I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a handful of celebrities in my life. Way back in 1986, I won backstage passes to meet Billy Idol when he played the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum, which was a pretty cool experience for a music-obsessed 12-year old. About 10 years later, when I was in college, I got to chauffeur Dick Vitale around Starkville for a day. That was also a pretty cool experience for a then basketball-obsessed 21-year old. Ten years after that, I got to shake hands with former presidents George Bush the Elder and Bill Clinton when they spoke at Tulane’s commencement ceremony in 2006. And while I didn’t get to meet her, I was about 10 yards away from Ellen DeGeneres when she spoke at that same Tulane commencement.
And working in college athletics for as long as I did, I’ve met and interacted with more than my fair share of famous sports figures: Mia Hamm, Dean Smith, Eric Moulds, Pat Summitt, just to name a few.1
So, while it’s not necessarily old hat for me to meet someone famous (or even quasi-famous), I don’t generally get overly excited when I cross paths with a celebrity.
Except for this one time.
It was early March, 2003, and I was in Memphis with the Tulane women’s basketball team for the annual Conference USA Women’s Basketball Tournament.2 Not sure how it is now, but, back then, all of the participating teams were generally housed in the same hotel together and there was usually a decent hospitality suite available for the coaches and support staffs. And it wasn’t uncommon for the non-coaching staff members of those teams to hang out together during the evenings.3
We’d usually start the night in the hospitality suite before wandering off to some local bar if only to escape the hotel-gym-hotel cycle we were all seemingly trapped in.4 But one night, for reasons that now (more than 14 years later) escape me, we decided to stop off in the hotel bar before venturing out for the evening.
It was likely a Wednesday or Thursday night and the bar was virtually empty except for a table of about four or five people in a back corner. I remember thinking that one of the guys at that back table looked like Billy Dee Williams but then telling myself that I was imagining things because what would Billy Dee Williams be doing in a hotel bar in Memphis?
Except it WAS Billy Dee Williams. We were seated near the bar and when he walked up to order another round of drinks, it became extremely obvious that it was him. In a move that was (and is) totally out of character for me, I went up to him and stumbled all over my words as I tried to say hi and that I was a huge fan, loved Star Wars, etc…. He smiled that radiant smile he has, said thanks and shook my hand. I settled down enough to ask what brought him to town and he said he was there for a few days to act in a play.5
Then, in a moment of clarity that I can only assume was heaven-sent, I asked him if he’d be willing to take a quick picture with our group. This being 2003 and before the rise and ubiquity of smart phones, I’m not even sure why one of us had a camera but we apparently did. He was extremely gracious, said “of course” and asked one of his tablemates to come over to snap the photo.
Did I mention that he was extremely gracious? Because he was extremely gracious. When the picture was done, instead of racing off to get away from this group of geeky 20-somethings, he spent a few minutes talking about Star Wars and other movies with us.
Even when one of our drunken compatriots tried to tell him he was wrong about which movie he’d been in, Williams laughed good-naturedly. The exchange went something like this:
Drunk compatriot: I remember you played the District Attorney in a movie but I don’t remember which one it was.
Billy Dee Williams: I played the D.A. in the original Batman movie.
DC: No, I’ve seen Batman. You weren’t in Batman.
BDW, chuckling: I’m pretty sure I was in Batman.
The rest of us, to our drunken compatriot, fearful that he was going to offend the ever-delightful Billy Dee Williams: Dude! Shut up right now.
We peppered him with a few more questions before one of us wised up and said something along the lines of “thanks for your time” and let him head back to his group.6 He gave us one last smile, said something along the lines of “you’re welcome” or “anytime” or something else incredibly gracious and went back to join his table.
And that was it. It was probably less than five minutes start to finish but it’s a memory I’ll hold on to forever. And unless something truly terrible comes out about him, I’ll always be a fan.
Speaking of… as a final note, I just want to reiterate that it’s borderline criminal that Billy Dee Williams isn’t in the newest round of Star Wars movies.7 Lando is one of the best characters in the entire saga and Williams played him with style and panache. I think there’s an argument to be made that he turned in the best acting performance in The Empire Strikes Back. There’s even a perfect place for him to have shown up in The Force Awakens. You can read more of my thoughts about it here.
They say never meet your heroes. But if your hero is Billy Dee Williams, it’s ok, you should definitely meet him if you can.
1. Even my wife has sort of gotten in on the action: she was once in the gym at the same time as Ryan Reynolds when he was in New Orleans filming Green Lantern… but she didn’t go talk to him or anything. Much to my dismay.
2. In another life, I worked in sports communications and while I was at Tulane, I was the publicist for their nationally-ranked women’s basketball team.
3. And by non-coaching staff, I mean folks like the SIDs (publicists, like me), radio broadcasters, equipment managers and athletic trainers.
4. And also because free drinks are obviously better than ones you have to pay for.
5. I’m pretty sure it was A Raisin in the Sun but don’t quote me on that.
6. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me who said that. I probably could have talked to him all night.
7. So far, anyway. He wasn’t in 2015’s The Force Awakens or 2017’s The Last Jedi. I guess there’s still hope that he’ll appear in 2019’s as-yet-untitled Episode IX.