Every day is Hammer time for actor Fred Williamson

When you call Fred “The Hammer” Williamson on his cell phone, if you’re lucky, he won’t answer. Because if he doesn’t answer, you’ll get to hear a phone message that is (a) kind of awe-inspiring, and (b) a reality check that reminds you of your status as a person who has not and never will be able to refer to himself, without irony, as “The Hammer.”

“Yo, this is The Hammer,” Williamson growls, with an über-cool seismic bass rumble that is part B-movie intimidation, part Barry White seduction. “Leave a message after the beep — and that way we can avoid a beef.”

Fred Williamson

Fred Williamson

Photo with no caption

You don’t want to have a beef with The Hammer, the action hero, “blaxploitation” icon and three-time pro football All-Star whose nickname comes from the trademark forearm blows he delivered, sledgehammer-style, to the heads of opposing receivers.

A defensive back, Williamson played college football at Northwestern University and pro ball for eight seasons in the 1960s. He may be better known today, however, for his post-gridiron career as a fearless tough guy in dozens of movies, including many he wrote, directed and produced himself in a film career that has had few pauses since his feature debut as “Spearchucker” Jones in Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H.”

Among The Hammer’s numerous actioners is “The Inglorious Bastards,” a 1978 Italian World War II adventure that today makes its American DVD debut in a bonus-packed, Quentin Tarantino-approved three-disc “Explosive Edition” from Severin Films, a new label that specializes in European genre films from the 1970s and 80s. (Characteristic titles from the Severin catalog include “Emanuelle in Bangkok,” “Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals” and Jess Franco’s “Mansion of the Living Dead.”)

“The Inglorious Bastards” — “Whatever the Dirty Dozen did, THEY DO IT DIRTIER!” screamed the posters — also is available in a less elaborate single-disc edition. In addition to the movie, the three-disc set includes a CD of soundtrack music and a disc containing a feature-length documentary about the making of the film.

Once a fairly obscure example of the “Macaroni Combat” film (a term coined to link the Italian war movie with the Spaghetti Western), “The Inglorious Bastards” has been elevated to a much in-demand cult title thanks to Tarantino, who has been preparing his own revamp of “Bastards” for at least five years and actively calling attention to director Enzo G. Castellari’s original in the process. (One of the DVD’s bonus features is a 38-minute conversation between Tarantino and Castellari.)

In the movie, The Hammer takes a bullet. But he holds onto his daredevil leer, his trademark cigar and his life, even though the original script called for the character’s death.

“That’s part of the agreement that I have with myself,” said Williamson, 70, after answering his cell phone at his home in Palm Springs, California. (He also has a home in Chicago.)

“I gave ’em three rules in Hollywood many years ago,” The Hammer continued. “One, you cannot kill me. Two, I have to win all my fights in the movie. And three, I get the girl at the end of the movie, if I want her. So that’s how I keep my image intact.”

And what is that image?

“Tall, dark and handsome and tough, and stands up for what he believes in. When you go see a Fred Williamson movie, there is no singing, there is no dancing. It’s all stand up and believe, and fight for what you believe in.”

A “deadly mission” adventure influenced by “The Dirty Dozen” and the then-recent success in Europe of Sam Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron,” “The Inglorious Bastards” casts the third-billed Williamson as Pvt. Fred Canfield, a tough-talking G.I. complete with 1970s-style sideburns and handlebar mustache.

Canfield is headed for the slammer for killing his racist superior officer. “There’s always some clown trying to see how far they can push me,” he explains.

When Canfield and a truckload of other prisoner-soldiers (“deserters, cutthroats and thieves,” played by Bo Svenson, Peter Hooten and others) are ambushed by the Nazis, they find themselves on the run in occupied France, caught between the Germans and their own forces until they are recruited by an American colonel (Ian Bannen) to launch a daring commando raid on a Nazi train carrying a V2 rocket prototype.

Probably best remembered for an outrageous scene involving a pond full of skinny-dipping Teutonic honeys with machineguns, “The Inglorious Bastards” provided numerous opportunities for Williamson to show off his athletic prowess. In one scene, he drops from a bridge onto the top of a passing train; the stunt is captured in a single fairly close shot, to prove to viewers that The Hammer made the jump himself.

In a commentary track on the DVD, Castellari describes Williamson as “the best” athlete of his macho ensemble cast. “Physically, he’s super,” Castellari enthuses. “I mean super, super, SUPER.”

The DVD gives the movie its original title for perhaps the first time in America. An earlier video release of “The Inglorious Bastards,” aimed at the inner-city market, retitled the movie “G.I. Bro.”

Williamson said he remains prouder of his athletic achievements than of his film career.

“Movie stars and athletes have a very hard time mixing,” he said.

Because athletes can perform the stunts that actors can’t?

“Look,” Williamson said, “if you put 25 athletes in a room and 25 movie stars on the other side of the room and open the door and let the people in, they’re going to the football players first, for autographs and talking... then they’re going to the movie stars. Because they know you can’t kiss no ass and make a team. You can kiss ass and make movies, you can kiss ass and get a part in a movie — you can’t kiss no ass and make a football team.”

Early in his acting career, the Gary, Indiana-born Williamson was perhaps most familiar as Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend for a dozen episodes of the NBC sitcom “Julia.” But the rugged, 6-foot-3 Super Bowl veteran soon found steadier employment in the so-called “blaxploitation” movies of the era. He alternately fought and fostered crime in “Hammer” (1972), “Black Caesar” (1973), “That Man Bolt” (1973), “Hell Up in Harlem” (1973), “Black Eye” (1974), “Tough Guys” (1974, with a Stax soundtrack by Isaac Hayes) and “Bucktown” (1975), among others.

He also starred in a trio of movies that likely never would be produced in the climate of today, at least under their titles: “The Legend of (n-word) Charley” (1972) and its sequels in 1973 and 1975, which he wrote and co-produced with director Jack Arnold (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”).

Buoyed by his success, both in America and internationally, Williamson began producing and directing more of his own low-budget starring vehicles: “Mean Johnny Barrows,” “Mr. Mean,” “Death Journey.” From 1976 to 1986, he averaged a film a year, many of which he made in Rome, where he relocated part-time after the positive experience of “The Inglorious Bastards.” (In America, he says, he was a “black actor,” but in Europe he was simply an “action star.”)

In an era in which there were even fewer black filmmakers than there are today, Williamson was a maverick and a pioneer. His contributions remain underappreciated, even though he’s still active, as both a filmmaker and an actor.

Click here to go to bloodshoteye.com to read more about Williamson.

-- John Beifuss: beifuss@commercialappeal.com or 529-2394

© 2008 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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