“Adios Amigo”: Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and Richard Pryor are two sharp dudes taking turns with chicks and tricks

By on April 3, 2016

In the action-comedy revisionist western Adiós Amigo — now available on Night Flight Plus — Richard Pryor co-stars as a fast-talking Wild West bandit named “Sam Spade” who runs a con game on various characters, usually leaving his tough, fast-drawing amigo, writer/director Fred Williamson’s character “Big Ben” behind to take the fall.

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Blaxploitation legend and occasional ego maniac Fred “The Hammer” Williamson grew up in Gary, Indiana, in 1938, Williamson’s high school athleticism earned him a track scholarship to Northwestern University, but it was football coach Ara Parseghian who recruited him onto the football team for an additional scholarship.

He’d majored in architecture at Northwestern, but Williamson put off his targeted profession when he was drafted to play professional football with the San Francisco 49ers, in 1960.

Williamson earned his nickname “The Hammer” during his less than ten-year stint playing pro football because he was an aggressive and much-feared defensive back who often clotheslined offensive players of the opposing team, bringing the hammer down on them as they tried to rush by him. The Hammer often gave them something to think about as they were being taken out of the game on a stretcher.

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He played in both leagues: in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1960) and the AFL with the Oakland Raiders (1961–1964) and the Kansas City Chiefs (1965–1967), playing in the very first Super Bowl.

He’d also worked as an architect in the off-season, a job he maintained after leaving pro football behind in 1968, but his indoor 9-to-5 desk job made him feel restless, and he knew there had to be another way to make a living.

Williamson finally decided to try his hand at acting after watching a TV sitcom called “Julia,” starring Diahann Carroll, noticing that each new week she had a new boyfriend she was dating. Williamson has said he thought that made her look a little slutty, and he thought he was just as good looking as the actors on the show, so he flew out to Hollywood and showed up at gates of 20th Century Fox Studios in Century City, asking to meet with the show’s creator and executive producer Hal Kanter, who was shooting “Julia” on Stage 20 on the lot.

The boldly outspoken Williamson said he didn’t have an appointment, but told the guard at the gate to tell Kanter’s office that “The Hammer” was there to see him. Williamson was able to talk Kanter into giving him a recurring part as Julia’s boyfriend “Steve Bruce” on the show for the 1970–71 season (that way she didn’t have to look like a slut, dating all those different guest stars).

In an interview, Kanter later remarked of Williamson: ”If we can find a bottle big enough to put his ego in… we’ll need a redwood tree for a cork.”

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That same year, he also appeared in his first feature film, M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman, in a small but memorable role as board-certified neurosurgeon Captain Oliver Harmon Jones, better known by his name from when he’d played pro football — also with the San Francisco 49’ers — as “Spearchucker Jones.”

After Kanter pulled the plug on “Julia” in 1971 (he wanted to work on other projects), Williamson stayed in L.A. and made other TV appearances, but he really excelled in motion pictures, coming along right at the time that there were a number of early ’70s action films with starring roles for black leading men, movies like The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), Black Caesar (1973), That Man Bolt (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1974), and Bucktown (1975).

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Williamson went on to become, in his own words, a “black Clint Eastwood who knows martial arts or a black Charles Bronson with a big gun,” always sporting both his signature mustache and a lit cigarillo.

He only took roles where he was the hero of the movie, and demanded three things of any part he was given: 1) he wasn’t going to play pimps and drug dealers, he was always going to be a winner in every situation, not matter what it was, and he’d never allow himself to be killed onscreen; 2) if he was gonna fight, he was gonna kick ass, he was never to be seen being beaten up onscreen (he has black belts in kenpo karate, Shotokan karate, and taekwondo); and 3) he always got the girl — usually more than one — and never was shown with a broken heart over losing the girl. The Hammer breaks hearts, but no one breaks The Hammer’s heart, bucko.

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By 1974, Williamson had been watching the directors on his films and asked a lot of questions and felt he had a pretty good idea what was needed of a director, and so he decided to create his own film company, Po’ Boy Productions.

He’d come to the conclusion that it was much better to be the big man in total control — and making all of the important decisions on his own movies that he’d written himself — instead of waiting around for movie roles to come to him, with further frustration setting in when he disagreed with the producers and directors and screenwriters who were doing everything differently than how he’d would have if he was in charge.

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Adiós Amigo — written, produced and directed by Williamson — was released into theaters in January 1976.

Pryor was having much success in his career at the time — he’d just hosted “Saturday Night Live” a month earlier, on December 13, 1975 — and Williamson knew that Pryor was still seething over the fact he’d been denied the lead part in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles a few years earlier.

Pryor had collaborated on the film’s screenplay with Brooks and three other writers, and the jokes created for “Black Bart,” who becomes Sheriff Bart were written with him in mind. Pryor was still upset at the reason Warner Brothers film executives had given: they wouldn’t have been able to obtain the financing for the film if he was the movie’s star.

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Cleavon Little — who plays “Black Bart,” the role originally meant for Richard Pryor — and Gene Wilder

On the commentary track for the Blazing Saddles DVD, Brooks talks about going “on bended knee to every studio executive” to try to convince them to hire Pryor, who he felt was the funniest guy who ever lived, but the rampant rumors about Pryor’s mental health and drug use at the time, as well as his controversial reputation at the time as a profane standup comic, caused the studio to reject the idea.

When Williamson saw Blazing Saddles when it was released on February 7, 1974, he thought it was a silly film, but it gave him the idea to make this comedy western, sharing top-billing with Richard Pryor.

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In one interview, Williamson said “I wanted to make a comedy western without the extremes of Gucci saddlebags and other anachronisms, a down and dirty western whose comedy came about from the presence of Richard Pryor.”

