So, let’s start from the start – how you got into acting after your time in the NFL?
Well when I stopped playing football I got a job as an architectural engineer at Bechtel. I was looking for freedom though – the nine-to-five hours and one hour for lunch didn’t fit me well. So I was watching TV and saw Dihann Carroll show’s, Julia, and she had a new boyfriend every week on that show. So I said to myself, I’m better looking than those guys and can do that, so I went to Hollywood and BS’d my way into the studio and convinced them to give me the role. It only took my three weeks to make that happen.
They liked me so much after that that they signed me to a longer contract. Then, one day in the studio a man came up to me and said “Hey, you’re the Hammer – the guy who played football right?” I said yeah, and it turned out to be Robert Altman. He told me he was filming a movie and they had a football scene in it but he didn’t know anything about football. So he asked me if I could be in the movie and line up everyone to make it look like a football game. I said yeah. That ended up being M.A.S.H. – and I was Spearchucker Jones.
Were you aware of the other guys from the NFL who were also getting into acting at that time, including the Steelers’ Roy Jefferson?
Man he did just one movie right? I was the only guy to come out of the NFL like I did and get into acting at this level – no one else was comparable. No one else did what I did. Guys like Jim Brown and the guy from the Raiders who had his own show – they didn’t last long. No one else can compare to the work I’ve done.
Let’s take a step back and talk football – how did you find yourself in Pittsburgh in 1960?
I was picked up by the 49’ers first – they had already contacted me when I was in college at Northwestern. I was a three-time All-American back in the day. But there was no draft hoopla back then. They just sent you a letter. There was no TV.
When I got to the 49’ers I had played flanker back and receiver in college, but they moved me to defensive back. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was running backwards, falling down over myself. Tripping over my own feet. Red Hickey came up to me and told me he was disappointed with me. That if I didn’t improve they’d cut me and send me back to Chicago. Well, there was no way they were sending me back to Chicago. I was the baddest dude there and I couldn’t go back and tell those guys I didn’t make the football team.
Well, I took a look at myself. I was bigger than the guys I covered. I was 6’2″. over 210 pounds. So I decided I wasn’t going to worry about covering those guys. I lined up two yards over R.C. Owens in practice the next day. Hickey yelled at me – “God damn it Williamson, move back!” I told him to shut the fuck up and hike the ball. R.C. gave me one move off of the line, then I gave him a forearm uppercut and knocked him out. Hickey ran at me and yelled at me. “God damnit what are you doing!” I told him, “I covered him!”. Red told me to stop hammering the players, and that’s how I got my nickname as “The Hammer”.
My last exhibition game they told me they had to trade me to Pittsburgh to make room for a top-rated wide receiver, Ray Norton. Norton was a sprinter – an Olympics guy. But Norton never played football and no one told them he couldn’t catch the ball. They cut him soon afterwards and asked Pittsburgh to trade me back to them, but Pittsburgh said no.
But you stayed in Pittsburgh for one year?
My signing bonus from the 49’ers was $1,900. My salary was $9,500. Y.A. Tittle made $10,500, so I was near the top of the echelon of the NFL payscale. After my first year in Pittsburgh I went back to California to get my stuff and bring it back to Pittsburgh when Al Davis called. He told me he wanted me to play for him, that the new league needed my brashness. He offered me $10,000 – a $500 raise. I probably burned $500 in rubber speeding across the bridge to go sign with him!
Tell me what you enjoyed about your time in Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh was great – they had legendary players. Bobby Layne was a great quarterback and Parker was the coach. John Henry Johnson and Big Daddy Lipscomb were legends – Lipscomb was my roommate. Walt and Lou Michaels were tough guys there too. We didn’t win a lot of games but we left behind a lot of wounded warriors. We’d beat the crap out of you. Teams would beat us but it’d be like 9-6 or 3-0. We didn’t win a lot but we liked contact. We played physical. Bobby Layne could maybe throw thirty yards, thirty-five if he had some booze. Coach Parker was easy-going. If you didn’t get the job done you were gone, but he didn’t demand much. He just expected you to do your job. He was no nonsense. If you didn’t do your job though, you were gone.
I knew I was good. I played fast, tough, and angry, I sacrificed my body for the team and they liked me.
Any fun stories of your time in Pittsburgh?
