Samm-Art Williams, Playwright, Producer and Actor, Dies at 78


Samm-Art Williams, who made his mark in several fields — as an executive producer of the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” as an actor on both stage and screen and as a Tony-nominated playwright for “Home,” died on Monday in Burgaw, N.C. He was 78.

His death was confirmed by his cousin Carol Brown. She did not cite a cause.

An imposing 6-foot-8 (a lefty, he once served as a sparring partner to Muhammad Ali), Mr. Williams appeared in films including Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock homage, “Dressed to Kill” (1980), and the Coen brothers’ neo-noir, “Blood Simple” (1984). He had a memorable turn as Jim in the 1986 adaptation of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” part of PBS’s “American Playhouse” series.

Committed to expanding the Black presence in Hollywood, he was both a writer and an executive producer on “Fresh Prince,” the hit 1990s NBC comedy starring Will Smith as a street-smart teenager from West Philadelphia who moves in with his aunt and uncle in the moneyed hills of Los Angeles.

He also served as a writer and a producer on the television shows “Martin” and “Frank’s Place.” He was nominated for two Emmy Awards — for his work as a writer on “Motown Returns to the Apollo” in 1985 and a producer of “Frank’s Place” in 1988.

Raised in Burgaw, a former railroad town north of Wilmington, N.C., he moved to New York in 1973 to pursue a career in acting. It was his wistfulness for his small Southern hometown that inspired “Home,” a production of the celebrated Negro Ensemble Company that opened at the St. Marks Playhouse in Manhattan six years later before moving to Broadway.

The play, which is being revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theater Company, tells the story of a young Black farmer and master raconteur, Cephus Miles, in the fictional small town of Cross Roads, N.C.

Jailed for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, Cephus moves to an unnamed Northern city, where his life spirals downward before he returns home to find redemption.

The play evolved from a poem Mr. Williams wrote, as a tribute to his mother, on a Greyhound bus when he was on the way home for Christmas.

“In New York, I was lonely and missing the South,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with The Chicago Sun-Times. “But I knew I couldn’t go home, because I hadn’t achieved anything yet. The idea for the play came out of that longing.”

“Home” came to be regarded as a classic of Black theater.

Mel Gussow praised the play in a review of the original production in The New York Times, writing, “In all respects — writing, direction and performance — this is one of the happiest theatrical events of the season.”

Mr. Gussow admired Mr. Williams’s lyricism, noting that he was “clearly in love with words, which in his hands become a rolling caravan of images.” He also compared his use of dialect to that of Mark Twain.

Mr. Williams later said that his poetic approach to language was part of his mission to change racial perceptions in the eyes of the entertainment industry, as well as audiences.

“If it’s in the English language, it’s for everybody,” he said in a 1985 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “This may not be everybody’s truth — producers, directors, audiences — but it is Samm-Art Williams’s truth.”

Samuel Arthur Williams was born on Jan. 20, 1946, in Philadelphia and raised in Burgaw by his mother, Valdosia Williams, a high school English and drama teacher, after her parents separated when he was a young boy.

“Talk was everything there, good talk,” he said of his small town in a 1982 interview with The Baltimore Sun. “If you didn’t speak, they thought you were crazy.”

The easy banter he heard growing up informed his later work. “I’m very interested in folk tale as an art form,” he added. “It’s very simple. Whether you’re Black, white or green,” a folk tale “has no color.”

Influenced by his mother, he showed an early interest in writing and acting and read “everything from Langston Hughes to Edgar Allan Poe,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “‘The Raven’ was my greatest influence — in seeing this bird, I saw what a great thing it was to be able to work on a person’s mind with words.”

After graduating from Morgan State University in Baltimore with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1968, he worked as a salesman in Philadelphia while studying with the New Freedom Theater, an influential Black company there.

After moving to New York, he began to carve out a career as a stage actor, appearing in several productions by the Negro Ensemble Company. By the late 1970s he was making inroads into Hollywood and appeared in “The Wanderers” (1979), based on the Richard Price novel about youth gangs in the Bronx in the early 1960s.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Williams secured a role on an episode of the detective series “The New Mike Hammer,” starring Stacy Keach. When he learned from a producer that the episode needed a rewrite, he offered to handle it himself, kicking off his career as a television writer and, eventually, producer.

No immediate family members survive.

Throughout his career, Mr. Williams acknowledged the color barriers he faced in Hollywood. But he also acknowledged the opportunities.

“Whether I’ll succeed or whether I’ll hit a brick wall remains to be seen,” he told The Los Angeles Times, “but nothing will change if we don’t try to make it change.”



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