Williams channeled his musical lineage as the hero’s father in the heartfelt, thrilling, but often depressingly misogynistic “Purple Rain”—a rage-filled composer-pianist and domestic abuser who has spent his life marinating in feelings of failure. Williams’ moments of fury and self-loathing are truly powerful, and their truth resonates beyond anything that can be mustered by the rest of the main cast, which is comprised mainly of musicians who have screen charisma but lack Williams’ acting experience and formal training. The images of the emotionally ruined Father (whose birth name is never spoken) playing piano alone as his son, known only as The Kid, looks on, convey a sense of great potential squandered, articulating the hero’s superhuman drive to succeed on his own terms more poignantly than dialogue could. Williams’ character in 1993’s “Sugar Hill,” the drug-addicted musician father of two drug-dealing brothers (Wesley Snipes and Michael Wright), feels like a pop-culture echo of his “Purple Rain” character.
His ferocity burned holes in the screen, and filmmakers took advantage of that, casting him in roles that shook up the main character’s preconceived notions, rattled their complacency, and otherwise pushed their buttons. Williams’ performance as a devoutly religious policeman in Bill Duke’s classic crime drama “Deep Cover” is a knife in the heart of the film’s hero, Laurence Fishburne’s cop-posing-as-a-drug-dealer John Hull. There’s no irony or doubt in the performance, no self-awareness. The character doesn’t just think he’s God’s instrument, he actually is. The imposter syndrome that the protagonist experiences in scenes opposite Williams’ character is indistinguishable from an actor’s insecurity at facing a performer who can tuck a scene into his back pocket and walk away with it before his partner can realize what just hit him.
Williams brought a trace of the uncanny to dramas and comedic alike. He knew that his intensity—founded in a raspy voice and I-can-see-into-your-soul gaze, and often coupled with a wicked grin and mane-like hair—could be funny as well as scary. He used his live-wire vibe for laughs in projects like “Tales from the Hood,” where he played the funeral home director Mr. Simms, a delectable horror-movie turn worthy of Boris Karloff at his most playful. His delivery often strikes Karloffian notes, and he told reporters at the time that he wanted to pay tribute to the horror movies he loved as a child. Describing his work, Simms calls embalming fluids “the kind of drugs that keep bodies from smelling” and inserts an exuberant inhaling noise between the last two words. Here, as he did so often, Williams invested a grand, playful role in a genre film with little details that were drawn from life. In a 1995 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, he said that he briefly lived over a funeral parlor on 135th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem, four doors down from Small’s jazz club. Another of his grandmothers, Helen Williams, often played the the organ at the funeral parlor, and at Riker’s Island as well.