Clarence Williams III, the reflectively intense actor who starred as Linc Hayes, the young, hip undercover police officer on ABC’s “The Mod Squad,” died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 81.
The cause was colon cancer, his manager, Allan Mindel, said.
“The Mod Squad,” which ran from 1968 to 1973, was one of the first of its kind — a prime-time network series that focused on members of the hippie generation at the same time that it exploited them.
The show had two ad taglines. One was “First they got busted; then they got badges,” which summarized the show’s backstory: three hippies in trouble with the law who then joined the police force as plainclothes cops with built-in disguises — their youth and their counterculture personas. The second tagline — “One Black, one white, one blonde” — referred to the cast: Mr. Williams, Michael Cole and Peggy Lipton.
Mr. Williams was one of the first Black actors to have a lead role on a TV series.
Aaron Spelling, the show’s producer, never liked Linc’s Afro, Mr. Williams recalled in an NPR interview in 1999, so the style was toned down. A bit. For a while. Then, each week, he said, “we’d tease it out a little bit more.”
Clarence Williams III was born in Manhattan on Aug. 21, 1939. His father, Clarence Jr., known as Clay, was a musician. His mother is omitted from his biographies. Asked about her on Sunday, a family member declined to give her name and described her as “largely absent.” Mr. Williams was raised by his paternal grandparents.
Although “The Mod Squad” made Mr. Williams a symbol of the Vietnam War generation, he actually served in the military just before that era. He was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division in the late 1950s.
His interest in acting began when he visited a Harlem YMCA, where his sister was working, and dropped in to watch a play’s run-through. By the end of the evening, he had been cast in the production.
He began his acting career on Broadway, where his grandfather had appeared as early as 1908. The younger Mr. Williams appeared in three plays, including “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground” (1964), for which he received a Tony Award nomination and a Theater World Award. The New York Times review offered high praise.
“Mr. Williams glides like a dancer,” Howard Taubman wrote, “giving his long, fraudulently airy speeches the inner rhythms of fear and showing the nakedness of terror when he ceases to pretend.”
He owed his screen career to Bill Cosby, then a rising star. Cosby saw him on the New York stage and recommended him to Spelling, who was casting “The Mod Squad” at the time.
Cosby was the first Black actor to win a leading role in a prime-time American series, “I Spy,” beginning in 1965. Diahann Carroll starred in the sitcom “Julia” three years later — the same season that “The Mod Squad” began.
After the series ended, Mr. Williams dropped out of sight for a while, expressing disappointment in the kinds of roles available to Black men. He returned to Broadway, appearing as an African head of state, with Maggie Smith, in the Tom Stoppard drama “Night and Day” (1979).
Beginning in the 1980s, he had a busy film career. He played Prince’s abusive father in “Purple Rain” (1984) and Wesley Snipes’ heroin-addicted father in “Sugar Hill” (1993). He was a crazed blackmailer in John Frankenheimer’s “52 Pick-Up” (1986) and a wild-eyed storytelling mortician in “Tales From the Hood” (1995). He had small roles in the blaxploitation parody “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” (1988) and in Norman Mailer’s “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1987).
Television brought Mr. Williams new opportunities too. He was a leader of the Attica prison riots in HBO’s “Against the Wall” (1994); a segregationist governor’s manservant in the miniseries “George Wallace” (1997); Muhammad Ali’s father in “Ali: An American Hero” (2000); and a retired CIA operative in 10 “Mystery Woman” movies (2003-07). He did guest appearances on close to 40 series, from “Hill Street Blues” to “Empire.”
His other film roles included a much-too-loyal aide-de-camp in “The General’s Daughter” (1999), a glowering criminal who is set on fire in “Reindeer Games” (2000), an old-school crime lord in “American Gangster” (2007) and a White House servant’s older mentor in Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” (2013). His last film was “American Nightmares” (2018), a horror comedy.
In 1967, Mr. Williams married Gloria Foster, a stage actress who appeared twice on “The Mod Squad” and later played the Oracle in “The Matrix.” They divorced in 1984.
Mr. Williams is survived by his daughter, Jamey Phillips, and his sister, Sondra Pugh.
He often contended that he didn’t take being a role model that seriously.
“All of this is escapism, fantasy,” he told TV Guide in 1970, early in the run of “The Mod Squad.” “This is what the box is about.”
In the same interview, though, he recalled being happily mobbed by young Black fans at a basketball game and acknowledged, “It’s kind of nice for kids to see a reflection of themselves.”