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Sunday, May 3, 2015

William Smith: Jack of All Trades & Master of Everything

"Probably the toughest guy in the world in the 70s. He could eat nails, eat glass and could ride a motorcycle upside down. Good actor, good friend, very gentle person--a gentleman." -- Fred Williamson on William Smith

For William Smith, his film career was often art imitating life. In his vast catalog of roles, a little bit of him was in many of the characters he was playing--and he played A LOT OF THEM. The good guys and the bad guys--he's essayed them in movies big and small with such astonishing precision, it's bewildering the big man has never gotten wider recognition for any number of his 300+ performances. That he possessed such a massive frame appears to be one reason he's been seemingly overlooked, or underrated for many years; yet the man has enough accomplishments for a dozen lifetimes and quite a sizable legion of fans who remember all he's given to the world and to the world of entertainment.

"People [out here] seem to have the idea that if you have 18-inch arms, you're a dummy or something, y'know? And I got my Masters cum laude from UCLA, so I think that makes it sort of irrelevant." -- William Smith, Shock Cinema interview, #12, 1998

The old saying, "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" is a contradiction in the life of Big Bill Smith. He's been a UCLA teacher, learned five languages, and fought wildfires as a volunteer fireman. He was also a Russian interrogator and intelligence expert in the Korean War, and a champion bodybuilder--amassing major macho credits with his participation in a variety of sporting events, competitions (like doing 5,100 situps over a five hour period and reverse curling 163lbs), and appearing on covers of various weightlifting magazines. 

There's also that time Smith trained with the 1st Mr. Olympia, Larry Scott; being mentored by Tough Guy Jock Mahoney; or that stage of his career when he was a stuntman; or when he turned down the role of Tarzan; or when he was made an honorary member of the Stuntmen's Association; or his time as an amateur boxer in the military; or an eight year stint training in San Soo Kung Fu with Jimmy Woo and Kempo with Ed Parker; his years as an arm wrestling champion.... the list goes on. If you want to talk living legends, William Smith is a good place to start.

The following article is a companion piece to the Tough Guys Files #1 on William Smith. It contains selected highlights from his career and things in between that demonstrate why he is the greatest Tough Guy that has ever lived.


An avid motorcycle enthusiast and rider, William Smith was ostensibly the life force of that genres popularity. His star turn in RUN, ANGEL, RUN (1969) was an extremely successful independent effort from Drive-in specialist, Jack Starrett. From riding horses to hogs, this was the first of five biker movies Smith starred in during the genres heyday. RUN, ANGEL, RUN was different from the rest of the pack in that its title hogmaster (named Angel) just wanted to be free with his lady and live his life. Unfortunately, his former gang-mates have no intentions of allowing Angel to do that. A biker love story with rape and humiliation added to the mix, if all you've seen of Smith is as a bad guy, you're in for a treat.

"My mother found it difficult to tell me that I wasn't like other children. I could never share life with whole human beings. I slowly learned that the thing that raped my mother and fathered me was no living, feeling man, but a malignant force, a cancer that refused to be destroyed.... I've tracked him from country to country to the colleges and universities where he finds the fresh young blood he craves.... Soon I'll meet my father face to face. Soon I'll have him where I want him." -- An abbreviated passage of Smith's monologue.

Nobody would mistake GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (1972) as a great movie, but for a film made for $75,000, it is among the most unusual vampire movies ever made; and is a unique lead role for Smith playing the bloodsucker offspring seeking out his father to put an end to his lust for plasma. Easily one of the quirkiest flicks on his resume.

As government agent Neil Agar, William Smith, along with Playboy Playmate Victoria Vetri, tried to prevent the INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS (1973) led by PRICE IS RIGHT model Anitra Ford. One of the best 'B' movies of all time, it was truly a total package of 70s Drive-in greatness. Much like his vampire movie lead role, BEE GIRLS was a distinctive film on Smith's resume.
One of Bill's most fascinating movies he starred in is HOLLYWOOD MAN (1976); a film about William Smith as a director making a William Smith film (well, the type of film he would make). Jammed packed with in-jokes and violence, lots of stunt guys and pals of Smith are in it. Coincidentally it's an extreme case of art imitating life in that, much like the movie Bill is financing onscreen, was financed by gangsters offscreen!

"You know what a wrestling champion is? He's a People's Champion.... If you make it to the top don't forget those people that are sittin' out there watchin' ya'.... cuz' you owe'em."--Dan giving Jim 'Jungle Boy' Davenport the rules of the ropes.

