Billy Dee Williams Doesn’t Have a Problem With Blackface, Thought Olivier’s ‘Othello’ Was ‘Hysterical’

“As an actor, you should be able to do whatever you think you can do,” the “Star Wars” star tells Bill Maher

Though public opinion has very much turned against the use of blackface by actors who aren’t Black, “Star Wars” actor Billy Dee Williams said he doesn’t have a problem with it.

On Sunday’s Bill Maher’s “Club Random” podcast, Laurence Olivier came up in conversation and Williams mentioned that the British acting legend did eventually play the Shakespearean role of “Othello” in blackface in a 1965 film.

“Here’s the thing today. I mean, they would never let you do that,” observed Maher.

“Why?” asked Williams. “You should do anything you want to do,” adding that a mentor of his told him, ” As an actor, you should be able to do whatever you think you can do.”

The 87-year-old actor said he was amused, not offended by Olivier’s portrayal of the Moor. “He got criticized a lot for being physical and doing things with his voice that were a bit outrageous,” said Williams, admitting that he “fell out laughing [at the way Olivier] stuck his ass up and walked around…. I thought it was hysterical. I loved it.”

Maher quipped that if anyone attempted blackface in a modern production of “Othello,” “the theater would be bombed.”

While Maher argued that Williams would not have been able to take on the role himself in the ’60s, they do mention legendary Black actor and singer, Paul Robeson, who played the role from 1930 to 1959.

Maher also took the opportunity to riff on the rumor that Olivier was bisexual when Williams said that instead of letting the younger actor question him, Olivier was “always busy probing me.”

“Oh, I’m sure he was very busy probing you,” cracked Maher.

The conversation about blackface starts at about minute 55 into the podcast, which you can watch in the video above.

The duo also discussed the prosthetic nose Bradley Cooper wore to play Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro,” which some people deemed antisemitic, but which Bernstein’s family did not object to.


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