Fred Williamson had two amazing careers. His first was as a colorful football player. He was a defensive halfback or cornerback, who played professionally in the American Football Conference, and appeared in the first Super Bowl game. His second is a six decade-plus long Hollywood film career.
Williamson attended Northwestern in the late 1950s on a track scholarship and studied architecture. Ara Parseghain was head football coach and convinced him to join the football team where he as an All-American wide receiver. Drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1960, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were not a very good team in those days. Williamson switched at the defensive backfield. In the off-season he worked for an architectural firm. He also studied martial arts, which carried over into his football career as he delivered nasty blows to the head and upper body of receivers as they fought going downfield. That’s where “The Hammer” came from. Back in those days, head-slaps and clops to across the helmet were legal. These stunning blows would knock a receiver off his route or disrupt their ability to get free. He brought his swagger to field in more ways than his aggressive style of play, he wore distinctive white shoes, which Joe Namath would become famous. “I wanted everybody to be able to see me all of the time,” he was quoted in an article.
After a year in Pittsburgh, Williamson found his way to the Oakland Raiders of the AFL, where he played for four years and was a three year All Star. He moved on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs before leaving football after the 1967 season. He played in the first Super Bowl, where he famously said that he would deliver the hammer to Green Bay Packer receivers. Unfortunately, Williamson was himself knocked out of the game when a running back’s knee hit him in the helmet. An eight-year career resulted in 36 interceptions and two returned for touchdowns.
Williamson’s first acting role was in an episode of Ironside (1968). He did other television work including 17 episodes of the Diahann Carroll series Julia, as her boyfriend. This led to his role in the film M*A*S*H as “Spearchucker” Jones, the surgeon and high-stepping running back.
This is where Williamson’s film career took off. A starring role in The Legend of Nigger Charley, about a slave that kills a white man in self-defense and becomes a legend. Williamson appeared in 22 films in the 1970s, many of them Blaxploitation films of the era. In 1974, he wrote and produced Boss Nigger, where he played one of two bounty hunters in the West. The first film he directed was Mean Johnny Barrows in 1975.
Williamson was a smart man; he knew how to market the Williamson brand. He invested his money well, and still kept his hand in the architectural industry as a designer and business owner. He chose his endorsements carefully, and worked with a publicist on getting his story out in the media. I read an in-depth interview and photo layout he did in 1975 with Ebony magazine, showing off his fashionable Hollywood Hills bachelor pad, exploring his various business interests, and presenting his playboy lifestyle. The article mentioned his multiple girlfriends, his choices in women, his large bed and the stained-glass window of two lovers. You get the idea; he was living the dream.
Williamson had the power and swagger to now write, produce, direct and star in his own films. Granted, these were not high-budget productions, and not exactly Shakespeare, but in the early and mid 1970s, there was a market for films of the Black experience.
In 1975, Williamson caught an even luckier break, he was hired to be the “color” man in the booth of Monday Night Football, the position that Don Meredith had filled, mainly offering the jock perspective and bantering with Howard Cosell. It was a high-paying gig with great visibility. His current film, Three the Hard Way, even was promoted on-air during a telecast. Unfortunately, he would be fired after only a few weeks, the chemistry in the booth was non-existent and Williamson had no training to be a broadcaster, even when he was not expected to say much. He claimed Cosell would not talk to him and was intimidated by him.
By the end of the 1970s, Williamson’s career cooled a bit, he moved to television appearances, low budget films and being a product spokesperson. Even though his star was not as high, he still maintained a high profile. Original Gangstas (1996) teamed Williamson with Jim Brown and Pam Grier, other stars of the Blaxploitation era. The film was produced by film veteran Larry Cohen and backed by Orion Pictures, but the film never found much of an audience. The premise had three old street gang members reunite to take back their neighborhood. In supporting roles are Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and Ron O’Neal (Superfly) who are former members of their gang. Great idea for a film, but not well executed.
In 2004, Williamson had one of his highest profile roles as the police captain in the film version of Starky & Hutch. Here he plays the “by the book” character, exactly the opposite character he played in his younger days, eschewing authority for his own way.
He settled into the role of character actor, but even as a senior citizen, he did not just play the kindly grandpa, his characters might be a bit slower but they often carried a gun.
Williamson at 82, still has projects lined up, in front of and behind the camera.
In addition to a number of recent acting roles, The Last Hit Man, has been announced as a film he will produce and direct.
The Hammer did pretty well for himself, parlaying a successful and very colorful football career into a longer-lasting television and film career. Williamson came along at a time when the AFL allowed very charismatic players to showcase themselves. The image he created for the football field carried over perfectly to his next chapter. A lot of people have bravado, but not everyone could turn it from a few supporting roles into producing and directing their own films.