It's Hammer time, and it's about time. In 1975, Fred (The Hammer) Williamson, an actor and former professional football player, wrote and starred in Boss Nigger, a blaxploitation/western classic and the third film in a trilogy. On Friday, Williamson, 76, appears at the Toronto Black Film Festival to collect the event's inaugural "pioneer" award for his body of work and to attend a screening – the title sanitized as Boss – followed by a discussion. The Globe spoke to him from California.
I just read an interview Roger Ebert did with you back in 1983. You were quoted as saying, "I love life," and that chasing women kept you young, vibrating and with the creases in your trousers pressed. How are the creases holding up?
I'm the same. You wake up, and who do you get dressed for? Who do you shower for? You do it for the people who look at you, especially if there are pretty ladies in your life.
A sex symbol has to be lean, you told Ebert. But you're married now, right?
I want my wife to feel the same way about me today as she did yesterday. As far as chasing women, I ain't trying to catch them. But I want to be impressive to them.
You'll be attending a screening of Boss here. In some places, the film was presented with its original, fuller title. Clearly some people were, and still are, uncomfortable with six-letter words with two "g's" in the middle.
It all depends on what the word means to you. But controversy sells, and that's what I was selling then. The film was a satire on the word. In the story, if you used that word, you were fined $5. I knew what I was doing when I wrote it, and it worked. People laughed at the right places, and it had good action.
Can we see it as a parody of the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns of the era?
Clint Eastwood is my idol. He's a friend. The brand that I sell is exactly like his. So, yeah, I'm like the black Clint Eastwood, with a little martial arts thrown in.
Boss, with a black sheriff cleaning up a white town, is also the opposite of such films as 12 Years a Slave or The Blind Side, with their white heroes. What do you make of the controversy over Selma director Ava DuVernay, who explained her vilification of Lyndon Johnson by saying she didn't want to make a white-saviour film?
There's always speculation, and so what? We need to move on. Was anybody in the room with the President? Who can say what was going on back then?
Weren't you around back then?
I was at the march at Selma, but they wouldn't let me march. I was talking to Rev. [Ralph] Abernathy, and he said, 'Hammer, we know what kind of person you are. There's no way you can turn the other cheek.'
Does it bother you that you weren't able to march?
No. Because I know I would not have survived. You can't throw rocks at me without me picking up a rock and throwing it back at you. Really, I was a coward. I didn't have the fortitude that they did. But I accept who I am, and what I do.
The poster for Boss exclaims, "Part devil, part legend, all man!" Was that you, or was it the character?
I never explain me. It's not what I do. I just throw myself out there and let the people decide what they want.
An Intimate Night With Fred "The Hammer" Williamson takes place Friday at 6:30 p.m., in the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall (torontoblackfilm.com).
This interview has been condensed and edited.