This is the first in a series of retrospectives about cinematic tough guys. These are actors who have made an impression on me over the years and this is my tribute to those good and bad guys of exploitation, action, horror and other genres in cinema. This first article is about one of my all time favorite actors, the incredible and legendary William Smith.
When one thinks of memorable screen tough guys, William Smith would top the list for many fans of classic action and exploitation movies. However, William smith was not only a formidable presence on screen, but he was also a true to life tough guy in the real world. His accomplishments are many and he has led a life that most could only dream about. This is a tribute to the awe inspiring grandeur and sometimes overpowering villainy of the legendary William Smith.
Frank Wilson (Smith) roughs up the mob just prior to his fist fight with Philo Bedoe in ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980)
Born in Columbia Missouri on March 24th, 1933, Smith became a child actor at an early age and made appearances in such films as THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942). After nearly a decade long stint in Hollywood, Smith enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 where his articulation of multiple foreign languages attracted the interest of the National Security Agency. From there, Smith was involved in covert flying missions during the Korean War till it ended in 1953.
After his tour in the military, Smith then returned to his studies graduating cum laude at UCLA ultimately teaching Russian there. Fiercely competitive, Smith was extremely involved in sporting activities especially bodybuilding; a sport in which he won various titles and holds several records. These include, among others, a record for discus throwing, performing 5,100 continuous sit ups, reverse curling his own body weight, arm wrestling champion and also a Black Belt in martial arts.
If all that wasn't enough, Smith had originally intended to continue his career with the US government while completing his doctorate studies. But a studio contract with MGM came calling and Smith soon found himself inundated with an incredible amount of work on assorted television programs such as THE VIRGINIAN, GUNSMOKE and DANIEL BOONE. His lifelong love of horses was a natural progression into westerns and a passion that helped him immensely in the many small screen sagebrush shows he appeared in. One of his most notable portrayals was as Joe Riley on LAREDO, a show that lasted two seasons from 1965 to 1967.
It wouldn't be long after that William Smith would become synonymous with exploitation movies creating an ever increasing amount of noteworthy performances particularly as an antagonist. In 1969, Smith would take the lead role in a low budget production entitled RUN, ANGEL, RUN. This meager $100,000 picture went on to gross over 13 million dollars bolstered by a hit title track by Tammy Wynette.
In this film, Smith played Angel, a biker formerly of The Devil's Advocates. A magazine offers him a large sum of money to reveal the inner workings of his gang. Wishing to go straight, he leaves his life on the road behind and tells his story. This infuriates the other members and they go after their former leader. This dynamite role from the omnipresent actor cemented his status as the "King of the Bikers". The great 70's director, Jack Starrett, goes for a more character driven approach allowing Smith to really shine in his many scenes.
The gang and their souped up cycles launch an assault against the Red Chinese fortress in the Vietnamese jungle
This role led to several other biker flicks including another film with Starrett, the wildly entertaining THE LOSERS (1970), aka NAM'S ANGELS. Here, Smith plays Link, the leader of a biker gang hired by the military to rescue a CIA operative (played by the director) from Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The bad bikers retrofit their motorcycles with armor plating, guns and rockets and lead an all out attack on the enemy fortress at the end.
Other biker roles followed with such trashy pictures as CC & COMPANY (1970) which pitted Smith against Football star, Joe Namath. Ann Margaret, Sid Haig (SPIDER BABY, BIG BIRD CAGE, GALAXY OF TERROR) and Bruce Glover (WALKING TALL series, HARD TIMES, BLACK GUNN) rounded out the awesome cast of an otherwise fun, but meandering movie. Namath is easily the weakest link for this picture. It's the most lighthearted of Smith's biker flicks and he keeps it watchable. There's some gorgeous, but trashy eye candy amongst the cast, too.
Smith also did ANGELS DIE HARD (1970) and his last, CHROME & HOT LEATHER (1971), had lots of potential. Basically rehashing the structure of THE LOSERS, instead of bikers versus the Viet Cong, it was bikers vs. green berets. This production, while not a total loss, could have been something truly special. It is worth seeing, and Smith, yet again, makes the whole enterprise worth watching.
From bad bikers, Smith moved on to bad guys in blaxploitation movies, a genre which benefited from his intimidating demeanor. He appeared in at least five black exploitation pictures. HAMMER (1972) had Smith playing one of the lead heavies opposing Fred Williamson in a film about a boxer trying to work his way to the big time in boxing and gets mixed up with mobsters. Although the film isn't necessarily one of Williamson's best, the movie does a great job of showcasing the seedier side of the sport and draws some very slimy characters.
"Still beggin' aren't ya', soul brother? The money gets ya' up off your humble ass. I'm gonna send you on a trip....freedom trip, brother."
William Smith hits a TKO as Brenner, one of the most frightening of his numerous villain roles. Rivaling his role as Johnny Nappa in BLACK SAMSON (1974), Smith is awesome as the psychotic mobster who takes a lot of pleasure in inflicting pain on others.