In BLOOD AND GUTS (1978), Smith is "Dandy" Dan O'Neil, "The Wild Irish Rose", a wrestler past his prime, heavy on the drinking side, who's trying to whip a young babyface into shape. Still a hard bastard, Smith has some run-ins with bar bullies, his girlfriends crazy ex-husband, and ruthless promoters. Not a straightforward action, nor wrestling film, but a drama about the dark side of the wrestling industry. One of, if not Bill Smith's best acting role in terms of the range he gives in this one. Words to live by: If you see Bill in a bar, the last thing you want to do is shove him and say, "Come on, faggot."

"You're fast and you like pain. You eat it like candy. I seen a few cases like that in my time. Ya' know, the more they get hurt, the more dangerous they become... but ya' gotta be durable, too... real durable... most ain't!"--Wilson espousing macho talk with Beddoe.

ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980) is arguably Smith's last great role of substance and one of the single greatest examples of male bonding between two macho combatants ever seen on film. He did over a hundred others after it--many of which were supporting roles and bad guys, but few (mind you, I haven't seen them all) were of the caliber of Jack Wilson (also the name of Jack Palance's character in SHANE [1953]), the bone-breaking, bare-knuckle brawler who has a samurai level appreciation for Beddoe. This is also one of the rare occasions of a powerfully believable protagonist for Smith to tangle with in Clint's powerhouse boxer. Wilson isn't technically a good guy, nor totally a bad guy. He's just the sort of guy you'd want on your side. The scrapfest that caps ANY WHICH WAY is one of the greatest fist to fist exchanges you're ever likely to see. No doubles. Just Bill and Clint.


1. Arguably one of the greatest Tough Guy stories is one involving Bill and another Tough Guy heavyweight. As it goes, back in the late 1960s when he was working on LAREDO, William Smith had a run-in with Charles Bronson. Surprised at Bronson's short stature, the famously leather-faced actor noticed Smith staring at him, walked over to him and asked what he was looking at. Bill's response was "I'm looking at nothing!", to which Bronson walked away, avoiding a potential Clash of the Titans.  Back in the day when machismo was a respected way of life, Tough Guys were full of piss and vinegar both on and off screen, so occurrences like this were commonplace. Despite this altercation, Smith was said to have a great deal of respect for Bronson, the popular Tough Guy not known for being overly talkative or friendly.

2. During the making of RUN, ANGEL, RUN (1969), Smith spoke in an interview about he and one of his co-stars getting into a brawl with members of a real band of bikers called Satan's Slaves. To quote Smith in the interview, "They weren't as tough as they thought."

3. Before David Carradine became Caine in KUNG FU, Smith had shot (along with director Jack Starrett) an audition for the part, but supposedly his size was considered too imposing and menacing looking. One wonders the trajectory his career would have taken had he gotten this role that is now part of the American lexicon. He did appear in the season two episode, 'The Chalice'.

4. Smith was originally intended to play Roper in ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), but work on THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (1973) prevented him from appearing so John Saxon was chosen instead. One rumor for ENTER is that Rockne Tarkington was to have played the Williams role that eventually went to Jim Kelly (who was an unknown at that time). Tarkington was BLACK SAMSON (1974) co-starring Smith as the heavy.

5. Not only did Bill teach Conan everything he knows, but prior to instilling Crom-ology into everyone's favorite Cimmerian, he also trained another barbarian, the man who speaks to animals and sees what they see--THE BEASTMASTER (1982), (a very young) Marc Singer, in 'The Gladiators' episode of the short-lived PLANET OF THE APES (1974) TV series.

6. Prior to the start of production on CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), Smith arm-wrestled bodybuilding colleague and then future superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger and beat him. Arnold walked away, reportedly not very pleased with himself. 

7. Sometimes nice guys do finish last.... William Smith has been a part of a handful of cultural phenomenons in their twilight years. Big Bill was Adonis, the muscle-bound henchman cum massage therapist to Minerva (Zsa Zsa Gabor) on the last episode of BATMAN (1966-1968); even better, he co-starred opposite Jack Lord on the last season of HAWAII FIVE-O (1968-1980) as Detective James 'Kimo' Carew, the replacement to James "Danno" MacArthur; and was the last Marlboro Man before cigarette commercials became extinct.

8. Whether playing good guys or bad guys, Smith had a signature way of conveying his emotional state onscreen--particularly anger articulated through this routine he does with his face. He cocks his head to one side; his eyes begin to wander; and his face becomes a total blank, momentarily drained of emotion. This almost always precedes a conspicuously evil grin followed by trauma to the head or other body part. Depending on how bad you pissed him off would determine your chances of seeing the sun rise the next day. Then there's that piercing, icy stare when Smith is simply focusing on the conversation at hand. As for communicating unease in everyone within range, William Smith could have trademarked his steely visage; which came in very handy in a lot of cases....


