Nerd Culture

Catching Up With Billy Dee Williams and My Inner Geek at Phoenix Fan Fusion

Billy Dee Williams (a.k.a.  “the coolest man in the galaxy”) at his Q&A panel on Saturday, May 25, at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019.
Billy Dee Williams (a.k.a. “the coolest man in the galaxy”) at his Q&A panel on Saturday, May 25, at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019. Benjamin Leatherman
Fan conventions have definitely changed in three decades.

If you’re concerned this article will be the equivalent of the meme where Grandpa Simpson is yelling at a cloud, don’t be. I’m not here to complain about how things have changed since I was a teenager. This year’s edition of Phoenix Fan Fusion was the first con I had attended in 25 years. In many ways, it is a one-stop shop for all your fandom needs.

Let me explain: In the '80s and '90s, if you liked both comics and Star Trek, then your parents had to drive you to a different community center in town every weekend because the two fandoms couldn’t be under the same roof. This made going from event to event time-consuming and expensive, especially when you’re a teenager with little pocket money.

To make matters worse, I was already a social outcast for being open about my fandom. Getting an A for doing a book report on Star Wars: Heir to the Empire didn’t help my status. When I started working every weekend to get ready for college, I had to let it all go.

Attending this year’s Fan Fusion dovetailed nicely into my current mid-life crisis. My eyes got wide walking into the Phoenix Convention Center on its busiest day. Everyone was dressed in costume (Lebowski Thor from Avengers: Endgame seemed popular). Here I could see Jeff Goldblum in the morning, get George Takei’s autograph, and meet Joe Rubenstein, the inker on 1982’s influential comic-book series Wolverine, before I left.

I was overwhelmed by all the possibilities, so I kept my schedule simple. I stuck to Star Wars. It worked for my high school book report, so it should work now.

First, I attended Billy Dee Williams’ panel early Saturday afternoon. The 82-year-old actor, introduced as “the coolest man in the galaxy” by his moderator, seemed genuinely humbled by the applause as he entered.

“Do I deserve all of this?” he asked the crowd. “You should be outside.”

A majority of the questions revolved around Williams' return to his iconic role of Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Star Wars flick The Rise of Skywalker, currently scheduled for release on December 20, 2019.

click to enlarge Billy Dee Williams greets the crowd at his Q&A. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Billy Dee Williams greets the crowd at his Q&A.
Benjamin Leatherman
Williams was happy to discuss his experiences on the set, calling the film’s director J.J. Abrams “one of the most wonderful and enthusiastic directors” he’s ever worked with. He praised the acting work of his co-stars Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac, but any questions about the film’s plot were quickly shot down.

“I can’t talk about it,” he said. “I’ll be struck by lightning.”

Williams also fielded questions about his opinions on the Star Wars universe. He declared his strong dislike for Jar-Jar Binks, the Gungan from The Phantom Menace, and said he cried when (spoiler!) Han Solo meets his demise in The Force Awakens. He was also asked for his thoughts on Donald Glover playing Lando in Solo: A Star Wars Story. He called Glover an extraordinary young man.

“He was fine,” Williams quipped.

“Not as fine as Billy Dee Williams,” the moderator assured him, reminding the audience that the actor has reprised Calrissian in countless video games and spin-offs.

A question from a teacher in the crowd told Williams how important it was to see “a person of color” in a science-fiction movie like The Empire Strikes Back. He cut her off with a terse reply.

“You are all people of color,” he said. “I look at all shades and tones and colors.”

She replied, “Well, some shades and tones weren’t represented…"

“We got to stop all that stuff,” he declared.

He apologized to the fan. He said that everyone seems to be represented in film now, and given the current cultural climate, even “all kinds of idiots.”

There was a tinge of regret in Williams’ voice when he talked about some of the roles that got away. He originated the role of District Attorney Harvey Dent in Batman but didn’t get to reprise the role when he morphed into Two-Face in Batman Forever. He still wants to take on the role of jazz musician Duke Ellington.

click to enlarge Actor and martial artist Ray Park at his Q&A on Saturday, May 25, at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Actor and martial artist Ray Park at his Q&A on Saturday, May 25, at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019.
Benjamin Leatherman

Williams worked his way through his panel with calmness and brevity. All that pithiness left the room when Ray Park, who played the villain Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, took the stage two hours later.

The Scottish actor nearly knocked down the curtain when he arrived more than 20 minutes late for his panel appearance.

The martial artist began talking about how he prepared for playing the Sith Lord by queuing up the song “Firestarter” by The Prodigy. He played the song as he danced and gyrated all over the stage. Given the recent death of the techno band’s frontman Keith Flint, the story was quite warm and touching.

At one point, Park talked about how shy and quiet he was on the set of The Phantom Menace but no one matching that description appeared onstage. He borrowed a fan’s double-bladed lightsaber so he could duel with members of the audience. His moderator seemed frustrated, constantly having to remind the stuntman to speak into his microphone to answer a question.

It was funny and charming at first, but fans soon became annoyed with this behavior and started to walk out in droves.

click to enlarge A Darth Maul cosplayer in the crowd at Billy Dee Williams' panel. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
A Darth Maul cosplayer in the crowd at Billy Dee Williams' panel.
Benjamin Leatherman
As much as I want to embrace modern fan culture, aspects of it still bother me. Between seeing Williams and Park, I attended a panel titled “The Last Jedi: Your Opinion of it is Wrong.”

Why this film continues to be such a divisive topic two years later baffles me (Full disclosure: I liked it). The four panelists onstage told the haters why the Rian Johnson-directed film is great. As they started to explore the other side of their argument, any sense of order left the room. The panelists would call out anyone who left early, showering them with condescension because they assumed their opinions weren’t well received.

I also became disheartened when I went to see the celebrities signing autographs throughout the afternoon. I could see George Takei and Paul Reubens 100 yards away from me, and they would only talk to me if I spent the cash. I understand that celebrities need to be compensated for their time and expenses, but with some charging at least a C-note, it seemed exploitative.

I retreated to the exhibition hall downstairs to see some of the comic book artists in attendance. During my wandering, I ran into Rubenstein, the inker who had a hand in creating that iconic Wolverine cover. I told him how much that image meant to me and how it drew me into comics.

“A lot of people tell me that,” he replied.

I thanked him for his time and moved on. Maybe he was tired or he knew I wasn’t going to buy anything from him. He has seen the same changes in the fan culture as I have. As convenient as it was to have everything under one roof, were artists like Rubenstein getting lost in the shuffle?

I honestly don’t know the answer. Change is good, but it’s also difficult. Guys like Rubenstein and I will have to adjust.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil