WE ARE NOT WORTHY
Fred Williamson is an action, sci-fi and horror star of legendary status. Jay Slater fearlessly takes him on...
"If we can find a bottle big enough to put his ego in, weíll need a redwood tree for a cork." -
an American film journalist after interviewing Fred Williamson.
With his towering muscular frame, chunky gold jewellery and huge cigar that resembles a German U-boat, Fred Williamsonís reputation as an egomaniac with attitude to match can perhaps be understood. Whenever a nearby camera is about to flash, Williamson is there ready with his all-macho male action pose. But attitude has nothing to do with it. The man is always ready to back his Beverly Hills film production company, PoíBoy Productions: image is everything in order for his films to succeed. However, Williamson proves to be a delightful and charming gentleman. He's only too happy to reminisce over his past Italian movies, in which he often played the ebony-skinned warrior fighting for liberty and all-American values, and sometimes became the cold calculating villain. Whatever the movie, Williamson always got into a scrap. And won.
The physical appearance of an actor in the movies can be deceiving when they are seen face-to-face. The diminutive stature of Tom Cruise and Antonio Banderas is legendary and rumours that these stars have had to wear high heels on set so that they can match the height of their co-stars can be believed. Williamson looks big on film and in the flesh is really big, perhaps the only actor of Italian exploitation cinema who can look into the eyes of Luigi Montefiori without the aid of stilts. Star of delirious movies such as Lucio Fulciís Rome 2033 - The Fighter Centurions, David Worthís Warrior Of The Lost World, and Enzo G Castellariís The Bronx Warriors, The New Barbarians and The Inglorious Bastards to mention just a few, Williamson was understandably a little vague about his Italian work, but his enthusiasm for the films made this interview a hilarious encounter.
Jay Slater: Iíve spoken to a number of few British acting performers, such as Ian McCulloch, Catriona MacColl, and Caroline Munro who have appeared in Italian exploitation films. They have all said that it was a problem to be paid. In some cases, such as Munro, they apparently werenít paid at all. Did this ever happen to you while you were in Italy?
Fred Williamson: "I got paid very well. I didnít go there with the idea of making money, anyway. I was capturing a foreign market and my foreign liability. Anybody who says they limit themselves on a monetary basis is not thinking clearly about their future. I mean, to have a market in more than one place is really the ultimate. My whole concept is to be viable as an international actor, and anyone who goes out there looking for money is limited in his or her thinking."
Jay: Iíd like to discuss your work with Enzo G Castellari. Letís start with The New Barbarians. Castellari told me that he thought it was his cheapest and poorest looking film, which he shot in five days. What are your memories of the film?
Fred: "Well, at the time, Enzo Castellari was the best action director in the world. Castellari was very good at shooting fast and quickly. He had this similar American style of shooting a film, but while he says he shot the film in five days, you know, that might be an exaggeration (laughs)! That was longer than five days for sure... I had mosquito bites all over me. Thatís the one where I said that Iíll be the guy with the bow and arrows but I want them to be a little different. When I shoot an arrow, I want it to explode! I wanted to make it seem that this guy has a lot more weaponry than it seemed at first."
Jay: So I take it that Castellari would let you improvise and give suggestions?
Fred: "Oh yeah, well he had to do that. He knew that I know my market better than he did. So I was really gearing towards what I did Ė how I walked and acted Ė to my particular market. You know, it would have been strange to see me in this bow and arrow stuff anyway if I wasnít Fred Williamson. If I had lost my identity totally I would have been Hercules, an Italian Hercules! But I wanted to maintain my own identity and still be dressed up in this weird outfit and I did that by having these tricks and gadgets."
Jay: Were you recognised in Italy at the time?
Fred: "I still am, even today."
Jay: So you canít even walk down the streets today without people waving at you?