In another, Williamson said “I wanted to be able to maintain my straight-man figure to Richard’s con man, still be tough and do my fight scenes — but just have someone floating around me like a butterfly to provide the comedy.”

Pryor’s character’s name in Adiós Amigo, by the way, was surely not just a familiar name because it was the same as the fictional private detective and the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon, later made famous onscreen by Humphrey Bogart, but also a reference to the fact that Pryor didn’t get to play “Black Bart” in Blazing Saddles.

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Williamson’s goal was to make a realistic-looking western in which Pryor was able to ad-lib his own dialogue, without restraint. The initial script for the film was apparently only 12 pages long because he was going to let Pryor just do what he did best, make up shit off the top of his head with the cameras rolling.

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Improvising was something Williamson liked to do on his early films — in fact, on his first film as a director — Mean Johnny Barrows, also released in 1976 — his friend and fellow M*A*S*H actor Elliott Gould had come in to improvise his role as “Professor Theodore Rasputin Waterhouse” on the spot.

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Jet (May 22, 1975)

Mean Johnny Barrows would also come out in January 1976 (so says the internet) and it appears from this article in Jet (published on May 22, 1975) that the film — an action-packed drama about a Vietnam war hero — was originally to be titled The Hero and was shot “in an incredible 14 days, within a $400,000 budget.”

Principal photography on Adiós Amigo took only nine days, and with such a short shooting schedule, it meant that the his films (certainly his earliest directorial efforts) lacked narrative focus (and shots were often out-of-focus), and there are times when it’s fairly evident that there wasn’t much money left in the budget, or time enough, to spend on lighting the film’s interior sets (the nighttime exterior sets might have actually been lit by moonlit, as dark as they are).

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Pryor (who appears to be drunk or high much of the time onscreen) doesn’t seem to get as many opportunities to ad-lib with the funny stuff we all know he was capable with at the time, but he completely manages to outshine Williamson in just about every scene regardless.

Williamson’s Big Ben gets to show off his skills with a six-gun and his fists while simultaneously also driving all the white women wild with desire for his bod, but he’s also always left holding some sort of “bag,” a kind of wry little inside joke in a film simply filled with wry little inside jokes.

Sam Spade’s best scene is the card game where we see Blacula‘s Thalmus Rasulala in the role of a crazed, bearded desert snakeoil salesman who has two horny daughters.

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In addition to Williamson, Pryor and the excellently-named Thalmus Rasulala, Adiós Amigo also features James Brown, Robert Phillips, Mike Henry, Suhaila Farhat, Victoria Jee, Lynn Jackson, Heidi Dobbs, Liz Treadwell, Joy Lober, and Nick Dimitri.

Ultimately, both Williamson and Pryor both said they were disappointed with the way Adiós Amigo turned out.

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Williamson: “I wanted to give [Richard Pryor] an idea, a concept, and then just turn the light on him and let him do whatever he wanted. You know what they say about comedians, that you can just open the refrigerator door and the light comes on, the jokes roll on out. Well, Richard’s light didn’t come on.”

Pryor, in an interview with Ebony magazine shortly after the movie came out, had a message for his fans who had paid their money to see Adiós Amigo in the theater: “Tell them I apologize. Tell them I needed some money. Tell them I promise not to do it again.”

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During the editing of the film, Williamson decided to employ a familiar device used on the 1960s TV show “The Wild, Wild West,” where the action is broken up into a series of vignettes by artist-rendered title cards, freezing the action taking place onscreen into paintings, all while the movie’s title song, a funky 70s number by Infernal Blues Machine (which, yes, does happen to clash a bit with the movie’s 19th century setting), comes back up on the soundtrack.

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These title cards appear during the film where the story jumps abruptly and elliptically, and so they appear to be an attempt to fill in the void, suggesting problems with the film’s editing in post-production.

After the film was in the can, Williamson took the cans with him to screen at the Cannes Film Festival in order to sell it to foreign distributors. In this interview last year with Will Sloan of the Torontoist, Williamson described what happened:

“So I made my first film, Adiós Amigo, for $75,000, took it under my arm to Cannes, sat at the Carlton Terrace, gave the maître d’ $50 every day to save me a seat right in the heart of the Terrace, and I sold my own films and broke that image that black don’t sell in Europe. As a matter of fact, we’re more respected in Europe, because in Europe, I’m not a black actor — I’m an action star. In America, I’m a black actor.”

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Williamson indeed sold the distribution rights to Adiós Amigo and brought back home about $700,000 in foreign market sales.

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Williamson at Po’ Boy Productions, circa 1975

In 1983, he told movie critic Roger Ebert:

“So eight years ago I started selling my own pictures at the Cannes festival. You could say I’m doing all right. I deal with the same buyers every year. I get $100,000 for Italy, $125,000 for France. I pay my bills.”

It’s kind of funny that, at the time, Williamson was telling a different tale about Adiós Amigo, saying that it was to be filmed in six weeks on a budget of $500,000 or less (turns out it was considerably less).

Ebert also asked Williamson if Po’ Boy Productions was headquartered in Los Angeles, to which Williamson snorted: “Headquartered?” He smiled and rotated his cigar. “I have a condo in Santa Monica and an apartment in Rome. Po Boy Productions is a telephone, a calculator, a typewriter and a dog named Hammer. I don’t even have an agent. I sold my house in LA because I was never there and I didn’t have anyone to bring in the mail. I live in hotel rooms. I love room service. I’m a real lone wolf.”

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Jet (April 8, 1976)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • MichiganGuy2

    Interesting piece.