On the big screen, the Harlem native portrayed Prince’s troubled father in Purple Rain (1984) and was Wesley Snipes and Michael Wright’s drug-addled dad in Sugar Hill (1993). In Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900 (1998), Williams tapped into his family’s musical roots to appear as jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton.
Known for his prodigious afro and gap-toothed smile, Williams also worked regularly with famed director John Frankenheimer, first on Elmore Leonard’s 52 Pick-Up (1986) and then on The General’s Daughter (1999), Reindeer Games (2000) and two telefilms, the Attica-set Against the Wall in 1994 and George Wallace in 1997.
Williams also displayed a flair of comedy, playing a former leader of the People’s Revolutionary Army in Keenen Ivory Wayans’ blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and the maniacal drug lord Samson Simpson in the classic Half-Baked (1998), starring Dave Chappelle.
And in Tales From the Hood (1995), Williams had some strange stories to tell as the eerie funeral director Mr. Simms.
Williams owned a debt of gratitude to Bill Cosby, who had seen Slow Dance on the Killing Ground and recommended the actor to producer Aaron Spelling, who was casting The Mod Squad. Spelling then gave Williams a small part as a reluctant getaway driver on an anthology series that he and Danny Thomas were producing.
Spelling was on hand for Williams’ scene.
“They went in, they rob the store, you heard a pistol shot and they ran in the car,” the producer recalled in a 1999 interview for the Archive of American Television. “Then [Williams] drove off and smashed right into a telephone pole. I thought everybody was killed.”
“We all rushed over. I said, ‘Clarence, Clarence, what happened?’ He said, ‘I’ve never driven before.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that?’ He said, ‘Because I wanted the job.’ I hired him that night for Mod Squad.’ “
Created by Bud Ruskin, who had led an LAPD undercover narcotics unit, The Mod Squad wound up airing for five seasons on ABC. Williams, Peggy Lipton as Julie Barnes and Michael Cole as Pete Cochran portrayed young adults who had run-ins with the law — Linc had been arrested during the Watts riots — before becoming cops under the command of Capt. Adam Greer (Tige Andrews).
The Mod Squad tapped into the countercultural vibe of the era, incorporating timely issues like racism, anti-war protests and drug addiction into storylines as Linc, Julie and Pete infiltrated high schools, acting classes, prisons, hippie newspapers, gangs, movie sets, etc. to catch the bad guys.
“They were most definitely the hippest and coolest undercover cops on television at the time,” notes the website Groovy History.
Williams was born on Aug. 21, 1939, the son of professional musician Clay Williams. He was raised by his grandparents: composer-pianist Clarence Williams, a frequent collaborator of blues legend Bessie Smith whose songs were used years later in Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Eva Taylor, a singer and actress.
Williams became exposed to acting as a teenager when he stumbled upon a rehearsal for Dark of the Moon at the Harlem YMCA — Cicely Tyson was starring in it — and the director gave him a couple of lines in the play.
After appearing in an uncredited role in Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) and on Broadway in 1960’s The Long Dream, Williams enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division.
Back home, he played on Broadway in The Great Indoors and served as an artist-in-residence at Brandeis University before his big break on The Mod Squad.
Linc “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 told the Los Angeles Times in 1995.
However, five years on the show was enough for him.
“They wanted to go six or seven years, and I decided I didn’t want to do that,” Williams told the Chicago Tribune in 1997. “I’d done all I could with the part. And so I said let me go back, refresh myself, learn some things, read, travel and just try to put some more arrows in my quiver.”
Williams did return for a Mod Squad reunion telefilm in 1979. (Omar Epps played Linc opposite Claire Danes and Giovanni Ribisi in an ill-advised 1999 feature version of the series.)
He went on to play FBI agent Roger Hardy on the original Twin Peaks and the humanoid Omet’iklan on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And from 2003-07, Williams portrayed father figure Philby Cross opposite Kellie Martin in 10 Mystery Woman telefilms on Hallmark Channel.
His body of work also included the movies The Cool World (1963), Deep Cover (1992), Hoodlum (1997), Life (1999), Impostor (2001), Constellation (2005), American Gangster (2007), A Day in the Life (2009) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013) and appearances on TV’s Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, Law & Order, Everybody Hates Chris, Burn Notice, Justified and Empire.
Williams was married to actress Gloria Foster (Oracle in the first two Matrix movies) from 1967-84.
He is survived by his sister Sondra Pugh, daughter Jamey Phillips, niece Suyin Shaw, grandnephews Elliot Shaw and Ese Shaw and grandniece Azaria Verdin.
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.
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