Clarence Williams III, ‘The Mod Squad,’ ‘Purple Rain’ star, dies at 81

Clarence Williams III, who starred as the bell-bottom clad, undercover detective Linc Hayes on ABC’s “The Mod Squad,” and Prince’s abusive father in 1984’s “Purple Rain” has died. He was 81.

Williams died on June 4 in Los Angeles of colon cancer, his management company confirmed to USA TODAY.

The late actor starred on the counter-culture police series alongside Peggy Lipton (who died in 2019) as Julie Barnes and Michael Cole as Pete Cochran from 1968 to 1973. The trio portrayed young adults who had previous police run-ins, but later became LAPD undercover cops under the command of Capt. Adam Greer (Tige Andrews).

It was ground-breaking for a Black actor at the time to have the starring role during five seasons on the series executive produced by Aaron Spelling, as Williams discussed in a 1995 Los Angeles Times interview.

“It was a very different role for an African American and a wonderful lead character that a lot of youngsters, black and white, and principally African American youngsters could identify with,” he said.

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As musician and actor Lenny Kravitz said on Twitter in tribute on Sunday, “When I was a kid growing up in NYC, Clarence Williams III was a face on TV that I identified with and that inspired me.”

“From Mod Squad, to Purple Rain and Sugar Hill, he always performed with dynamic energy. Rest in power, king,” Kravitz added.

Williams, born on Aug. 21, 1939, was the son of professional musician Clay Williams  and Eva Taylor, a singer and actress. His grandfather, Clarence Williams, was a composer-pianist and a frequent collaborator of blues legend Bessie Smith.

After enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, Williams went to Broadway and received a Tony nomination for his role in William Hanley’s “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground” in 1964.

He break-out role came when Spelling cast him in “The Mod Squad.” Lincoln “Linc” Hayes’ use of the word “solid” as a positive description, a Williams ad-lib borrowed from jazz musicians, become incorporated into mainstream vernacular with the hit show.

Williams starred as Wesley Snipes’ heroin-addicted father in 1993’s “Sugar Hill” and as a religious detective in 1992’s “Deep Cover” with Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum.

Director Peyton Reed tweeted about his work with Williams on the 1995 TV movie “The Love Bug.”

“I had grown up watching him as Linc in ‘The Mod Squad’ and thought he was the epitome of cool. Turns out he was. Rest In Peace, Clarence,” Reed wrote.

In Dave Chappelle’s 1998 stoner comedy “Half Baked,” Williams played a flamboyant local drug lord Samson Simpson.  He stole scenes in Keenen Ivory Wayans’ blaxploitation parody film “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” and had a recurring role as the FBI agent in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” who tells Agent Cooper he’s been suspended.

Working with Prince on “Purple Rain” was “chaotic,” but a special experience in his life, Williams told The Times.

“Prince was sitting on floor, just staring off into space and I guess he was going through the same process I was going through – thinking about what we had shot,” Williams recalled. “He just picked up the guitar and started doodling. I had my eyes closed, and I was leaning back in the chair and I thought about Jimi Hendrix. I mean he was hitting some chords and the soundstage was absolutely quiet. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience.”

Prince’s official Twitter page paid tribute Sunday.

“Rest in honor, Clarence Williams III,” the tweet read. “Clarence will forever be remembered for his gripping performance as The Kid’s father, Francis L., in Prince’s breakthrough film Purple Rain.”

Williams also starred as Maynard in 2013’s “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and appeared as music legend Huey Jarvis in Daniels’ “Empire” in 2015.

“An extraordinary actor. Revolutionary. Ahead of his time,” Daniels tweeted Sunday. “What an honor to work with this man on ‘The Butler.’ Rest in Power.”

Williams was married to actress Gloria Foster from 1967 to 1984. He is survived by his sister Sondra Pugh, daughter Jamey Phillips, niece Suyin Shaw, grandnephews Elliot Shaw and Ese Shaw, and grandniece Azaria Verdin.






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