getTV Talks SANFORD AND SON— An Interview with Hal Williams
Life is good for Hal Williams. The veteran actor — now in his 80s — is healthy, still working, and better-known than ever.
And with good reason. As LAPD Officer Smith, Williams and partner Howard Platt (as Officer Hopkins, aka “Hoppy”) gave the groundbreaking, Norman Lear sitcom some of its funniest and most socially relevant moments. And, half a century later, Williams and Platt are still teaming up for personal appearances, often posing with fans next to the newly restored, 1951 Ford pick-up truck from the series.
While he may be best remembered by some for Sanford And Son, Williams has a resume that’s half a century long. He starred opposite Marla Gibbs for five seasons on 227, was a regular on sitcoms like On The Rocks and The Sinbad Show, and played a memorable supporting role on The Waltons. He also co-starred in Private Benjamin (1980) with Goldie Hawn (and its TV spinoff), a job he calls “one of the best experiences of my life.”
We recently talked on the phone with this classic TV icon about Sanford And Son, star Redd Foxx, and his 50-year career. The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
getTV: What explains your longevity?
HAL WILLIAMS: I'm very comfortable in my own skin and I love what I do. And I have a system that provides I only work when they pay me.
That's a good system!
[LAUGH] I think so.
You were born in Columbus, Ohio. You had a career there before acting, right?
I had several careers, including being a juvenile correctional officer for the state of Ohio, and working in Child Family Services for Franklin County Children's Services. I also worked for the Federal Poverty Program for a year.
How did you make the move to acting?
I sat down after getting divorced and said, “What do I really want to try to do before the maker comes and gets me?” And it was acting. So, I took the plunge and drove to California in 48 hours.
You were just going to roll the dice?
I gave myself three years. I knew a couple people who were in the business and I contacted them. I got my first play and my first agent. I started off doing commercials, while working nights at the LAX post office and for a California youth facility. At the end of the three years, my first break came, which was Sanford and Son.
SANFORD AND SON Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson
You made your first appearance on Sanford And Son in February of 1972. Were you hired for a recurring role or was it a one shot?
[Casting director] Jane Murray called me and I read for two roles. They liked what I did, and they said, “Which one would you like to have?” I said, “Which one is coming back?” They said, “Smitty the cop.” I said, “That's the one I want.” [LAUGH]
And you continued as Smitty all the way through the series.
I started it with Noam Pitlik [as Officer “Swanny” Swanhauser] who started doing directing after the first season and left the show. They begged him not to go. And I didn't want him to leave because we had struck up a friendship that was lifelong until he passed away [in 1999].
Then you and Howard Platt teamed up. What was it about Smitty and Hoppy that worked so well?
The whole concept of how he [Hoppy] is struggling so hard to be in the know with the black culture and the slang and everything. A lot of times the writers would tell us where we fit into the episode and they would say, “Go away and think of some slang.” That's where “hammer hocks” and “black-eyed rice” came from: ham hocks and black-eyed peas. “Right off” came from “Right on.” Howard was brilliant about corrupting the slang.
And the audience loved it.
We had a director one time who came in to direct the show. He didn't pay that much attention to the cops until we walked in on the first taping and the audience just screamed and clapped! So, during dinner notes, the producers made him change all the shots. [LAUGH] That's when we knew that the audience really loved us.
Our getTV audience really enjoys you two guys.
And still today! We've done three shows this year and the people just eat it up. We were in Chicago in April and people were out there in the cold and the snow lined up taking pictures with us beside that truck.
SANFORD AND SON Howard Platt and Hal Williams
You were also on a few episodes of Good Times. What changed between 1972 when Sanford And Son started and a few years later on Good Times?
The entertainment industry discovered there was a black TV audience out there. They copy everything in Hollywood and, since Norman Lear had been so successful, they just ate it up. It was a hell of a start with Sanford.
And 10 years after Good Times you did 227.
227 was created by Christine Houston, who was in Norman Lear's writing program during the '70s. And she wrote the play 227. Marla Gibbs had a theater and we did that play. [NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff and Norman Lear came to see it and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
There were a number of people who worked on both Good Times and 227 — notably, Helen Martin, who played Weeping Wanda and was also on Sanford And Son.
Helen was my buddy. She was like a walking history book for black entertainers and black actors and black theater. Whenever there was a break, we sat down and she would start telling all these stories. And I just loved sitting there talking with her. I miss her.
SANFORD AND SON Redd Foxx, Hal Williams and Kelly Thordsen
I can’t let you go until I ask about Redd Foxx. Any memories that stand out?
I don't care who from the old Chitlin’ Circuit showed up, whether they were down on their luck or looking for work or whatever, that man never forgot his friends. He treated everybody in a professional manner. He was just a great guy. I took the day off and went up to Las Vegas for his services. I sat there and tears ran down my face, because we lost a treasure.
He really was. Many of us have watched you for our entire lives. Anything you’d like to say to your fans?
One of the things that keeps me going is the people. Perfect strangers are so gracious at airports, grocery stores, everywhere I go. I hear more people saying they grew up with me. I appreciate and love all of them.
The vast majority of television from that era is forgotten, but Sanford and Son has never left the air. Why?
No, it hasn't. It's sustained over all the sitcoms that I've done. Sanford has had the longevity. The writing was there, and the talent was there. Howard said to me, “You know, we got paid for having a damn good time.” And I said, “We sure did.”