Fred: "Well, theyíre very polite, very different. I like people who are a little different. They smile at you. They give you this knowing smile... They donít come up to you asking for autographs, they donít give a pull on ya, they just give you knowing smiles and nods. When you go to a restaurant, they sometimes give you a quiet applause or a little recognition. I think the Italians are probably the best in the entire world, and maybe the French in the same way, that once you become a recognisable star, they give it to you for life. You donít keep having to make that hit picture. You donít have to be continuously working at putting your name up on the screen so that they remember you. Once they recognise you and know thatís who you are, they give you polite recognition. So when youíre a star, youíre always a star. And, you know, thatís so great about a foreign country like Italy. And to be honest, I think of France in the same way."
Jay: So what about the English then?
Fred: "The English are like the Americans. You have to be on top all the time, and if youíre not on top, youíre a has-been. And in Italy, youíre never a has-been. They give you your due and respect you for what you have accomplished with your life because (Fred clicks his fingers to accompany the sentence) none of that stuff is ever given. If you have accomplished something in your life, it is because you have worked hard to do it, and the Italians know full well that you can always sustain that and hold on to that title forever. They realise this and youíre given that credibility."
Jay: You worked with George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori), a somewhat physical actor, in The New Barbarians and The Bronx Warriors. How did you get on with Big George?
Fred: "I get on with anybody who doesnít touch or challenge me (laughs)! But everyone knew that I was a martial-arts person. Even if I was big and had the muscles, I did my own stunts. They all knew that I was in good shape and I never had any problems with anyone. Every time I go to Italy, I look forward to it as a fun thing. As a matter of fact, I ended up living in Rome for five or six years and I had nothing but great experiences in Italy."
Jay: Castellari is still making the films that he chooses to direct. If a part were made available for you, would you take it?
Fred: "Iíd leave tomorrow. First, I wouldnít even ask what they were paying. I know what they are prepared to pay is below what Iíd be making in the States, but I would be enjoying my work and having a good time. Yeah, Iíd be in Rome."
Jay: Your fight sequences in The Bronx Warriors do seem to be well rehearsed and are certainly energetic stuff. Can you tell me about the other actors who get beaten up every few minutes?
Fred: "Well, I had to practise with them because the majority of those guys arenít martial-arts people Ė theyíre stuntmen. These Italian guys have the bigger hearts as stuntmen than anyone else I have worked with. If you tell one of them to jump out of a two-storey window, they wouldnít rehearse - theyíd just jump out of that window! Theyíd say, 'How was that?!' (laughs). Sometimes the reply would be, 'You have to do that again as we didnít have time to film you on camera, man!'. So these guys have big hearts. All you have to do is show them the way, teach them the right form and style. You know, you can kick these guys in the head, bounce them off walls, they do all the things that an actor in America would do but have at least fifty guys looking after them. Those Italians... they go hell for leather, man! Theyíre great. Theyíre the best."
Jay: What can you tell me about the male lead, Mark Gregory? Castellari told me that he was a "problem" on set.
Fred: "Well, did he explain to you what the problem was?"
Jay: Yeah, something on the lines that his mother was allegedly an alcoholic and his father died under mysterious circumstances. A bad upbringing for any child.
Fred: "Well, thatís not the problem he had. That might be all very true but that was not the problem. The problem with Mark is that he had this Hercules body but, you know, he wasnít over-muscular. The fact is that he was feminine. We had problems in getting him to walk. He minced, man! When he was standing and posing, we had to teach him not to put his hands on his hip and give it that big girl pose because he had a little sweetness in him (laughs). Mark was ''sweet'... We discovered him working out in a gym but he didnít know he was 'sweet' until we put him on the set and he had this way of standing that was very feminine. You know, he would always prop one leg against the other leg and then put his hand on his hip. Itís not the hero image, man! So there you have it, thatís the problem we had with Mark, he was 'sweet'."
Jay: Another Castellari film of yours is the excellent The Inglorious Bastards, without a doubt, one of the best Italian war films.
