In 1973, former NFL defensive back Fred Williamson, also known as “the Hammer,” starred in director Larry Cohen’s blaxploitation film Black Caesar (the title is a nod to the 1931 pre-code mobster movie Little Caesar), about a gangster named Tommy Gibbs who is brutally assaulted by a cop as a child and grows up to wage war against the white establishment. Williamson played the titular character, a role originally written for Sammy Davis Jr. and eventually respun around Williamson’s persona as what Cohen described as the “godfather of Harlem.” The movie was shot on a shoestring budget, introduced us to the cinematic scoring of James Brown, became a blockbuster, and sparked a (mostly improvised) sequel (which retcons Black Caesar’s original ending). Nearly five decades after the movie’s release, Williamson, 83, spoke to Vulture about Cohen’s no-permit, guerrilla style and how New York City provides a neighborhood full of free extras — unsuspecting pedestrians, cab drivers, midnight basketball players, and all.
When you made Black Caesar, where were you in your career at that point? You had obviously had a very storied career in football, but where was your movie career?
I had made a film called M*A*S*H, which is my first movie. I was a spear chucker in M*A*S*H. I played Beach Boy in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. So I was kind of finding my own way then, establishing the character that I wanted to portray. I didn’t want to be a character actor; I wanted to be someone that maintained and sustained an image like Charles Bronson, like Clint Eastwood.
I started looking at Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson. All the action movies in the ’50s and in the ’40s were bad gangster movies, and all the gangsters were real gangsters, but the secret was you never knew what they did. They were called gangsters, but what made them gangsters? Edward G. Robinson helped little old ladies cross the street, gave them flowers — everybody loved him. Who hated him? But he was a gangster. So I decided to make my character like that — a loved character that was a gangster. But you never really determined what I did in the movie as a gangster.
You were an assassin, right?
No. No. Black Caesar was a gangster, period.
There was that first scene where there’s a bounty on a mobster’s head and you go and you kill the mobster, and then you go and you collect.
Yeah. But I’m killing a bad guy. I’m killing somebody that deserves to be killed, who society hasn’t been able to extinguish.
How did you meet the director Larry Cohen? I’ve read a story that Larry Cohen had not written this for you.
I met Larry Cohen a couple times socially. I knew him from restaurants in Beverly Hills. So we talk, we meet, we wave at each other from time to time, and he got to know me kind of well. Having met him socially, he said, “Wow, this is the guy.” But then he had to convince me to do it because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in this kind of movie until I came up with my idea of Caesar from Edward G. Robinson and knew how I was going to play the role. I wasn’t depending on Larry Cohen’s script to carry me through because I knew he didn’t understand Black motivation. We had this discussion saying, “I’ll do what I feel is right and I will discuss it with you, and if I don’t think something is right, I’ll discuss it with you and I won’t do it. It’s that simple.”
Do you remember any big changes you made to the script or the plot?
Yeah. Black people are really close to their mothers, and I said, “Let’s have a scene where I’m trying to change my mother’s life.” To move her uptown from the community that she’s living in. So in the movie, I bought this condo from a guy, and my mom was a housekeeper there. I was under the covers in the bed when she came in to clean the room. I rise up and I say, “Mom, you don’t have to work anymore. This is your place.” And she looks at me and she says, “I can’t live here. Black people can’t live here. They would destroy me.” I say, “Mom, nobody’s going to touch Tommy Gibbs’s son.” But it didn’t work out. She refused to take it.
She was very resistant. She said, “Jews can’t even live in this building.”
Exactly, exactly. So that was me indicating the closeness between the families of Black people. I think it’s more close than white people because we depend on family because we struggle more in the beginning, you know? My whole youth life was depending on my parents guiding me and telling me what to do and what not to do.
Did you know Harlem before the shoot?
I knew the real Harlem. I didn’t know the bullshit Harlem we have now. I knew the real Harlem with the jazz clubs and the restaurants and the people were selling stuff on the street. That was old Harlem. It was happening on the street, you know?
And old Harlem was where you shot?
We went everywhere. The success of the movie was because Larry shoots guerrilla style and the fact that I’m the Hammer and people know me. We shot a scene coming out of a store — I walk across the street, and as I’m crossing the street, the bad guy crosses me. We meet in the middle of the street and he shoots me. We’re blocking traffic. I got a blood spat in my hand, so I splat it on my white jacket like I’ve been shot. (We put the gunshot in later.) I fall down on the street, I’m rolling around. The cars … Nobody’s blowing their horn. Everybody’s looking. I get up, and I’m crawling. I fall across the street into a wastebasket. I’m leaning against a wall, and a cop walks by and he says, “Hammer, you shooting a movie?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Well, be gone in 15 minutes. Don’t be here when I come back.”
Wait, you’re kidding me. That scene? Because that’s an amazing scene.
Traffic stopped. They weren’t going around. It stopped both ways, and everyone watched me writhe around with a white suit on. And my character was at Tiffany’s, so I had a Tiffany bag in my hand. I dropped the Tiffany bag, and I’m rolling on the street. Everybody’s walking around me. Everybody’s stopping and looking. Nobody helps me. But one guy picks up the Tiffany bag and, as I’m stumbling up, hands it back to me.
The guy who gives it to you — was he a part of the production or was he just a random guy?
A random guy. You would think a guy would pick up a Tiffany bag and run off with it. He didn’t. It was a local guy who picked it up and handed it to me.
You think everybody sort of was like, This has got to be a movie?
I don’t know. They didn’t know it was a movie because there was no camera. We had the camera across the street at a hotel up on the fifth floor shooting a long lens down at this action on the street and the cars and me rolling around on the sidewalk. They didn’t know.
Were you a little concerned about getting run over?
No. Hell no.
There were no production assistants holding the traffic back?
I don’t even know where Larry was. There was no production assistant holding traffic back, man. That’s free background. You don’t hold back free background. I don’t know where Larry was because he couldn’t be anywhere to be seen. He was watching it all from someplace.
You’re saying you didn’t get any permits from the city to shoot the scene?
Was no permits nowhere in the movie. Running down the street with the taxicab driver driving on the sidewalk and we’re putting a $50, $100 bill in his hand to drive up on the sidewalk. Hey, man, that was all guerrilla filmmaking.
Nobody was standing around waving the people back. People would step out of a door and jump back when they saw the taxicab coming down the sidewalk. You couldn’t even do that today,.
How did you make sure, when the car was driving up on the sidewalk, that nobody got run over?
Blowing the horn. You just go up on the sidewalk. Boom. We go up and we’ve got a camera outside, and he’s blowing the horn letting people know that he’s on the sidewalk. The cab driver just did it. We gave him $100 and after we finished the scene, he took off.
So that guy who went up on the sidewalk was an actual cab driver?
Yeah, it was an actual cab driver. And we had a cart from a supermarket going down the street as a dolly. So we had the camera on one of those, and two guys were pushing the thing down the street as we’re on the sidewalk, and that’s how we got the shot. The cab driver took the $100 and jumped up on the sidewalk blowing his horn, and everybody that jumped out of the way were not actors. They were real people jumping out of this car’s way coming down the sidewalk.
Was shooting in Sutton Place and in midtown any different than shooting in Harlem?
I think the only difference maybe shooting up in that area was that people recognized the film crew, or they recognized it was movies, and so it was no big deal to them. But in Harlem, man, I was drawing crowds like crazy when I’m walking down the street. That worked out fine for the character of Black Caesar. The only thing we had to do was take out the sound because they’re following me going, “Hey, Hammer. Yo, Hammer.” So it worked better in Harlem for the realism. Anybody that was walking with us in another side of town we had to pay as an extra. We didn’t have to pay those people in Harlem because they were happy to see me.
When people recognized you, did they recognize you from your football career?
Well, Junie Moon, M*A*S*H, three years on the Julia show. I had some notoriety.
Did Larry prepare the crew? “This is all guerrilla.” Or did you guys just know this was the deal?
No. The crew don’t care.
Is it true you guys actually hired some locals to play your associates?
Well, yeah, it’s a lot cheaper to hire people local. Then you don’t have to house them, you don’t have to feed them, and you don’t have to fly them in. I did a film called Original Gangstas. It was me and Jim Brown, Pam Grier, and Richard Roundtree, and we was fighting all these bad guys. They had a midnight basketball team, and that was all the thugs, all the bad guys. Maybe 30, 40, 50 guys come out and they play one on one, and it was a combination of basketball and football, the way they played it. But it was a midnight league. I went to the midnight league and watched them. Then after it was over, I blew a whistle and stood in the middle. “Listen, I’m going to make a movie. I need you guys to be in my movie.” These guys were very polite. These guys were on time. These guys just needed somebody to respect them. I had real thugs on Original Gangstas, and they worked out great, and that’s what we did on Black Caesar.
Did they have minor roles, or were they just extras?
They was extras. They were the fighting guys. They were the thugs. They played their role believably. We wanted guys who didn’t have to fake being what they were. Just be what you are. A few of them, we had to go over teaching them how to fight — how to stunt fight rather than hit somebody. I make my speech: I say, “If you hit me, we just going to keep rolling camera. And if you win the goddamned fight, we’ll change the movie. But if you hit me, I’m going to kick your ass. Now we’ve worked it out, we’ve rehearsed it, and there’s no reason for you to hit me, and there’s no reason for me to hit you.”
And did it work out?
Ain’t no reason to get hit unless somebody want to do an oops shot on you and go, “Oops, I didn’t mean that.” And then you go back, “Oops, I didn’t mean that back either.”
Do you think Black Caesar changed the image of Harlem at all, or do you think it kind of popularized Harlem among moviegoers?
It made it very popular. It made it popular because a lot of people started shooting movies down there after that. They figured it was safe; it was okay now. The Hammer’s been down there, shot two movies in New York in that area, so that made it safe to them. The only change was it got expensive to shoot there because guys started to ask for money. “You’re going to show the name of my store, you got to give me some money. $50, $100, or something for showing the name of my store.” So they got very businesslike down there.
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Diahann Carroll, in the series that ran from 1968 to 1971. Cohen has said local men threatened to disrupt the Harlem shoot unless they were bribed, so Cohen offered them roles in the movie. Original Gangstas was released in 1996, more than two decades after Black Caesar.