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By Mike Emery

MARCH 8, 1999:  As the legend goes, the Kansas City Chiefs' Fred "Hammer" Williamson was carried out on a stretcher after the first play of Super Bowl I. This after he loudmouthed his way through press conferences, boasting of his gridiron prowess and so on. But his humiliation on the field became the B-movie world's gain (some critics may argue this) as he went on to become a charismatic, cigar-chomping action star and, later, a capable director. Friday, March 5, was the venerable Williamson's birthday, so whether you remember him from his small role in the original M.A.S.H. movie or opposite George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn, let us commemorate some of the Hammer's screen moments.


Bucktown
D: Arthur Marks (1975)
with Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Thalmus Ramsulala, Carl Weathers

A morality tale that's offset with tons of tasteless violence, Bucktown effectively proves that greed is colorblind. Williamson plays Duke, a city slicker who travels to a seedy town to bury his murdered brother. He soon takes over his deceased sibling's night club and learns that his brother was killed for not paying off the town's racist white cops. Duke sends for some buddies (including a pre-Rocky Weathers) to help even the odds. Unfortunately, they too want a piece of the action and begin to extort cash from the townspeople. Of course, the Hammer's forced to lay the smack down, but not before wooing the lovely Aretha (Grier). Not bad for a B-flick, Bucktown capitalizes on Williamson's wild-eyed rants, Grier's cleavage, and good acting from lead heavy Thalmus Ramsulala. Likewise, Bob Ellison's script is a surprisingly superior piece of work.


Hell Up in Harlem

D: Larry Cohen (1973)
with Fred Williamson, Julius Harris

At the end of Williamson's Black Caesar, his character, Tommy Gibbs, is left for dead in the New York ghetto where he was raised. This sequel erases that ironic memory and opens with the renegade gangster struggling for survival after being shot by evil cops. Gibbs has the goods on several corrupt government officials (look out, Larry Flynt) and has a stronghold over the city. Aided by his father, Big Poppa (Harris), and a gaggle of bell-bottomed goons, Gibbs steamrolls over crooked politicians and mafia-types to regain his status as top mobster. That's it in a nutshell, but director Cohen intermingles a convolution of plot lines to leave the audience thoroughly confused. Aside from that, the film contains some of the worst fight scenes ever staged. Not entirely without merits (great tunes by Edwin Starr), Hell Up in Harlem is often overly subversive in its violence and characterizations. Nonetheless, Williamson plays it cool throughout and manages to remain a fearful yet sympathetic crime czar.


Silent Hunter

D: Fred Williamson (1995)
with Fred Williamson, Miles O'Keefe

Here, the Hammer takes turns behind the lens and as a supporting character. The hero of the film is Jim, played by an overly stoic O'Keefe. He's a police wunderkind of sorts, earning various honors and awards. On the one day he leaves his gun at home, he and his family are carjacked by a trio of brutal bank robbers. The crooks shoot them, but our hapless hero survives. Tormented, he leaves the police force and retreats to the wilderness. But wouldn't you know it? A few years after the tragic incident, the same thugs roll into the woods to stir up trouble. Before you can say "Death Wish in the Great Outdoors," Jim finds himself tangling with the creeps and stalking them in the snowy environment he now calls home. Williamson costars as the local sheriff (keeping his "stud" status by pairing himself with a beautiful younger woman) who aids the unflappable Jim. A hokey effort, but amiable in some areas. O'Keefe is an awful actor, but manages to translate his few facial expressions into a kind of nerdy benevolence. The saving grace is the film's wondrous, snow-laden setting, which makes for some decent stunt work (on snowmobiles) and effective visuals.


From Dusk Till Dawn

D: Robert Rodriguez (1996)
with George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Salma Hayek, Fred Williamson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Savini

This one marked a comeback for the Hammer, who hadn't been seen in a major film in quite some time. Obviously hand-picked by B-film aficionado Quentin Tarantino, he's an ex-Marine stranded in some vampires' lair alongside some fairly interesting characters. The two leads are Tarantino and George Clooney as the violent Gecko brothers, who escape from jail and kidnap an ex-preacher (Keitel) and his two kids (Lewis and Ernest Liu). They make their way into Mexico for a rendezvous with some chums at the Titty Twister, a trashy topless joint. Little do they know, the sleaze is merely a cover-up for a vampire den. Once the secret is out, the fun begins with an action-fest that's handled with gory grace by Rodriguez. Cult movie freaks will no doubt revel in Williamson's presence, but also at makeup wizard/character actor Tom Savini's (as a biker named Sex Machine).-- Mike Emery


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