Columbus Native Hal Williams Made a Hollywood Bet That’s Still Paying Off
Five decades ago, the veteran actor left Ohio behind, finding success on “Sanford and Son,” “The Waltons,” “227” and other TV shows and movies.
One Wednesday evening in 1968, Hal Williams walked out the door of his Brentnell Avenue home with two pistols and a tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken, got into his Pontiac Bonneville and left Columbus in the rearview mirror, heading west until he reached California, his sights set on Hollywood.
“I didn’t tell nobody but my parents, who thought I’d lost my mind,” Williams says. “I said, ‘My career has come to a stop in social work. My marriage is failing. I’m extremely unhappy. What’s the one thing I want to try to do?’ … I was scared to death, but I said, ‘If I don’t do this now, I know I will never get the guts to do it.’”
Just entering his 30s, Williams gave himself three years to make it as an actor. And the gamble paid off. By 1971, he had landed a recurring role as police officer Smitty on Sanford and Son, the launching pad for a decades-long career that includes TV series like 227, The Waltons, Roots: The Next Generations and The Sinbad Show, plus movies such as “Private Benjamin” and “Guess Who”—more than 100 film and TV credits in all.
The Hollywood pivot came as a surprise to everyone but Williams, whose love for acting goes back to his elementary years. “I wasn’t allowed to leave the yard often, and I had a dog named Sandy. I used to play games with him, pretending he was the Lone Ranger and I was Tonto,” says Williams, who also spent Saturday afternoons at the movies, often taking in a double feature and the latest chapter of a serial film. “The East Side was primarily the Black side of town, and it had four theaters: the Cameo, the Lincoln, the Empress and the Pythian. And every Saturday I used to be in the Empress Theater, because they had two regular movies and a chapter.”
Born in 1938, young Halroy lived in a few different Columbus neighborhoods. His mother and father worked for Curtiss-Wright Aviation, so he grew up mostly in his great-grandmother’s house near Fort Hayes. “It was wonderful, just a melting pot of cultures and races,” he says. His parents’ home sat near the intersection of Stelzer and Morse roads, now an Easton Costco. “I used to hunt rabbits out there. There was nothing but fields,” he says.
Williams delivered newspapers for The Columbus Dispatch while attending Franklin Junior High and East High School, where he ran track and sang in musicals. After graduating from East in 1953, Williams held various jobs, working for a time at Franklin Village, a former 80-acre campus in Grove City run by Franklin County Children’s Services where kids from troubled homes lived together in standalone houses staffed by “cottage parents.”
Williams also worked with kids in the juvenile detention system before heading west as a divorced father of three. (His children stayed with his parents and joined him in California once he found a place to live.) After arriving in Los Angeles, he called Maidie Ruth Norman, a Black movie star whose brother was a former co-worker. “She told me exactly what to do: ‘Get the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Every Friday they put in the auditions and the casting for plays and movies and television.’ So I did that,” he says, “and that’s how I got my first play.”
During the play, an agent asked Williams if he’d ever considered doing commercials. In no time, Williams booked three national TV ads. By 1972, he had recurring roles in three television series simultaneously: Sanford and Son, Harry O and The Waltons. But even as the acting gigs picked up, Williams held down a job at a Los Angeles post office, working nights so he could go to auditions during the day. When his filming schedule conflicted with work, he’d lie and say he was in Ohio with family.
“I would write a letter asking for an excuse to be gone, then take it upstairs and drop it in the Ohio mailbag, and then they’d see there was a postmark from Columbus. I got away with it for almost three years,” Williams says. “One morning, they said, ‘The postmaster wants you to stop by his office.’ So I walked in, and he said, ‘Halroy, you’re not fooling anybody. You’ve been taking your sick leave and all your vacation and saying you’re in Columbus on family business. But I saw you on Sanford and Son in a cop uniform last Friday night. You’re either going to throw Uncle Sam’s mail, or you’re going to go be an actor.’ So I quit.”
Williams turns 84 in December, but he says he’s not done with TV and film just yet. “I’m trying to keep working as an actor to the last day,” he says. “I’ve prided myself on choosing a profession where you don’t have to stop working. You just get older as you work.” He’s developing a couple of scripts, too, one of which, “Residential Center,” is based on his time at Franklin Village.
He’s also hard at work on a memoir and a cookbook in honor of his great-grandmother, who taught him how to cook. “Mac and cheese, smothered pork chops—Grandma could make anything,” says Williams, who went to culinary school in the ’80s and is known to throw large dinner parties.
There’s no release date yet for the cookbook, despite frequent prodding. “I’ll do it on my own time. They keep pressuring me,” Williams says, laughing. “I said, ‘Oh, you all think I’m so old I may die before I get the book done? Well, you’re going to have to wait and see!’”
This story is from the December 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.