You might not recognize the name, but you would the face and his muscular physique. Actor William Smith is now 88 years old, has been a mainstay on television and screen for six decades.
Smith has been a favorite of mine since Laredo, and I’ve followed his career since. I always felt he never got enough meaty roles.
You might recognize the muscular Smith as Joe from the 1960s comedy-Western Laredo, Falconetti in Rich Man, Poor Man, or the street fighter in Any Which Way You Can.
Smith has almost 300 acting credits in his career, a phenomenal number of roles. Because of his powerful build and serious look, more of his roles were villains or antagonists.
Aside from acting, Smith has led an interesting life. As a boy in the 1940s, he appeared in several uncredited film roles. He enlisted in the Air Force where he served in Korea and held several top security clearances. Smith had a talent for languages including Russian, which led to his work in intelligence. Not just musclebound, Smith earned a Master’s degree while pursuing a doctorate, and taught Russian language studies at UCLA. In his spare time, he was a champion weightlifter, arm wrestler, boxer and performed martial arts.
Smith worked both sides of the street: television and film. In addition to guest starring roles, he appeared in a number of television series in the 1960s, including as a Texas Ranger in Laredo, and a police detective in The Asphalt Jungle.
In the 1970s, Smith had his most diverse roles. In addition to guesting on a variety of television series, and his role in both Rich Man, Poor Man miniseries, he joined Hawaii Five-O in the last season.
Smith also carved out several distinctive villainous and counterculture roles. On television he portrayed an outlaw gang leader who kidnapped and raped Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke. To top that, he shoots her in the back. I had never seen Matt Dillon take off his badge and swear vengeance, but he did this time.
Smith found a niche as an antihero in B films like Run, Angel, Run!, The Losers, Angels Die Hard, Darker Than Amber, C.C. & Company, Chrome and Hot Leather, Sweet Jesus Preacherman, Piranha, Hammer, Grave of the Vampire and Invasion of the Bee Girls.
Photos from The Losers.
Smith seemed to embrace the counterculture, at least in the opportunities to play motorcycle riding former vets and outliers of society. His huge muscles, long hair and menacing persona could be packaged many ways in interchangeable low budget films. He could play these characters on television as well, essentially cardboard roles that allowed him to be the tough guy of the week.
William Smith shows up often in films and old television shows. Never a wallflower, you expected a fight or at least a strong-willed Smith character. He played his share of tough guys on both sides of the law. You didn’t see him as father knows best, or romantic leads. Smith was a smart guy, but as helpful as his physique was for action roles, it didn’t help him land normal, boring roles.
On television and in low budget films, he was asked to play damaged or just nasty characters. You get little time to give an interesting performance.
Occasionally, there was a role like this.
Playing Conan the Barbarian’s father was far from a boring character for Smith. This was not your typical father knows best role. Too bad he did not have more of them.
In a conversation with Conan director John Milius, Quentin Tarantino had this to say. “Let me just say your casting of William Smith as Conan’s father is brilliant… William Smith is my favorite actor. He usually plays bad guys. But I’d like to see him play more heroic parts. I think he’s like Charles Bronson was in the sixties. Like Bronson, I think he could make the transition from villain to hero.”