I was a sprinter in college but what people didn’t understand about me was that I was strong too. I was a shotputter in college. Well Walt and Lou Michaels were bragging about how strong they were one day so I told them I could throw a shotput at least five feet further than they could. Well it turned into a big bet and John Henry Johnson and Lipscomb started collecting bets on who would win.
Well, we practiced at a college so someone broke in there and got a shotput, Walt and Lou warmed up, getting ready to throw. I told them they could pick the best throw between the two of them. They spun around and did their throws. I didn’t bother warming up. I didn’t spin around – I just stood there and threw the shotput and beat their best throw by 12 feet. It was quite a sight. Listening to them grunt and groan as they threw, and I didn’t make a sound. It was the highlight of my rookie career, showing off like that!
How do you think the game then differs from today?
I think the comradery is different. We all palled around then and went to bars together. We weren’t big spenders. We didn’t make a lot of money. I don’t think they even talk to one another and hang out together now. When we went to towns for games they had parties waiting for us. Now I wonder with all of that money if they players go 100% in the NFL. I think college is more interesting now – they give it 100%. But in the NFL I think they worry too much abut injuries – they have too much money at stake.
How did your football career influence your acting and Hollywood career, besides the M.A.S.H connection?
I’m a movie star. I travel the world. Spain, Paris, Italy. I’m still working on my image though. I go where my image takes me. I don’t need the game to help me now.
I produced over 75 films and directed over 70. It’s not about Hollywood and what it’s done for me. I don’t care about Hollywood. Before the Black Panther there was Fred Williamson.
When I first started I wanted to show Hollywood that there was a market they were missing. They were missing the market for Black people. Hollywood’s white heroes couldn’t work for me. Tom Cruise hanging off of another building couldn’t be a hero for me. And Hollywood jumped all over it. But they called them Black Exploitation movies and that killed it. Who was being exploited?
It self-destructed. The movies were all about retribution – all about let’s get whitey. But those weren’t the movies I was making. I killed everybody in my movies – it didn’t matter what color they were. Most of those other actors didn’t make that transition – Pam Grier Billy Dee Williams, Jim Brown. That’s why they didn’t last long like I did.
How does the Black Panther fit in to that?
Well Variety Magazine said it. Before the Black Panther there was Fred Williamson. They are taking more shots at the genre with new Superfly and Shaft movies, trying to jump on the bandwagon. Trying to be badasses like “The Hammer”.
The problem is the stuff they make now, they don’t have those old-timers for those kinds of movies now. There are no more Lee Mitchums, Lee Marvins, and Humphrey Bogarts. Now, it’s a bunch of pretty boys that are trying to look cute and act tough at the same time.
How have you been able to keep and maintain that image for yourself as those other guys fall away? Did your time in the NFL help with that part?
You have to create an image that continues. My NFL time is done – it had limited viability. When I played football I’d get fined $100 a game because I wore white shoes. I wore them because I realized that everyone knew who the quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers were, but no one recognized who the defensive backs were. My white shoes were controversial then, but I wanted to make a statement. I didn’t want to get lost on the field. If 20,000 people cheered me and 20,000 booed me, that meant 40,000 people were looking at me. That’s all I wanted.
Now, everyone knows who “The Hammer” is. It’s my brand. They may not recognize Fred Williamson, but they know “The Hammer”. It’s a badass image. And people have to believe in your image, It has to have believability.. Bronson and Eastwood sold their badass brand too. They had believability.
Do today’s players get that? You see them try and brand themselves via social media now.
They have no idea how to do it. You can’t buy branding. All that money they have, and they think branding is about how they dress. They look like they are going to clown events. They and their three cars. How can they drive three Rolls or Bentleys at a time? And living by themselves in 18 bedroom houses. It’s stupidity. They think spending their money and being obnoxious is branding. But branding is decided by the people that watch you. They decide. Eastwood did that comedy once – with the orangutan. His next movie was Dirty Harry, and he killed ten people in the opening credits. That was his apology for stepping out of his image.
You still watch the Steelers today?
Pittsburgh now is a heart attack team. They have the talent but don’t live up to it. They get close but can’t get over the top. They are a good team, but I don’t know why they can’t get over the top. I don’t know what they key to their success is. They are a heart attack team for sure.
What’s next for “The Hammer?”
The Hammer is well. I’m still looking good at 80! I’m off to London soon for the Last Hitman movie and have a movie on Netflix called Check Point.
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: