It’s Hammer Time! The FRED WILLIAMSON Interview…

Funky Hammer

1997… Tony Blair’s rebranded Labour Party brought 18 years of Tory rule to an end (or so we thought at the time!)… Hong Kong was restored to The People’s Republic Of China… House Of Freudstein Hall-of-Famer David Warbeck sadly lost his battle with cancer… Princess Diana and Mother Theresa also passed away… Dolly The Sheep got cloned… and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson arrived in London to promote the video release of a raft of Blacksploitation epics. I learned, though, to be careful using the “B” word around him…

Mr Williamson… is it OK if I call you Fred?

Sure, or “Hammer”, or whatever…

Well, it’s a real pleasure to talk with you…

Thank you.

I don’t know if your people told you about me and what I do…

They gave me the whole scoop…

Well, as well as working for a few mainstream magazines over here, I also write a lot about Italian movies, and I wonder if you’d be willing to talk to me about some of the ones you’ve made over there…

Hell, yes!

Great…. before we get into that, though, I just wanted to say how much I recently enjoyed your performance in Dusk ‘Til Dawn, I bet you had a ball making it…

Yeah, I had a ball because I was working with Quentin Tarantino, who had already told me every movie I ever made, also quoted some lines to me from every movie so I knew that he was a real fan and not just a BS fan. So it was a pleasure to work with somebody who knew that much about me and gave me the capability to create that character which I played in Dusk ‘Til Dawn… there’s no way they could have written that character! It was my creation, and they gave me the freedom to do that.

I interviewed Tarantino a few years ago and he told me that he was a massive fan of yours, also that in his opinion, one of the best movies ever made was Enzo Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards!

(Fred roars with incredulous laughter) He didn’t mention that to me, he told me Black Caesar was his favourite, but he knew ‘em all… the guy knew every damn movie!

I heard that you consider Larry Cohen to be your movie-making guru…

Well, Larry Cohen was timely, and he was a good listener, I said to him: “Let’s make a gangster movie”, so we did Black  Caesar, then we did the sequel Hell Up In Harlem… he was hot at that particular time and he seized the moment. When I talked to him, the guy had the ears and at the same time he had the power to take it to AIP and AIP liked him, he was one of their favourite directors so he was able to pull it off. But if he hadn’t, I would have had somebody else do it.

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Are you aware of how big this “Blackploitation” thing is getting here in the UK at the moment?

Not really, no…

People are writing about the genre, a lot of the old films are coming out on video, etc…

I think it’s just in tune with what’s happening with society, I mean everything that’s old is new again, from clothes to shoes, and then they say: “Oh yeah, by the way, when I was wearing these shoes and wearing these bell-bottom pants, this music was hot” and they say: “Oh yeah, this music was hot but this music was from Black Caesar, that Fred Williamson movie” and they go: “Oh wow, I never saw that movie”, consequently they want to go and see the picture, they rent the tape and they say: “Hey, that’s really not a bad picture… any more like that” So it’s an evolution of things that happen which created the interest.

Do you like that term? I mean, do you see “Blacksploitation” as a positive or a negative label?

It’s neither, because it’s meaningless… you know, what the hell does that mean? I wasn’t exploted, my cheques cleared, the people who worked for me, their cheques cleared, I did did what I wanted to do, the people who came to see the movie came because they enjoyed it and wanted to see it, so who the hell was exploited? The only way that I can understand it is if you call Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Burt Reynonds movies “whitesploitation”, then I can understand what the hell you’re talking about… gimme some comparison!

Going back to Tarantino… he really really talked my ear off about low budget Italian movies…

Well y’know, I prefer it that way, I prefer the low budget scene because everybody is equal. There are no superstars, you know… if a light needs moving and you’re the closest person to it, you just pick the light up and you move it. There’s no place for that prima donna attitude in a low budget film so everybody has a lot more fun than on big budget films, where you’ve got so many prima donnas, there are so many people walking around protecting the people who are on the set, you don’t even know who’s acting in the damn movie!

In The States you’ve done big budget movies and low budget movies, but in Italy, at least by American standards, they only have low budget movies…

Yeah they do… they’re notorious for making poor, low budget copies of big budget American movies and so they don’t have the studio system like America has, you know, where all the major film companies are on the stock market… I don’t believe any of the Italian companies are on their stock market. That’s where the finance comes from in The States… so a big budget to them is $2-3 million, if they can go that high then that’s big budget to them. Inglorious Bastards was pretty big budget for an Italian movie, it had me and Bo Svenson in it, also Ian Bannen, but it had a great deal of special effects, and we were riding on a real train, we weren’t on a Cinecitta lot pretending to be inside a train, we were actually on it, I was jumping on and off of a moving train, so it was pretty real stuff!

