think it's Shelley Hull, who was his assistant. And he said, Shelley, where's Bill Cosby? And so Shelley says, I don't know, boss, but I'll find out. So he goes and he grabs a phone and he calls Sheldon Leonard's office, who was the executive producer of "I Spy," and say, where is "I Spy" shooting? And he said, well, they're down in Acapulco. They're shooting down there. He says, OK, so he's down in Acapulco. So Aaron says, give me the phone number of where this thing in Acapulco, gets the phone number. Aaron Spelling calls Bill Cosby in Acapulco and say, hey, Bill, who cut your hair (laughter)? - what's the name of your barber? - to get Bill's barber to come up to the studio to cut my hair. So, I mean, they got a big brouhaha about this hair.
So this guy comes to the studio to cut my hair. And I really, truly didn't want this haircut. So I said, OK, I'll get this haircut. So he and I go into one of the dressing rooms alone, which was perfect. And I said, now here's what I want you to do. Just trim it. Just trim it, trim it, trim it, that's all. Make it trim, not a lot. And then I went into the bathroom, and I just soaked it all the way, wet totally through. Then I came back and he had some kind of pomade. And I said, now put some of that stuff on it. And then we packed it and combed it down, really packed it down tight, then went back into Mr. Spelling's office and he said, that's better. We should - I said, no, I don't want to take anymore off. He says, OK, we'll stay with that. So now when we start shooting the shows, each time I would tease it out just a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more until it became what it became, which was the way I used to wear it.
GROSS: This is a very important story in American culture I think.
GROSS: So, listen, of all the people who you went undercover as, what was your favorite?
WILLIAMS: I don't have a favorite. But there were some favorite people who were doing the show at that time, and I got...
GROSS: Oh, Sammy Davis.
WILLIAMS: Sammy Davis was a joy. But I was thinking about another thing because with Sammy, basically we played ourselves.
WILLIAMS: But I always liked Maurice Evans. I was - he played an admiral, a retired admiral. And my undercover thing was to be this admiral's aide. And that was a lot of fun because here's Maurice Evans, who represents a great deal of the English theater and the Shakespeare and all of that. And it was a joy to work with him for the seven days that he was there.
GROSS: So were you glad or sorry when "The Mod Squad" came to an end?
WILLIAMS: Well, I wasn't glad and/or sorry, and it didn't come to an end in the kind of way that normally shows come to an end. My contract was up, and I would not renew. The show was never really cancelled in the sense that, guys, the ratings are no good, so it's over. I'd done my five years, and I decided I'd done that long enough. And so I said, that's it for me. And I went back to New York and then they decided not to continue with it.
GROSS: I see. Now, you know, correct me if I'm wrong here, but you were this really good role model - right? - in "Mod Squad."
WILLIAMS: That was the perception.
GROSS: (Laughter) But then after that, most of the roles of yours that I know, you've been killers, abusers (laughter), people who were really nuts. I mean, that was kind of it for your good role model era (laughter).
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's interesting. You know, those were the kinds of parts that put me in feature films. And the one..
GROSS: The crazy parts.
WILLIAMS: Well, the guys were not so crazy. They had a different point of view. And...
WILLIAMS: And so, I mean, the one that turned it for me was John Frankenheimer.
GROSS: Oh, "52 Pick-Up."
WILLIAMS: Yeah. And Mr. Frankenheimer, I think, probably is - all credit is due to him for my, quote, "resurgence," end quote.
GROSS: Are you glad to be getting roles that aren't those kinds of...
WILLIAMS: No, only because - I don't mind playing those, but obviously you want to, you know, to have a variety of work...
WILLIAMS: ...And different characters to attempt to play. And - but yes - but I think it becomes important for me to try to do that, to be brutally honest, just from a business point of view, is that - you know, so people think of you in other terms. I mean, people see me in real life, a lot of times don't even recognize me because most of the time, I have a suit and tie on.
DAVIES: Clarence Williams III speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. He died June 4 at the age of 81. After a break, Stephen Colbert talks about doing his show during the pandemic. He begins taping "The Late Show" in front of a live audience next week. And Justin Chang reviews the new film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical "In The Heights." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARTURO SANDOVAL'S "TEE PEE TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.