Billy Dee Williams groans getting out of his chair, lumbering a bit as he walks to the set. His hair is thinning at the top, and he complains about needing to lose weight.
Not that he feels 70.
“It’s so weird, because I feel like I’m 20 years old. I don’t know, it just feels like it’s all beginning still for me,” says the actor.
It’s possible this youthful vigor is from the fun he’s been having lately, working on a fragrance line, commissioning his abstract paintings, guest-starring on TV series from “Lost” to “Scrubs.”
Now he’s starring in “General Hospital: Night Shift,” debuting Thursday (11 p.m. EDT) on SoapNet. The 13-week serial transplants some of the characters from the ABC daytime soap to the graveyard shift at the hospital.
Back in the 1970s when he was making his ascent as Hollywood’s “black Don Juan,” Williams turned down repeated requests to join “General Hospital” as a series regular. “I was involved with feature films then. I didn’t want to be counterproductive.”
Time — and 100-plus career credits — has given him a new perspective. “Right now it’s just about having fun and enjoying myself. This is one place to do it.”
Williams was jazzed about trying out the rapid-fire world of soap operas. (“It’s really fast!” he says with a grin.) But he also was particularly drawn to the character of Toussaint Dobbs, the hospital’s sage janitor — a man haunted by a secret past.
“He’s had some success in life, then went downhill,” says Williams, relaxing in his dressing room during a break. “Somehow he comes to terms with the fact that he’s no longer this person that he used to be, but now he’s into everybody’s business at the hospital.”
SoapNet executive vice president Deborah Blackwell is thrilled to have Williams in her cast. “We were all over the moon that an actor of his stature and his incredible gift was participating in this show,” she says.
“I’m positive we’re going to have a lot of Billy Dee Williams fans watching. I mean, if I heard that Billy Dee Williams was going to be a regular on a new prime-time soap, I would watch it in a minute!”
Hollywood's 'first black man in space'It’s been 36 years since Williams came to prominence playing football player Gale Sayers in the now-classic 1971 ABC television movie, “Brian’s Song.” Not long afterward, he solidified his stardom appearing opposite Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) and “Mahogany” (1975).
“That’s when I emerged as this matinee idol in the movies. From that point on, women absolutely adored me — well they always adored me since I was a baby,” he says matter-of-factly. “But certainly that really changed my whole life. ... What I presented on the screen was something that had never happened before as far as a brown-skinned boy was concerned.”
As time went on, romantic roles morphed into macho rogues, most famously as charismatic space pirate Lando Calrissian in the “Star Wars” chapters “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi” (1983).
He takes great pride in being Hollywood’s “first black man in space” (“Star Trek’s” Nichelle Nichols was the first black woman), but doesn’t mind poking fun at it, either — or his ladies-man image.
In a recent appearance as himself on “Scrubs,” one of the characters kept referring to Williams as Lando.
He also often parodies himself on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
“I always look forward to doing it,” he says, “because it gives me an opportunity to just play around.”
It’s not all such fun and games, though.
In 2001, Williams was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his work in director Jordan Walker-Pearlman’s tortured family drama, “The Visit.” In 2005, he starred in the director’s Southern saga, “The Constellation.” And the two are currently collaborating on a drama about jazz great Duke Ellington.
“I had a sense of there being something greater than we were accustomed to coming on our set,” says “Night Shift” executive producer Jill Phelps, “and that’s simply not true. He’s a professional. He’s not acting like he’s too big for this.”