SWEET JESUS, PREACHER MAN (1973) has Smith co-starring as Martelli, a mob boss who double crosses his contract killer who poses as a Baptist preacher in the ghetto. Smith has relatively little to do here. Most of his scenes have him either in the room pictured above, or riding in the backseat of a car discussing "jobs" with Roger E. Mosley.
BLACK SAMSON (1974) features William Smith in one of his most deliciously evil roles playing another mobster, Johnny Nappa, attempting to move drugs into the neighborhood of nightclub owner, Samson. Smith is wildly over the top here playing his psycho character to the hilt. He kills his own men when they fail, he frequently beats up his girlfriend and eventually shoves her out of a moving car. Nappa is one of the actors scariest performances.
BOSS NIGGER (1975) was one of several blaxploitation westerns. While it's no classic, it's one of the better of the subgenre of black action oaters. Smith is Jed Clayton, the leader of a gang of outlaws who clashes with bounty hunter turned lawman, Boss, played by Fred Williamson. Smith's role here is little more than a comic book character, but he does well with what he's given. It's an enjoyable, yet disposable action opus.
The enterprising and intelligent actor also dabbled in the horror and science fiction genres taking the lead role in GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE in 1974. Smith plays James Eastman, a man born from a woman raped by a vampire(!) Eastman seeks revenge for his mother by searching for his father in an effort to destroy him once and for all. It's a trashy, but bizarre and interesting film and a definite change of pace for Smith.
Smith as a government agent rescuing Victoria Vetri from the 'B' Women in the trash classic, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (1973)
The year prior saw Smith tackle a co-starring turn in the equally trashy INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS starring Victoria Vetri and 'Price Is Right' model, Anitra Ford. Here, Smith is a government agent sent to find out what happened to a well known scientist found dead in a motel. More male bodies begin piling up that seem to have died during sexual intercourse.
Smith as the oddly named Carrot (although I wouldn't tell him that) from Robert Clouse's lackadaisacal, but overly violent THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975)
Smith also co-starred opposite Yul Brynner in the mediocre post apocalyptic production, THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975). Both Smith and Brynner carry the film, but while the film is excessively violent at times, everything in between seems to go nowhere. The fights are the best thing here aside from Smith's manic performance as Carrot, the leader of the vicious gang of thugs seeking seeds to replenish the exasperated food supply. If PLANET OF THE APES (1968) laid the seed for somber futuristic thrillers, ULTIMATE WARRIOR is the seed for all the similar films that would follow (particularly in Italy) at the start of the 1980's.
Smith (right) trains a young BEASTMASTER, Marc Singer to be a 'GLADIATOR' in the APES series episode of the same name.
With all his big screen movies and his many competitive activities off screen, the inexhaustible William Smith was also a regular presence on the small screen at home. Pretty much any and every TV show featured the imposing actor. Shows as diverse as KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER to PLANET OF THE APES to BARNABY JONES to RICH MAN, POOR MAN to TRAPPER JOHN, M.D. to BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY and to the last season of HAWAII FIVE O, which saw Smith undertaking a good guy persona.
William Smith as the Treybor from 'BUCK'S DUEL TO THE DEATH' episode from the BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY television program
Featuring in at least 300 films and television shows, the incredibly prolific William Smith has probably been seen onscreen by everyone at least once. Despite a number of his outings being a bit on the grade B side, his participation greatly enhances what would likely be a less interesting viewing experience.
Smith and Eastwood go toe to toe in one of the single longest brawls (if not the longest) in American movie history from ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980)
More movies followed including one of his best known roles as the friend and nemesis of Philo Bedoe (Clint Eastwood) in the 1980 sequel to EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978). Entitled ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, Smith played supreme ass kicker, Jack Wilson.
Proving to be a far more challenging and fearsome opponent than Walter Barne's Tank Murdoch in the previous movie, the climactic bare fisted brawl is one of the highlights of American action cinema and quite possibly the longest ever seen onscreen. Smith was the perfect choice for this role and looked intimidating opposite Eastwood's character. Into the 80's, Smith never slowed down appearing in some of John Milius's big studio movies such as the father to CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) and the Russian military leader, Strelnikov in the controversial RED DAWN (1984).
William Smith was fluent in Russian among several other foreign languages. Here, he plays Strelnikov, a Russian military leader whose forces march on American soil in RED DAWN (1984)
One of the busiest decades for the ambitious character actor, Smith alternated between a massive plethora of television roles, big studio movies and direct to video garbage such as the ROLLER BLADE WARRIORS series.
To this day, William Smith continues to act and is an accomplished writer of poetry. He is also receiving further awards and accolades for his work in film and television and hopefully will attract a new legion of fans that can appreciate his impressive body of work of over five decades. Whether it's bad ass bikers, malicious mobsters, or any number of similar commanding roles, William Smith's impressive achievements defines both the real and the cinematic tough guy.