Castellari is really known as an action director over there…

Castellari was probably their favourite action director, because he brought the projects in on time, on budget – to them that was very important – so Castellari must have made fifty, sixty action movies, because he had the capability to make a film that was welcome in the international market. A lot of foreign directors are maybe good for the foreign market but they can’t direct films that American people would like, so you have to understand the mentality of the entire world or the entire market that you’re dealing with so that you can make a picture that can be sold in all markets, not just your particular market. Castellari was good at making a film that even Americans would like, and that’s very difficult because the mentality of foreigners, even British directors, are much much different from what American people would like and wanna see.

One of your classic scenes, as far as I’m concerned, is your death scene in Castellari’s Escape From New York rip off…

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1990: Bronx Warriors …

Exactly … the Manhattan Corporation have sent in goons with flame-throwers to torch your throne room (you’re The King 0f The Bronx, of course) … you get shot and before you buy the farm, you stagger back to your throne, sit down and just light up a big cigar from the flames!

That was just being true to my character. If they’re finally gonna kill me in a picture, then I’m going out like John Wayne or Gary Cooper would go… even further than that, I’m going out like Jimmy Cagney would go, or Edward G. Robinson, y’know… you shoot all the bad guys, then they shoot you, and you say: “Did I get him?” (laughs) So if I’m going out, I’m going out in character, I’m going out in style, I’m going out in a way that’s going to be remembered!

An Italian director who used you and a lot of other black American sports stars was Antonio Margheriti… most recently, Marvin Hagler acted in some 0f his pictures.

Yeah, Antonio Margheriti and I did three or four pictures together, but I know that Marvin now lives in Milan and he was doing a picture with Margheriti in Manila when I was there doing one of the Black Cobra pictures, directed by Margheriti’s son …

Edo!

Edo Margheriti, yeah.

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Do you think he’s got what it takes to follow in his father’s footsteps?

He’s got the capability, yeah, but the problem is the state of the Italian industry right now, because they weren’t very smart in the way that they chose to go about making their films, just making bad copies of good American films and if you’re gonna d0 that, fine, but you’ve gotta make it in America, you can’t take your two million dollar budget and go to Santa Domingo and Manila and Rio and try to make an American film and pretend you’re in America, you can’t d0 that, I mean they have to start coming to America and shooting low budget films.

The problem is that the Italians are fearful of giving Americans control over their money and their creativity, they want to maintain that control and that’s been the reason for their demise, wanting to maintain their control and not coming to America to shoot their low budget films… because if a film has not been made in America, it’s very difficult to sell it to the rest of the world, unless it’s a real big budget film, and they learned the hard way that you can’t make a low budget film in Santa Domingo and pretend you’re in New York or some place… they might have a little section that looks good, but you can only shoot so many movies in Manila or Santa Domingo and pretty soon they all look alike.

One 0f your  Italian movies that was a big American hit – the aforementioned Bronx Warriors – bears you out on this, because it was actually shot in New Y0rk, wasn’t it?

Yeah, because I talked to them about it and convinced them that you can’t shoot some ruins in Rome and make it look like New York, you must go to New York. They believed me and the only thing in that movie which wasn’t shot in New York was where they climb through the manhole and go under the city, that was shot in Roman ruins. But above ground, I said: “Guys – you’ve gotta be in New York!”

That’s a pretty wild movie, you’ve got this throne room that’s like a night-club in a sewer, you’ve got a house band, all these funky fittings, etc…

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Well, we were the good guys, y’know… the good gang. It’s like the gangs I was dealing with in Original Gangstas, I mean I was always in a gang when I was growing up but they were good gangs, gangs like the East Side kids, the Bowery Boys, y’know, we’d get together to party, everybody would bring a quarter, you’d have sandwiches and punch and you’d have a party. The gang was not to go out and fight or create havoc, the gang was more like a social club, so in Bronx Warriors that’s all we had, was a big social group to ensure our survival, to protect our existence in this decadent world at that time.

Another thing the Italians do is take a guy who’s not necessarily an actor and put him in there… how do you remember your Bronx Warriors co-star, Mark Gregory?

Well, Mark Gregory was one of the first of those young, good-looking muscle guys with long hair that were coming out of Italy… he didn’t look like Hercules, y’know, he was muscular but not too muscular. In this particular era Stallone was hot as the Vietnam Vet who came home and got into trouble so this kid looked like Stallone to the Italians, muscular with long hair but not really a Hercules-type guy. He was just a really well-formed guy and they tried to copy the Stallone style. As a matter of fact, one of the movies that they made with him was really a copy of Stallone’s First Blood…

That was Thunder…

Yeah, right, that was a straight copy! (laughs)

I believe they used real Hell’s Angels as members of Mark Gregory’s biker gang in Bronx Warriors…

Yeah they did, they had real Hell’s Angels there because one of their leaders was a stunt man, he was hired to work on the film and he brought his buddies along… they were good guys, so long as you give ‘em some respect and don’t crowd ‘em, they were jewels to work with.

Another wild movie you made for Castellari was The New Barbarians, which is like “Mad Max in dune buggies”…

That’s why they made it, because the Mad Max movies were hot at that time and since I was hot in Italy and to be sold into the international market which encompasses all the European market and the American market, then they put me in this character, so I said: “OK, I’ll be this character but here are the things I want to be true to the character and be true to my image, I want the bow and arrow”… I had arrows that exploded! (laughs)… I had my cigar, and I did my thing, y’know? As long as you remain true to character, you never disappoint your fans.

There’s a great reaction shot from you in that movie after you’ve blown a bad guy’s head off and his body just carries on riding his bike, like a headless chicken running around…
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Well, that was a reference to my pro football days when I was “The Hammer”, which meant that I used to tackle guys head-high, hook them around the head, the image was like a guy running through somebody’s yard in the middle of the night and running into the washing line – the head stops but the body keeps on moving so I said: “Why don’t we just blow this guy’s head off and have a gag where the body keeps moving?”, because that’s how The Hammer works…

You’re really macho in that movie… the ultimate survivalist, yeah?

I’m kinda like that in all my movies… the man alone, the man against society, the man fighting a group of people or a society of people, and he plays by his own rules and he does it his way… that sums up all my characters, I mean, I’m a survivor – that’s the way that I play it.

You appeared in another “post-apocalypse” movie in Italy, Warrior Of The Lost World… the direction of that one was credited to “David Worth”, but I‘ve never been able to figure out if that was an American director or an Italian working under one of those pseudonyms…

No, David Worth is an American guy. On that particular film they got David at the last minute because he wasn’t really supposed to be directing it, but they got into some big argument half-way into the movie, and I ended up directing all the scenes I was in, so they had several people trying to direct the movie and I said: “Listen, I’m not doing this, what’s gonna happen is that I’m gonna direct all the scenes I’m in so that even if the movie ends up terrible, I’m gonna look good in it.”

You did that even when you were starting in movies… I mean, you ended up directing your own scenes in M.A.S.H., I believe…

Yeah well, Robert Altman allowed me that privilege because he was aware that he didn’t know that much about professional football, so he said: “Listen Hammer, I know you’re a football player, and I want you to be in my movie, so if you have any suggestions, just let me know”, so after the first day, I had so many suggestions that he just said: “Listen, why don’t you just do it?” and I said: ” Yeah, thank you very much”, and I directed all the pro ball stuff.

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Going back to Margheriti, when I interviewed him a couple of years ago he told me he had a great time working with you on Take A Hard Ride… was the feeling mutual?

Yeah, because there was nothing he told me that I had to question, physically… he didn’t have to double me, didn’t need any stuntman to jump over here or jump onto this horse or out of this building. He knew that I could do it, and he knew that I wanted to do it and liked to do it… plus, he left me the freedom to be the American actor, because he knew that he wanted to sell his product in the international market, not just limiting it to the Italian or the French market and so he trusted me, trusted my wisdom and experience in business, so we had a great time…

He told me though that he had the opposite experience on the same picture with Jim Brown, who gave him a real hard time. Is that how you remember it?

Well Jim Brown was “the star that never was”, y’know, he thought that he should have been a bigger star and maybe he should have, except that his personal life created so much havoc that he never really attained the height that he should have.

Margheriti said he thought that Jim Brown’s downfall was getting involved with the Black Panthers…

No, it wasn’t so much the Panthers, it was just his personal life, what he got up to when he wasn’t working created a bad image for him socially, so people started to back away from him and he never understood why, never really got the message, so he was the star that never was, and he reacted to people accordingly.

