A History of Hal Williams

There is a rumor, started by producer Hal Kanter, that at the start of his career black actor Hal Williams (b.1938) was fired from an episode of The Jimmy Stewart Show by its star because he was uncomfortable with the idea of his screen character being lectured to by a person of color. I quoted this in a talk I gave a few months ago, which I half regret, because to this day, Kanter’s one remark is the only evidence we have of such an incident. I haven’t unearthed any comments by Williams himself about it, there’s nothing to corroborate the one remark, and Williams did in fact appear in another episode of the show. “Jimmy Stewart: Racist” makes an excellent headline, but he was probably no more so than most of the other white men of his generation, which is only to say racist enough. If he voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, (and he did), men who fought tooth and nail to undermine the Civil Rights movement, I don’t want to hear about how all “not a racist” he was.

Whatever the case, Williams went on to a career that was positively charmed after that. He literally went from one hit project to another over the course of a quarter of a century.

First he had a recurring role as the LAPD officer “Smitty” on Sanford and Son (1972-77) and its sequel Sanford (1980-81). Perhaps you’ll remember the character better when we point out that he was partnered with white officer “Hoppy” Hopkins (Howard Platt), who was always attempting to ingratiate himself with the black community on his beat by ineptly and painfully talking in jivespeak. They were essentially the country’s second bi-racial comedy team, after Tim and Tom. According to Williams, they would work out many of the comedy bits themselves.

During the same years, he had a recurring role as Harley on The Waltons (1973-1980), where he became friends with Ralph Waite who cast him in his feature film On the Nickle (1980), which also featured Donald Moffat and Jack Kehoe, and had an original score by Tom Waites.

And during the same period, he was also a regular on the short-lived prison sit-com On the Rocks (1975-76), which we wrote about here.

Then, in 1980 he played the drill sergeant Ross in the hit Goldie Hawn comedy Private Benjamin, which led to his getting cast in the TV sit-com version (1981-83), starring Lorna Patterson.

We’re far from done! THEN, from 1985 to 1990, he co-starred on 227 (which we wrote about here) opposite Marla Gibbs, probably his biggest and best known TV room. Still not done.

THEN he was a regular on The Sinbad Show (1993-94) and appeared in Sinbad’s movie The Cherokee Kid (1996).

Throughout this entire period he also appeared on That Girl, Kung Fu, Gunsmoke, S.W.A.T., Quincy, Roots: The Next Generations, What’s Happening!, The White Shadow, Webster, The Jeffersons, Hill Streets Blues, Magnum P.I., et al, and was in the movies Hardcore (1979, as one “Big Dick Blaque”), The Escape Artist (1982), and Clint Eastwood’s The Rookie (1990).

After the mid ’90s he disappeared from screens for almost a decade, returning in 2005 to appear in Guess Who?, a remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? starring Bernie Mac. He has continued to take the occasional role since then, appearing on things like Parks and Recreation and A Black Lady Sketch Show. His most recent credit was on the Ted Danson show Mr. Mayor (2022). He also recently did this podcast Hal’s Hitlist.