Each year during the Academy Awards televised show, there is a section of the broadcast where fellow members of the film community are remembered. Sunday night the event honored a myriad of talents, including Jane Russell, Whitney Houston, Elizabeth Taylor, Cliff Robertson and quite possibly my all-time favorite film director, Sidney Lumet.
Amid the remembrances, there was one glaring oversight: actor Dick Anthony Williams, who passed away on Feb. 16 at the age of 77.
Williams was a fixture in cinema during the blaxploitation era of filmmaking. He played the characters of Pretty Tony in The Mack (1973), Joe Creole in Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973) and Preston in Five on the Black Hand Side (1973). Williams worked steadily in television and film for five decades, appearing in The Jerk (1979), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Rapture (1991), The Gifted (1993) and The Players Club (1998).
Many cast stones at the blaxploitation era because of the focus on the underworld, urban settings and stereotypical representations of black characters. Yet it was this era that gave black actors an opportunity to work steadily, including legendary actors like Morgan Freeman, Juanita Moore, Richard Pryor, Moses Gunn, Paul Winfield, Diana Sands, Ossie Davis, Virginia Capers, Ron O’Neal and Julius Harris.
Like many other blaxploitation stars, Williams was a veteran of the stage, receiving Tony Award nominations in 1974 for his work in What the Wine-Sellers Buy and in 1975 for Black Picture Show. He also received critical acclaim for his performance in the 1978 NBC miniseries King, in which he played Malcolm X opposite Paul Winfield as Martin Luther King Jr.
The Chicago native co-founded the renowned New Federal Theatre, which was instrumental in showcasing the talent of black playwrights and actors including Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Samuel Jackson, Denzel Washington and Phylicia Rashad.
Williams was married to actress Gloria Edwards, a fixture in black film during the 1970s, who preceded him in death in 1988. He is survived by two daughters and a son.
While the academy neglected to remember Williams, he should be remembered for his dedication to his craft, his extensive body of work spanning five decades and his commitment to providing a platform to cultivate black talent in the theater. Williams is gone, but he will not be forgotten.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.