Fred: "Yeah, that was with Bo Svenson and me. That was one of their biggest-budgeted films. They spent a lot of money on it Ė at least two million dollars. Unlike other Italian films that are shot in studios, this time we were out in the field doing an American-type film. There were a lot of bad things happening at the time when we were making the film. I mean, their president or whatever got kidnapped and we werenít allowed to use guns for the film."
Jay: Isnít that rather limiting for an action war movie?
Fred: "(Laughs) Yeah, but Castellari had a great special effects guy and his name was 'Bombido' because anything he touched exploded. He was a little short guy. Well, he came up with a way of having sparks coming out of the guns. So we had wire running under the barrel of the machine gun that was connected to a battery, so when the trigger was pulled, sparks came out. We had spark guns, you know, we faked it and it looked really good. 'Bombido' has this truck and when you opened the door, all this shit would fall out everywhere with his machines which he used to make these guns."
Jay: You starred in one of those Italian atomic apocalypse films called Rome 2033 - The Fighter Centurions (aka The New Gladiators) that was directed by the late Lucio Fulci. Apparently, he was a screamer on set.
Fred: "Lucio Fulci was an image of a director that he always wanted to be (laughs)! He was an image of a director with shit hanging out of his mouth all the time! Man, he was quite a guy. I never knew what this movie was all about. I mean, I did it but I still donít know what itís about. I think I was a warrior training to go into battle in an arena. Thatís all I remember about the movie. Someone went into the arena and did some fighting on motorcycles but that wasnít me. I remember doing some shadowboxing in this flickering light... I saw that and it didnít work too well. It was supposed to be in slow motion kind-of-stuff with the flickering light. That didnít work well at all. I did the movie but I have no idea what the film is about."
Jay: I remember a scene where youíre hanging above an electrified floor. Everyone else is holding on for dear life, sweating buckets, except you who appears bored by it all.
Fred: "Yeah, I remember that. I had no idea what it was all about! Fulci may have been a screamer but he never bullied any Americans. There were two other American actors in this film, such as Jared Martin, and he never screamed at him. Fulci may have screamed at Italians as he probably had this image of how directors should be like. Plus, the Italian crew gave him a lot of respect so he screamed for that reason. But he never screamed at me, and if he did, Iíd just look him in the eye and say, 'What the fuck are you talking about?'. You know, he screamed because he thought that was what directors do and so, he was an image of a director. He meant well and he was a good guy."
Jay: You made another Italian apocalypse film called Warrior Of The Lost World that starred Robert Ginty and Donald Pleasence. Oddly enough, an American directed it: David Worth. Do you remember that film?
Fred: "Warrior Of The Lost World? Yeah, I remember that... Man, I think it was shot under a different title when I did it. I think it was called White Fire and we did that in Turkey..."
Jay: No, that was a different film. Donít worry about it. We get confused as well!
Fred: "(Laughs, with a huge, beaming smile) I remember Ginty was there..."
Jay: There was an annoying talking motorcycle and you played a bad guy for a change. You remember that?
Fred: "Yeah? No, man! Did I have a big part in it?"
Jay: Yeah, you had a nice leather jacket and a beret!
Fred: "I did? I remember the people but not the film..."
Jay: Well, that throws those questions in the bin!
Fred: "(Howls with laughter). But let me tell you, you only know about some of them. I must have made about 30 with Italian names and I donít remember what the movie was called. I know I was in the movie and spoke Italian but have no idea what they are about. Thereís some that you donít know about and I donít know about. And Iím in them!"
Jay: You directed a few films in Italy. One was the enjoyable Foxtrap which you also acted in alongside Christopher Connelly. The end credits inform the viewer to look forward to an impending sequel called Fox And Cobra. Whatever happened to this film?
