Clarence Williams III, the legendary actor who appeared in television shows and films including The Mod Squad, Purple Rain, 52 Pick-Up, Tales from the Hood, Half Baked, and Reindeer Games, died Friday from colon cancer. He was 81.
Born in New York City, Williams was the son of a professional musician, Clarence “Clay” Williams Jr., and grandson of jazz and blues composer/pianist Clarence Williams and his singer-actress wife, Eva Taylor. Raised by his paternal grandmother, he became interested in acting after accidentally walking onto a stage at a theater below a Harlem YMCA.
Williams began pursuing an acting career after spending two years as a paratrooper in C Company, 506th Infantry, of the 101st Airborne Division. His breakout theatrical role was in William Hanley’s Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, for which he received a Tony Award nomination. The New York Times drama critic Howard Taubman wrote of his performance, “Mr. Williams glides like a dancer, giving his long, fraudulently airy speeches the inner rhythms of fear and showing the nakedness of terror when he ceases to pretend.” He also served as artist-in-residence at Brandeis University in 1966.
Williams’ breakout television role was as undercover cop Linc Hayes on the popular ABC counterculture police television series The Mod Squad (1968), along with fellow relative unknowns Michael Cole and Peggy Lipton. Since the series ended in 1973, he worked in a variety of genres on stage and screen, from comedy (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Half-Baked) to sci-fi (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).
Spanning over forty years, his career includes the role of Prince’s tormented father, who was also a musician, in Purple Rain (1984).
From 2003 to 2007, Williams had a recurring role as Philby Cross in the Mystery Woman movie series on the Hallmark Channel. He appeared in all but the first of the eleven movies alongside Kellie Martin (J.E. Freeman played Philby in the Mystery Woman first movie). In the seventh (Mystery Woman: At First Sight) movie, he reunited with his Mod Squad co-star Michael Cole. He played Bumpy Johnson in the film American Gangster. From 2005 to 2007 Williams had another recurring role as the voice of Councilor Andam on the Disney series American Dragon Jake Long.
Williams married the actress Gloria Foster in 1967. They worked together on The Mod Squad; Foster made two guest appearances. The two were also in a movie, The Cool World, in 1964. In 1984 they filed for divorce, but remained friends. They had no children. Foster died in 2001.