For everyone at the New Beverly, the departure of William “Big Bill” Smith this past July was profoundly sad; it was the felling of a true giant. For decades, Smith’s movies were consistently on our screen, especially on our famed Grindhouse nights. And our boss Quentin Tarantino has been a longtime fan of the bodybuilding military hero turned actor since his youth, and even before embarking on his own career, was ready to speak his praises. In a 1982 interview the then-20 year-old aspiring filmmaker conducted with John Milius, each of them detailed their appreciation for him:
QT: William Smith is my favorite actor. He usually plays bad guys. But I’d like to see him play more heroic parts. I think he’s like Charles Bronson was in the sixties. Like Bronson, I think he could make the transition from villain to hero.
JM: There’s no doubt about that.
QT: That’s why I was excited to see him play a heroic part in Conan [the Barbarian], and not just some bad guy barbarian that Conan kills.
JM: Yeah I love his scene in the movie. I love when he gives his big speech at the beginning. The riddle of steel. It’s not much, but I love it. And the fact he fought valiantly for the village against the horde. And was done in by a pack of Rottweilers! (laughing) They had to be Rottweilers to bring down William Smith!
Thus, to pay our respects to the burly gentleman, we’ve scheduled a four-night tribute where each night we’ll showcase a different facet of his talents. As pointed out above, he was a reliable heavy to be sure, but also was capable of gallantry and poignancy. And here is our guide to the different personas you’ll experience.
Big Bill, the Hero
Our tribute begins Monday, August 16th with two perennials in these recent years of Bev programming, both directed by stuntman, actor, and anti-cracker-croaker Jack Starrett, and presenting Smith in the heroic manner Tarantino advocated. Hollywood Man offers him playing an actor/director not unlike Starrett himself, trying to make an action picture independent of the studio system with his friends (including Mary Woronov and Don Stroud), while his criminal investors use increasing levels of sabotage to shut him down and profit off the failure. According to an interview he gave to Chris Poggiali in 1998 for the Shock Cinema zine, Smith himself had come up with the story, and he had indeed obtained financing from producers connected to organized crime! The Losers has him leading a biker gang of Vietnam vets (featuring Adam Roarke and Paul Koslo) who agree to enter Cambodia to rescue an imprisoned government official, only to find old secrets personal and political will complicate the mission. The Losers has not only been championed by Tarantino, who featured clips of it in Pulp Fiction, but also by John Milius, who in the aforementioned 1982 interview, spoke of its influence on his screenplay for Apocalypse Now, saying, “[Bikers] in Vietnam, surfers in Vietnam, same idea. I wrote a whole piece in Film Comment about how bikers are misunderstood. I wrote in Easy Rider, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper died for the sins of William Smith.”
Big Bill, Muscle for The Man
Tuesday, August 17th is devoted to a triple feature of Smith playing the Big Bad against three different bold, crusading Black heroes determined to not just take a bite out of crime, but knock out all its teeth! In Black Samson, he’s Johnny Nappa, the nephew of an established drug lord whose attempts to move product into the inner city is beaten off by the giant walking staff of bar owner and neighborhood influencer Samson (Rockne Tarkington). In Hammer, he’s Brenner, the enforcer of a crooked boxing promoter who finds the one man he can’t beat into submission is the organization’s best pugilist, B.J. Hammer (Fred Williamson). And in Sweet Jesus Preacherman, he’s a full boss, Frank Martelli, who sends hitman Cyrus Holmes (Roger E. Mosley) to supervise his Watts interests by posing as the new community church minister, only to discover Holmes’ killer instincts may well be what his new congregation has needed around town. What also links these movies is they were independent productions that got picked up by the majors for release. Producer Daniel Cady was responsible for both Samson and Sweet Jesus, with Henning Schellerup serving as D.P. to director/stuntman Chuck Bail on the former and directing the latter himself. Meanwhile, Hammer was a rare studio credit for legendary low-budget producer Al Adamson, and its other producer Bernard Schwartz would reunite with Williamson to make That Man Bolt and Bucktown. Smith recalled in Shock Cinema that he watched Hammer with a majority Black audience while shooting The Last American Hero in Charlotte, North Carolina, and that after his character murdered several other players, they were yelling so angrily for his head that the only reason he emerged from the cinema unharmed was that he’d grown a mustache for the film shoot and nobody recognized him.
Big Bill, The Beast Restrained
Wednesday, August 18th puts Smith in a pair of comparably subdued roles where he is in pursuit of a menace even more dangerous than himself. He may not outwardly be using his brawn and dominating people, but the viewer is constantly aware that he’s still capable of unleashing fury if and when he gets riled. In Grave of the Vampire, he is the adult offspring of a rampaging vampire (Michael Pataki) now posing as a respectable professor, looking to avenge the assault on his mother that spawned him, while fighting off his own bloody cravings. In The Swinging Barmaids, he’s a police lieutenant on the trail of a serial killer targeting said barmaids, unaware the murderer is employed among the very beautiful servers the cop has promised to protect. Grave again finds Smith working with producer Daniel Cady, Henning Schellerup (serving as sound recorder), and his Sweet Jesus co-star Pataki. Both films are penned by notable writers, Grave being an early credit for “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, and Barmaids written by Roger Corman alumnus Charles B. Griffith, author of A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors.
Big Bill in the Big Leagues
Beyond his steady stream of smaller-scale genre pictures, Smith frequently worked for name directors like David Cronenberg, Robert Aldrich, and others in major studio projects. And although most times he was playing the same sorts of villains and roughnecks he was known for, every so often, he was handed a role with nuance. And for the closing night of our tribute on Thursday, August 19th, two of his strongest performances with top-shelf actors are paired together. Any Which Way You Can, where Clint Eastwood returns as bare knuckle fighter Philo Beddoe from Every Which Way But Loose, presents him as a legitimately threatening and surprisingly fair-minded rival, a man who gives him endearments between punches. As he told Poggiali, “[We had] the longest two-man fight scene done without doubles…we shot that fight scene in a day and a quarter.” Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult classic Rumble Fish casts him as Officer Patterson, the local cop that’s long had a grudge against Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), and is now leaning on his adoring little brother Rusty James (Matt Dillon), as the siblings sort out their past and future. “[I] asked him, ‘How do you see this Patterson guy, Mr. Coppola?’ He said, ‘Do you know what a spectre is?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s a dark, ghostlike figure.’ He said, ‘Be a spectre,’,” is how he described the experience in that interview.
William was a force to be reckoned with in the movies, but the mightiest aspect of his person was the heart he put into his work. Come spend a few nights at the Bev remembering our friend Big Bill!