Fred: "I guess we never got round to doing it as I was busy doing other things. My attempt there was to make an American film although everything was Italian, this way I could sell it to the American market. If you make a film that is strictly Italian, itís very hard to sell the film to the American market. If you make a film that is American, you can sell it to any market. If you make a film, even an English one, itís harder to sell than an international one because thereís certain things which are so English that the rest of the world doesnít understand or can identify with. Look at comedy. Your comedy doesnít translate in America and thatís why a lot of American comic actors are not successful over here. So I shot Foxtrap part in Italy, part in Cannes, part in Los Angeles, I mean, I went everywhere to make the film an American movie, although it has an Italian crew with Italian money."
Jay: But why use an Italian film crew when you can use American?
Fred: "It just gave me a good excuse to stay in Rome! I did everything there for the film, such as the music, and that gave me more reason to hang out in Rome."
Jay: Another Italian directorial job for you was Mr Mean.
Fred: "Mr Mean was a film I was doing during the weekends when I was on the set of The Inglorious Bastards. I would take the camera equipment and crew every Saturday and Sunday and film Mr Mean, unknown to the producer at that time. Yeah, I wrote the story Monday to Friday and shot on the weekends what I had written that week."
Jay: Considering the circumstances, were you happy with the film?
Fred: "Oh yeah, the film worked well. I directed another called The Messenger Of Death but donít ask me anything on that because I remember the film but donít remember anything about it."
Jay: A popular Italian movie that you acted in is Black Cobra that now has four episodes to its name.
Fred: "Black Cobra was a take-off from Stalloneís Cobra: it was hard work but was real good. We tried to make that as American as we could and shot in the American part of Italy, a part of Rome called Euro. Itís a part of Rome where all the buildings are very modern and very new. We did a lot of interior stuff so it seemed like we were in an American city and not an Italian one. It looked like New York."
Jay: Black Cobra 2 and Black Cobra 3 were directed by Edoardo Margheriti, son of Antonio, and not Stelvio Massi as credits suggest. Now, do you think Edoardo will become a good director like his father? (Edoardo was credited as first assistant director on his fatherís Indio 2 Ė The Revolt).
Fred: "Well, it depends whether if the Italian industry survives or not. You know, heís very good as he speaks fluent English, heís married to a Filipino girl so he spends a lot of time in Manila. So, he has a lot of exposure to America and heíll probably be a good director in Italy because he can make films with an American attitude, and that makes his films easier to sell. Most of the directors only have that attitude based on their experiences in Italy, so itís hard for them to think American style. You know, Americans donít mind seeing you going from the table to the car and thatís a cut. In Italy, youíve got to get up from the table, walk to the door, open the door, get in the damn car and drive off. Otherwise, they go 'What happened?' (laughs). In America, you can do a fast cut. You can go from eating and putting your glass on the table to the next cut where youíre driving in your car. Thereís no questions asked. The Italians have to understand that there are different mentalities throughout the world to present a single scene. So, Edoardo could be a good director."
Jay: One last question as time is running out. Fred, imagine yourself shipwrecked on a desert island with only food and water to sustain yourself, a television and a DVD player. Given the choice of one disc only, what film of yours made in Italy would you take with you?
Fred: "Black Cobra, man. Itís a cool movie. It had a pretty girl, a fight scene. Do you remember the car chase where weíre fighting side-by-side? That was a hell of a scene! It was really risky to do but, you know, I was holding ass and we must have been going sixty miles per hour. Iím going backwards and heís driving forwards, and Iím reaching in, trying to climb into his car. You remember that? That was real shit, man. You see, in Italy, they donít have the fucking money to put the car on rails whereby in the States, they would put a whole rail down there for the car going that way and another for the car going backwards. Not in Italy, man. That shit is 'Action!', and youíre holding ass, you hit the floor and, 'Okay, letís do it again!'."
Jay: Many thanks for your time, Fred. I appreciate it and I really enjoyed myself. That was fun!
Jay Slater is Editor at Black Flame - the publishers who are releasing various officially-licensed Friday The 13th, Jason X, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Final Destination novels. He is also the editor of Eaten Alive: Italian Cannibal And Zombie Movies, which you can see at Amazon UK or indeed Amazon US. Thanks to Jay for this fine interview.
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