To document the best of Smith's bad guy roles is like choosing which food to start with at a buffet. Everything looks good. You just have to dig in and cover every inch of your plate till you can go back and start all over again. Smith had a certain something about him that allowed him to stand out from other actors. He was so imposing, so intimidating, it was nearly impossible for any filmmaker to depict him being plausibly defeated by the protagonist.

If you thought that was a fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), forget all about that one and focus on the titanic tussle between William Smith and fellow Tough Guy and heavy duty scrapper Rod Taylor in DARKER THAN AMBER (1970). The intensity of this fight is something you can't really describe in words, you just have to experience it. These two combatants were so impassioned in their exchange of blows, Smith suffered three broken ribs and Rod walked away with a broken nose. Taylor was legendary for being a brawler and Smith takes him to task.

"Don't think! You are not paid to think. You are PAID to TALK. And another thing you fuckin' WOOORRRM... my name is MISTER Nappa, MISTER NAPPA! Don't you forget it!!"--Boss Nappa to one of his staff.

When the black action boom was in full swing, William Smith lent his talents to that genre in five entries, two of which were with Tough Guy Fred Williamson. The one he did with Rockne Tarkington, the aforementioned BLACK SAMSON (1974), is arguably his best performance out of the lot of them. Smith is the personification of demented in this movie playing the thoroughly, and frighteningly unpredictable Johnny Nappa. The film itself isn't all that well known or discussed among black action enthusiasts, but Smith's performance all by itself carries the picture. He's so sadistic, it borders on parody; yet as purely evil as Nappa is, the viewer is anxious to see what nasty bit of business he'll do next in between scenes. Tarkington comes off as a believable foil, and the villains comeuppance is satisfying.

"I'll kill him! I'll rip his town to pieces... burn it to the ground. Till their ain't nothin' left but hot dirt, smoke and nails!"--GUNSMOKE season 18, episode 13 'Hostage!', 1972

Bill played Indians on occasion, too. Well, to say occasionally in Smith's film and TV resume can be fairly often. His lead role as Riley, the half-breed Indian/Texas Ranger on THE VIRGINIAN spin-off LAREDO (1965-1967) is among his most memorable roles. He turned up as a guest star on other western shows as Indians like WAGON TRAIN and GUNSMOKE; the latter series is of particular interest. Everybody knows the name of lawman Matt Dillon. Only Bill Smith could turn Matt Dillon into a vengeance seeking Marshall; like that one time he nearly killed Miss Kitty sending Matt into such a frenzy that he tore his badge from his shirt to hunt him down. After his younger brother is sentenced to hang for murder, Jude "I kill folks for a livin'!" Bonner rides into Dodge City with his Dog Soldiers to bust him out of jail. When he learns his brother has been moved elsewhere, Bonner threatens to kill Miss Kitty if his brother isn't released. She's beaten and raped (implied) by Bonner and his boys, and then Jude shoots her in the back!

"Whaddaya think you are, some kinda' hard guy, or somethin'?... Don't turn yer' back on me when I'm talkin' to ya'... punk."--Falconetti being unsociable with Tom Jordache (Nick Nolte).

Out of everything he's done, Smith will most likely be forever associated with the role of deranged hitman, rapist, and murderer Falconetti on the TV smash RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976). You can always tell when an actor really succeeds in making an audience buy into his character. Smith did too good a job as Falconetti. On a few occasions, angry fans took Smith's role a bit too seriously by trying to kill him for things he did on the TV series. He's only in four episodes of the twelve in BOOK I, so his role--the highlight of the entirety of the series'--was even bigger in RICH MAN, POOR MAN BOOK II (1976-1977) giving inexorable, impulsive fans even more to be mad about. 

If there was a guy who needed a Paul Bunyon style series of memes a la Chuck Norris, it's William Smith. The epitome of the Tough Guy persona--an intellectual, learned man of the world, and even an accomplished writer of poetry, the Macho mold was broken with William Smith, the Alpha and Omega (the A to Z) of Tough Guys.


brent hosier said...

He was the best.

E. Voss said...

I could go on and on about the sheer "tough guy" persona of William Smith (on and off screen) but if you needed a heavy for your movie or TV show back in the day, "Get me William Smith"! Mold was broken after him. A true renaissance man: Actor, intellectual, poet.

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