Mod Squad Actor Clarence Williams III Dies at 81

Clarence Williams III attends the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ on August 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Clarence Williams III attends the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ on August 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo: Jason Kempin for FIJI (Getty Images)

Clarence Williams III, the versatile actor widely known for his role of Linc Hayes on ABC’s The Mod Squad, has died of colon cancer at age 81, The Root has learned.

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Williams’ manager Alan Lindel confirmed the actor’s death on Friday, June 4 in Los Angeles to The New York Times.

Son of famed jazz musician Clarence “Clay” Williams Jr., Clarence Williams III was born on August 21, 1939 in Manhattan. Though most known for his various roles in TV and film, Williams’ first foray into acting began in his teen years with a small role in stage play at the Harlem YMCA. He would eventually continue on to Broadway, earning a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in 1965 for his work in Slow Dance on the Killing Ground.

In addition to award recognition, Williams caught the eye of then-rising star Bill Cosby who, after seeing his performance on Broadway, would later recommend him to producer Aaron Spelling for an upcoming series on ABC—The Mod Squad. Owning the role of cool undercover cop “Linc Hayes,” Williams broke barriers as one of the first Black actors to secure a lead role in a television series.

After appearing on the show for five seasons, Williams took a break from acting on the small screen and returned to Broadway in the 1979 Tom Stoppard play Night and Day. From there, he would go on to land multiple roles throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s including but not limited to portraying Prince’s fictional father in Purple Rain, 52 Pick-Up, The Cool World, Deep Cover, Hoodlum (1997), Life, Impostor, Constellation, Sugar Hill, A Day in the Life and Tales from the Hood.

More on Clarence Williams III’s TV and film career, via The New York Times:

He was a leader of the Attica prison riots in HBO’s “Against the Wall” (1994); a segregationist governor’s manservant in the mini-series “George Wallace” (1997); Muhammad Ali’s father in “Ali: An American Hero” (2000); and a retired C.I.A. operative in 10 “Mystery Woman” movies (2003-07). He did guest appearances on close to 40 series, from “Hill Street Blues” to “Empire.”

His other film roles included a much-too-loyal aide-de-camp in “The General’s Daughter” (1999), a glowering criminal who is set on fire in “Reindeer Games” (2000), an old-school crime lord in “American Gangster” (2007) and a White House servant’s older mentor in Lee Daniels’s “The Butler” (2013). His last film was “American Nightmares” (2018), a horror comedy.

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From 1967 to 1984, Williams was married to actress Gloria Foster, who also appeared on The Mod Squad in a limited capacity. She would later play “The Oracle” in the cult classic movie series The Matrix in 1999.

Upon hearing the news, many took to social media to share memories and pay tribute to the Tales in the Hood actor.

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“When I was a kid growing up in NYC Clarence Williams III was a face on TV that I identified with and that inspired me. From the Mod Squad, to Purple Rain and Sugar Hill, he always performed with dynamic energy. Rest in power, king,” Lenny Kravitz wrote online.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund expressed similar sentiments, writing: “I need a min. ‘Link Hayes’ was everything. I was a kid, but I remember best the episode w/his then real-life wife, the great Gloria Foster. She was blind & beautiful. They both had ‘fros. It was us in primetime. Remember? Rest in Power #ClarenceWilliamsIII.”

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The official Prince Twitter account also posted a tribute which read, “Rest in honor, Clarence Williams III. In addition to iconic roles in The Mod Squad and Twin Peaks, Clarence will forever be remembered for his gripping performance as The Kid’s father, Francis L., in Prince’s breakthrough film Purple Rain. #ClarenceWilliamsIII.”

Williams is survived by his daughter Jamey Phillips and sister Sondra Pugh. May he rest in power.

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He had funny and short part in “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” as delusioned militant, and inHalf Baked.