Book excerpt: "What Have We Here?" by Billy Dee Williams

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In his new memoir, “What Have We Here?: Portraits of a Life” (Knopf), veteran actor Billy Dee Williams – whose roles have ranged from romantic leads to a swashbuckling “Star Wars” hero – writes about an early experience on stage.

Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss Ben Mankiewicz’s interview with Billy Dee Williams on “CBS News Sunday Morning” February 25!

“What Have We Here?” by Billy Dee Williams

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I was almost eight years old, and I was exactly where the universe wanted me. Somehow I knew this, I knew it in my bones, and it allowed me to proceed with calm and confidence in a situation that would normally be nerve-racking for a child.

My mother and I were in a rehearsal studio in midtown Manhat­tan. The whole subway ride downtown I had assured her that I was not nervous. I was auditioning for a part in the Broadway musical The Firebrand of Florence, an operetta with music by Kurt Weil, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, book by Edwin Justus Mayer, and staging by John Murray Anderson. All were giants in their field. The production starred Weil’s wife, Lotte Lenya.

“You’ll do okay, Sonny,” my mother said.

“I know, Mommy,” I said, squeezing her hand and answering her reassuring eyes with a smile of my own. “Don’t worry.”

Producer Max Gordon was in charge. He was my mother’s boss. At the start of World War II, my mother took a job as the elevator operator at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street between Sixth and Sev­enth Avenues. She had studied opera singing in school and dreamed of performing at the Metropolitan Opera House, but so far, this was the closest she got to the stage.

The Lyceum was one of the most glamorous venues on Broadway, and my mother loved working there. Once her skills as a stenographer and typist were discovered, she was promoted to a secretarial position, which brought her into contact with Gordon.

One day Gordon told her about a new Broadway show he was pro­ducing, The Firebrand of Florence. He mentioned that he was looking for a cute little boy to play the part of a page in his new production.

My mother promptly mentioned me. Bring him in, he said. Let’s have a look at him.

For the audition, she dressed me in my good clothes, my Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit—bow tie, jacket, shorts, high socks, and pol­ished shoes—and took me downtown to the theater. My tryout was in front of the director John Murray Anderson, the playwright George S. Kaufman, and the choreographer Catherine Littlefield. All were lumi­naries of the theater world. I had no idea.

They sat in the front row. John told me to walk across the stage.

I followed his direction perfectly, walking slowly but purposefully, while looking out at the audience.

“Very good,” John said.

“Can I do it again?” I asked.

“All right.”

I ran back across the stage and repeated my steps, this time flashing a smile in the middle of my stroll. When John said that was good and thanked me for coming in, I started to cry. He looked at my mother, wondering what had happened. She turned toward me, trying to figure out why I was upset.

“I want to do it one more time,” I said.

Even then, I knew I had a better take in me.

Afterward, John asked if I could sing. I quickly said, “Yes!”

I got the job—and ever since I’ve said I cried my way into show business.

My mother was so proud. Many years later, she wrote me a letter in which she recalled “seeing stardom” in my smile that day. I still have the letter. What I have always remembered, though, is the loving hug I got from her after the audition. Pleasing my mother meant everything to me, and that never changed. The work I’ve done over the past eight decades got more complicated than walking across the stage, but my motivation stayed the same. Do a good job. Make Mommy proud. Entertain the audience.

From “What Have We Here?” © 2024 by Billy Dee Williams. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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