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Fred with Jims Brown & Kelly in Three The Hard Way.

Going back to your point about the Italians needing to work in The States… you made Deadly Impact aka Mad Dog with Fabrizio De Angelis directing… that’s the one where you were in Vegas with Bo Svenson…

That’s the one where we spent a lot of time in a helicopter… more time than I ever wanted to, I’ll tell you (laughs). We were in Phoenix then we ended up in Las Vegas, but we had a big helicopter dog-fight chase around the tallest building in Phoenix, which was about five storeys…

There’s a brilliant moment in that chase sequence where a girl is looking out of the window in amazement at this chase you’ve got going on there, and you start arranging a date with her as you fly past!

(Laughs) Right, well that was true to my character, y’know I said: “Listen, if we’re gonna do that then I wanna do this otherwise I’m just sitting around riding in this helicopter looking like an idiot, so put a girl in there and as we fly past, let me try to make a date with her, we’ll flirt with each other, and it will give my character something to do.”

That movie was a bit like Lethal Weapon before its time…

Everything I’ve ever done in my life has been before its time, y’know? (Laughs) I can’t imagine anything that I’ve ever done that wasn’t way ahead of its time… when I was playing football I was the first guy ever to wear white shoes, I was the first guy to have a nickname that became very marketable – “The Hammer” – I was the most controversial quarter back, defensive back, the out-spoken, verbal footballer, that was way ahead of its time, I was doing that in the sixties and seventies, that was way ahead of its time. When I arrived in the movies it was like, how dare I want to be the hero? I had three rules that I wanted Hollywood to abide by, though they weren’t listening to black actors at that time: rule one – you can’t kill me; two – I’m gonna win all my fights; and three – I want the girl at the end of the movie. They weren’t doing that in the ’70’s and that’s what prompted me to start making my own movies, so I could set my own rules… are you writing all this down?

No, I’m taping it.

(Laughs) It’s a good job, because there’s no way you could take all this down…

You’re too fast for me, Fred… how do you remember another guy I interviewed recently, Fabrizio De Angelis? He’s got the reputation of being a bit of a shark, y’know, a guy you have to watch out for … is that how you remember him?

Well, maybe if you’re not that astute in business you’d have to be careful with him, but if you come from America then you know how to cross your t’s and dot your i’s (laughs), so these kind of people don’t bother you… he may be a knowledgeable businessman in the Italian world but you bring that knowledge to America and you’re just a beginner, because we’ve been doing that stuff and dealing with big numbers for a long time so when I worked with him, he and I understood each other… but an actor always has an edge, because if you don’t get paid, you don’t work, it’s real simple… if the cheque don’t clear, you don’t show up!

De Angelis producers, directs and everything… he’s a real hands-on sort of guy.

That’s because he’s such a cheap-skate! (laughs) It’s nothing to do with creativity, it’s because he doesn’t want to pay people to do something that he thinks he can do, but that doesn’t mean he can do it well. He just wants to do it all because he doesn’t like to spend money.

Lucio Fulci told me this joke about him one time, that De Angelis goes into this bar with his partner Couyoumdjian… you know that guy?

Gianfranco Couyoumdjian, yeah...

… they go into a bar and the barman says: “What will you have?” Couyoumdjian orders a bottle of beer, then the barman asks De Angelis” “And what will you have, sir?” and De Angelis says: “It’s OK, we’re sharing this one!”

(Laughs) De Angelis was the guy who discovered Mark, he was created by De Angelis…

Didn’t he find him working out in a gym or something?

Yeah that’s right, but De Angelis just doesn’t like to pay, that’s all, that’s why he started doing everything himself.

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I just mentioned Lucio Fulci, for whom you worked on  Fighter Centurions… I know from meeting him what a character he was

Lucio Fulci was an image within himself (laughs)… Lucio was a throwback to the 1920’s, who styled and dressed himself and smoked his pipe and stuck his little flower inside his lapel… he was an image within himself, so he spent a lot of time posturing more than actually directing, so somewhere along the way he lost it.

Do you know that he died last year?

Yeah, I heard that. A very bizarre guy…

Very, very bizarre… … but very likeable…

… very likeable… but he was the image of a director, he played the part of a director, acted the director… Temperamental? He acted the part of a director, like he thought maybe a director should act, he was that kind of guy.

Did you see that Schwarzenegger film, The Running Man?

Yeah, I saw Running Man…

That film seems to be based more on the Fulci movie you were in than on the Stephen King story it took its name from…

Well, that picture was all about “see Arnold run”…I think they were more concerned with highlighting the physicalness of Arnold than being true to the story.

