The Empire Strikes Back 30th Anniversary panel at Wizard World Anaheim Comic Con got off to an unexpected start when it was announced that director Irvin Kershner had to cancel his appearance due to health issues.
The news was announced by Coolwaters Productions president Derik Maki, who represents the director and showed a brief video message from Kershner apologizing for not being able to attend. The director of Empire Strikes Back has cancer and was recently hospitalized. Even though he’s out of the hospital, his doctors told him he was not well enough yet to make a public appearance.
Maki said people who brought items for Kershner to sign could drop them off at the Coolwaters booth and they would take them to Kershner’s home to sign.
Making the show was actor Billy Dee Williams, who of course played the rogue turned rebel Lando Calrissian in both 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
Williams started off by saying that he has long had to defend his characters actions to the movie’s youngest and most passionate fans.
“My whole life revolves around this whole betrayal conspiracy,” says Williams. “I used to pick my little girl up from school, and I’m right in the middle of the school yard and the kids run up and say, ‘You betrayed Han Solo!’”
Williams says he’d try to explain Lando’s motives. “Lando, he had what was tantamount and what was comparable to what Steve Wynn has in Vegas,” Williams says. “Then in comes Han and his friends and right behind him was Darth Vader and so he had to figure out what to do about the whole situation. He ended up losing his situation. So who do you sympathize with?”
Asked which of his characters he most relates to, Williams says he’s enjoyed his Emmy-nominated role in “Brian’s Song,” as well as “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany,” as well as his stage work.
Williams says he got the role by meeting with Kershner, who came to Williams’ home to discuss the role.
“I knew they were interested in hiring me to play the character of Lando Calrissian. Irv came to my house and we talked for a long time,” Williams says. “We really hit it off and that was pretty much how it all happened.”
Asked a hypothetical about who he’d most like to meet — living or dead — Williams was quick to respond with an answer of Orson Welles. “He was extraordinary,” Williams says. “I love that he took chances as an artist. I did approach him about doing a remake of one of his movies, “A Lady From Shanghai,” with Rita Hayworth. I happened to like that particular character. And he was interested in the whole idea of doing it — until I talked to his manager. That always screws everything up.”
One fan brought up a point raised in recent Star Wars comedy specials, namely that in the last scene of The Empire Strikes Back, Lando is wearing a similar outfit to that of Han Solo.
“I was not aware I was wearing Han Solo’s clothes,” Williams says. “I never thought about it.”
Williams says he enjoys working with Seth Green on such projects as Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum. He also says he will continue to do sketches with late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, with his next sketch set to appear next week.
Another burning fan question was whether Williams still drinks Colt 45. “Of course. Do you?”
While he says shooting Empire was pretty straight-forward, Williams couldn’t help but notice an underlying theme to things happening in Return of the Jedi.
“A lot of it seemed very sexual,” he says. “The Sarlaac Pit I always described as, I don’t know how to say this, a big pink one. And everyone’s falling into it.”
Williams said he’s not on Twitter or Facebook and has no interest in either. “I like my privacy. I don’t need to tell everybody what I’m doing every day of my life.”
Another of Williams’ best-known roles was as Harvey Dent in the 1989 Batman movie. “The reason why I accepted that role is I thought I was going to play Two Face,” he says.
Williams said that even though they never really had a full copy of the script to Empire, he knew what he wanted to do with the character. “I wanted to create a guy who was devoid of the whole question of ethnicity,” he says. “I figured, he’s a guy in the future, and all the rest of that stuff wasn’t really that important.”
That was a freeing experience for Williams as an actor. “When you’re doing the whole ethnic thing, you end up putting limitations on yourself. You do things because you think this is what people expect,” he says. “Star Wars transcends that.”
The wardrobe also was a plus, and Williams says he wish he’d kept the cape he wore in Empire. He did say, however, that he has a Revenge of the Jedi t-shirt, an Ewok head and a Blue Harvest cap.
Maki jumped in with mention of a couple of very minor Lando trims from the films, one being a scene with Williams and Mark Hamill after Luke is taken aboard the Falcon at the end of the film. The other was a sandstorm scene in Jedi in which the rebels return to the Millennium Falcon after rescuing Han Solo.
When it comes to changes in the special editions and the prequel films, Williams says he’s always curious about what Lucas up to. “I think he was experimenting with CGI and special effects, and somewhere along the way I think the characters suffered,” he says. “They didn’t have the same humanity I guess, the first three had, where he wasn’t relying on all that stuff. But it’s still interesting.”