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Multifaceted Mod Clarence Williams III Dead At 81

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Actor Clarence Williams III has died from colon cancer. That's according to his manager. He was 81 years old. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF AL CAIOLA'S "THE MOD SQUAD THEME")

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: On TV's counterculture cop show "The Mod Squad," Clarence Williams III played Lincoln Hayes. Linc's backstory was that he'd been an activist during the Watts riots. He goes undercover with Peggy Lipton's wayward flower child character and the long-haired Michael Cole, whose character got arrested for car theft. This is Williams on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLARENCE WILLIAMS III: The three of us were never really officially a part of the police department. We were sort of, like, these sort of juvenile delinquents who were being smoothed out to be better persons. But we never carried guns or had any shootouts or anything like that.

DEL BARCO: They used their street smarts to help solve crimes and chase down bad guys. The popular show depicting the hippie generation ran from 1968 to 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MOD SQUAD")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Cops - one white, one Black, one blonde - The Mod Squad.

DEL BARCO: Linc was one of the rare Black main characters on TV. In one episode, he played opposite guest star Sammy Davis Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MOD SQUAD")

WILLIAMS: (As Lincoln Hayes) Well, you have made the headlines. They call you troublemaker, the militant priest.

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (As Billy Lee Watson) Well, that's their title, not mine, Linc.

DEL BARCO: Williams grew up in Harlem, raised by his grandparents around music and the arts. After serving as a paratrooper, he began acting. He earned a Tony nomination for a role in the 1964 Broadway show "Slow Dance On The Killing Ground." Williams told Fresh Air the star of TV's "I Spy" saw him perform, and he was flown out to Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILLIAMS: Unbeknownst to me till after I got out to Hollywood, they said, this is a screen test for a series we're going to do called "The Mod Squad." And you were recommended to us by Bill Cosby. And that's how that happened.

DEL BARCO: Williams' role spanned genres and decades, everything from "Miami Vice" and "Hill Street Blues" to "Twin Peaks" and "Everybody Hates Chris." In the 1984 movie "Purple Rain," he played Prince's abusive musician father, here berating his son when he takes an interest in his piano playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: (As The Kid) Is that yours?

WILLIAMS: (As Father) Of course it's mine. Whose else would it be?

PRINCE: (As The Kid) I'd like to see them. You got them written down somewhere?

WILLIAMS: (As Father) No, man. I don't write them down. I don't have to. It's the big difference between you and me.

DEL BARCO: Williams also played an over-the-top drug dealer opposite Dave Chappelle in the comedy "Half-Baked," but he'll always be remembered as one of the Mod Squad.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "YOUR HAND IN MINE (GOODBYE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.