The protagonist of the story is an emaciated wimp… so they cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie!

It was just “see Arnold run”… a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There’s this great sequence in the Fulci film where you’re under strobe lights, going through all your kung fu moves…

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I’m a third-degree karate blackbelt, I studied in Hong Kong, I was doing That Man Bolt at the same time that Bruce Lee was doing Enter The Dragon in Hong Kong, so after I finished my film I stayed in Hong Kong for nine months, working out with Bruce and living in HK and studying martial arts..

Wow! How do you remember Bruce Lee? What a guy!

What a dedicated guy… he was dedicated to his art form, and he was dedicated to the fact that he was going to come into the business his way, I mean forget the fact that he didn’t speak much English, he had it in his mind that he was going to be a major star to do whatever talent that he had… his talents were the martial arts and he was right, because what he had was highly marketable and it sold.

We’re running out of time here and, looking at my list of questions, I see that I should have asked this one right at the start… how did you get into the Italian scene in the first place?

Well, there was an agent over there, Rossano Pelicia, whose brief was to reach out specifically to American actors and try and get them to come to Italy to work and at the time I was popular so they suggested me for a couple of roles and I said OK and once I got over there and they found that I was eager to work and I fitted in very well, which is important to them… and after that they found out that the films could also be sold and were marketable, I became one of their favourite sons.

When you started in Italy, you worked for Duccio Tessari and Carlo Lizzani… any memories of those guys?

Yeah, with Duccio Tessari I made a film…

Three Tough Guys?

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… Three Tough Guys, yeah, with Lino Ventura and Isaac Hayes… that was a fairly big budget film that my agent Rossana Pelicia had a personal involvement in…

What about Lizzani? He’s seen as being “a political director”…

Oh yeah, he was definitely the suit and tie guy, had to have a fresh flower in his button-hole every day, and sometimes he’d come to work with is ascot, I mean he was another one of these image directors, he had to look like this guy who could… he had a little wand sometimes that he would wave, I mean he was really a character…

Did he create magic on the set with his wand?

(Laughs) Yeah…

So, on balance working in Italy was a positive experience for you…

Well, I don’t need to work, but to live there… it’s such a fabulous place, I love living there and I’d love to go back… in fact I’d go back there in a half-minute, if the business picked up I’d be back working there tomorrow, making the same kind of movies.

Let’s hope it happens… Fred, I’ve enjoyed your appearances in a lot of movies over the years…

It’s been a lot of fun!

… so it’s been a real pleasure talking to you.

Great!

Are they treating you OK here in London?

I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Fantastic!

I’m here for a week, promoting all the films this new video company invested in because I go everywhere were people are distributing my films. I work the films, I don’t just make the movie and walk away from it, I want it to be a success not only for me but for the people who’ve invested the money, becasue then they’ll take the next one. I might be making a new production deal while I’m here, I’m talking to Polygram and maybe together we can come up with a small amount of money to make a film here in London, maybe bring over Jim Brown or Roundtree or somebody to make a movie here. It’s looking good.

What’s the working philosophy at Po’ Boy Productions that’s enabled you to keep on going all these years, through good and bad times?

I created Po’ Boy because of the image I wanted to perpetuate, which Hollywood wasn’t allowing the black leading man to do… win the fights and get the girl… and in order to do that I had to form my own company and produce and direct my own films, not because I wanted to be a guru in the business, but because I wanted to do the things that I thought I’d have the most fun in, which is having big fights and being the black John Wayne or the black Cary Grant or the black whatever, but at least being the hero, and heroes were needed and non-existent at that time. Yeah, even Stallone had a hard time making the studios see it his way in the beginning, fighting to direct his script for Rocky and everything… well, I don’t really relate to Stallone. Being white, the only real obstacle he had was his inexperience, whereas the obstacle I had was, y’know: “You’ve gotta make a black film, and nobody wants to buy a black film, it can’t be sold around the world” and so on, so they’d throw ten obstacles at me for every one they’d throw at him.

Nothing can stop you!

Well, I just finished a film last week that I’m editing right now called Night Vision, starring me and Cynthia Rothrock… I put Cynthia in the film becasue I know she has a very strong following in the foreign market and we play two cops… plus right now I’m writing the sequel to Original Gangstas…

Well, good luck with everything Fred and thank you very much for your time…

OK… ciao, baby!

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