The most important lesson I learned from the death of Clarence Williams III – The Undefeated
Clarence Williams III was an actor whose career spanned seven decades in multiple genres and scenes. On June 4, he died at the age of 81, leaving in his wake a dynamic legacy. But if Mr. Simms, the demonic character Williams portrayed in the 1995s Hood tales, was my horrific introduction to his career, it’s the way Williams died in real life and its prevalence within the black community that is even scarier.
Colon cancer, the second deadliest of its kind, severely and disproportionately affects black people. Statistics from the American Cancer Society reveal that black people are not only 20% more likely to get colon cancer, but also 40% more likely to die from it. My uncle was 42 when he lost his battle with colon cancer. Almost 10 months ago, 43-year-old Chadwick Boseman lost his life to the same illness that claimed the life of Williams, who was almost double his age.
The older I get, the more I realize how the health of black men is exponentially more vulnerable than invincible. With this awareness comes a clarity that I am approaching the age of my uncle when he died. Over the past few months, under the suffocating anguish of a pandemic, I have constantly thought about scheduling a colonoscopy. Not because something is wrong or I’ve had symptoms, but because I know it’s the responsible and potentially life-saving thing to do. Nonetheless, there was always work or life experience – mostly good, for the record – to convince me to put this off until there was more time. Buying a house and getting married pushed my own health to the bottom of my priority list, I’m ashamed to say it. That was, at least, until the news of Williams hit me in a way I never expected.
Williams’ portfolio was as accomplished as it was diverse. He was raised in New York City by his grandparents, Clarence Williams, who frequently collaborated with blues icon Bessie Smith, and singer / actress Eva Taylor. Yet his acting career began by chance. At a Harlem YMCA that employed his sister, he passed by to watch a play and was part of the set at the end.
According to generations, Williams’ career has a litany of entry points: Linc Hayes in the ABC series Mod Squad from 1968 to 1973, The prince’s father in Purple rain in 1984, Kalinga in 1988 I will piss you off, Taft in the years 1992 Deep coverage, the hilariously deranged boss Samson Simpson in Half Cooked with Dave Chappelle in 1998, the videos “Down Ass Chick” and “Down 4 U” by Ja Rule in 2002, and Maynard in Lee Daniels’ butler in 2013. Yet, for me, it was his role as Mr. Simms in the 1995 tween of the popular HBO series. Tales from the Crypt.
There was something about Williams’ character that seemed so sinister, yet effervescent that while my elementary-aged self might be on edge, his eccentric charisma was intoxicating. It was the absolute worst decision as Mr. Simms turned out to be the devil. (Spoilers don’t exist for movies over a quarter of a century old, for the record.) Over the following years, whenever I saw Williams, my first thought went to Mr. Simms, instantly reminding me of that feeling. to watch Hood Tales for the first time when I was a child. But there was also respect as I discovered his entire career. Every role he took on was uniquely himself, so it was sometimes hard to tell if Williams had ever acted in the first place.
So when the news of his death broke, I mourned the man and the life he gave to his profession. But it also came with a revelation. Life was telling me to slow down, stop living so fast, and never forget that blessings mean nothing if we’re not here to cherish them.
I know what colon cancer looks like and how these past few months have been some of the most difficult a person will ever have to deal with as a loved one slowly dies away. The world lost an incredible actor on June 4th. While his myriad roles will continue to entertain those who peruse his extensive catalog, his death includes another lesson: the value of getting verified. Value preventive care. Especially in the black community, as the alternative potentially comes with a life of grief.
And it’s way more terrifying than Mr. Simms on Hood tales.