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Billy Dee Williams Recalls Backlash and Hatred From Fans Over “Empire Strikes Back” Ending (Exclusive)

In an exclusive excerpt from his new memoir, 'What Have We Here?' the actor recalls experiencing racism after playing Lando

<p>Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock</p> Billy Dee Williams with Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford

Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Billy Dee Williams with Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford

When it comes to fandoms like Star Wars, not even Hollywood's most beloved stars are safe from backlash if their characters behave in nefarious ways. Actor Billy Dee Williams, 86, knows that all too well.

He recalls running afoul of fans in his new memoir, What Have We Here?, out Feb. 13 from Knopf. His role as Lando Calrissian in Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back had such an impact on Williams, he named his book after a related experience. “When I got the cape [Lando wears in the film], I said, ‘This is fantastic!’ ” Williams told PEOPLE. “That’s the kind of stuff I like to fool around with. I don’t take myself too seriously.”

<p>Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock</p> Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford in Star Wars

Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford in Star Wars

In an exclusive excerpt from his new memoir, Williams recalls how, for a time, he fell out of favor for appearing to kill Han Solo at the end of the 1980’s Star Wars film. Read—or listen—below.

Nearly everywhere I went, fans harangued me for betraying Han Solo. I got dirty looks on airplanes. “How could you?” A flight attendant scolded. At the grocery store, a man shopping with his teenage son looked at me with disgust. “I should put you in the deep freeze,” he said, as his son nodded in agreement. The harshest reaction came on the playground at my daughter’s school. In the afternoon, as I waited in the courtyard to pick her [up], parents scowled at me. Then, after the bell rang, I got the same treatment from [my daughter] Hanako’s friends. “Mr. Williams, you sold out Han Solo. Why’d you do that? Now Han Solo is dead.”

It was laughable until it wasn’t—until I sensed a Black-White thing might be brewing. That’s when I took a step back, put up my hands, and told people to wait a minute before they criticized me any further. I guess I had done a good job playing Lando as a dubious character. But Lando wasn’t a bad guy, I explained. Although it looked like he’d betrayed his best friend, the truth was that Lando was caught in the middle of a situation between Han Solo and Darth Vader. He had to hold onto his own situation and buy time without contributing to the complete demise of his friend.

<p>Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century Fox</p> Lando (Billy Dee Williams) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford)

Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century Fox

Lando (Billy Dee Williams) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford)

It was an intricate, carefully choreographed scene, with Lando seeming to give up Han, and Leia professing her love for the Rebel Alliance hero, who, despite the dire circumstances, calmly responds to her heartfelt admission by famously saying, “I know.” What only a very few people knew and the rest of us learned much later was that George created this amazing cliffhanger because Harrison had signed a contract only for the original and its sequel, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play Han Solo again. George didn’t want to kill him off in case he did return. So Han was put in a deep freeze—and I was the designated bad guy.

For more on Billy Dee Williams, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

From What Have We Here? © 2024 by Billy Dee Williams. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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