Early life and education
Born in Gary, Indiana, Williamson was the oldest child born to Frank, a welder and Lydia Williamson. Williamson attended Froebel High School, where he ran track and played football. He graduated in 1956. After high school, Williamson left Gary for Evanston, Illinois to attend Northwestern University on a football scholarship.
After playing college football for Northwestern in the late 1950s, Williamson was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pittsburgh Steelers. When during training camp he was switched to their defense, his attitude over the switch prompted him to play his position with too much aggression, and the coach of the 49ers asked him to quit “hammering” his players. Thus, “The Hammer” quickly stuck and became his nickname. Williamson played one year for the Steelers in the National Football League in 1960. Next, he moved to the new American Football League. Williamson played four seasons for the AFL’s Oakland Raiders, making the AFL All-Star team in 1961, 1962, and 1963. He also played three seasons for the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. During his period of playing for the Chiefs, Williamson became one of football’s first self-promoters, nurturing the nickname “The Hammer” because he used his forearm to deliver karate-style blows to the heads of opposing players, especially wide receivers. Before Super Bowl I, Williamson garnered national headlines by boasting that he would knock the Green Bay Packers starting receivers, Carroll Dale and Boyd Dowler, out of the game. He stated “Two hammers to (Boyd) Dowler, one to (Carroll) Dale should be enough”. His prediction turned out to be an ironic one because “they (Green Bay) broke the hammer” as Williamson himself was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter on the way to a 35–10 defeat. Williamson’s head met the knee of the Packers’ running back Donny Anderson. Williamson later suffered a broken arm from his own teammate when Chiefs linebacker Sherrill Headrick fell on him. Williamson finished his eight-season pro football career in 1967 with a history of many hard tackles, passes knocked away, and 36 pass interceptions in 104 games. Williamson returned his interceptions for 479 yards and two touchdowns. After signing with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League during the 1968 season, but not having played in a league game, Williamson retired.
Williamson became an actor much in the mold of star running back Jim Brown. He acted alongside Brown in films such as Three the Hard Way (1974), Take a Hard Ride (1975), One Down, Two to Go (1982), Original Gangstas (1996) and On the Edge (2002). Williamson also guest starred with Brown in various television roles. In October 1973, Williamson posed nude for Playgirl magazine, preempting Brown’s appearance in 1974. Williamson’s early television roles included a role in the original Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders” (1969), in which he played Anka. He also played Diahann Carroll’s love interest in the sitcom Julia. In an interview for the DVD of Bronx Warriors, Williamson stated that his role in Julia was created for him when he convinced the producers that the Black community was upset that Julia had a different boyfriend every week. Williamson’s early film work included roles in M*A*S*H (1970) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970). He portrayed an escaped slave who flees westward in The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972). He played the role of an African-American gangster in the film Black Caesar (1973) and its subsequent sequel, Hell Up in Harlem (also 1973). Williamson also starred in the 1975 western film Boss Nigger, in which he played the title role. After this he appeared as an actor in several films, most of which are considered to be of the “blaxploitation” genre. Williamson starred alongside Peter Boyle and Eli Wallach in the movie Crazy Joe (1974). In 1974, Williamson was selected by the ABC television network as a commentator on Monday Night Football to replace Don Meredith, who had left to pursue an acting and broadcasting career at rival network NBC. Williamson was used on a few pre-season broadcasts, but was quickly declared unsuitable by ABC. He was relieved of his duties at the beginning of the regular season, becoming the first MNF personality not to endure for an entire season. He was replaced by the fellow former player (and fellow Gary, Indiana, native) Alex Karras. Williamson co-starred in the short-lived series Half Nelson (1985). During the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, Williamson frequently appeared on television as a spokesman for King Cobra malt liquor (“Don’t let the smooth taste fool you.”), as did fellow actor/martial artist Martin Kove. In 1994, Williamson, along with many other black actors from the ‘Blaxploitation’ movie era (namely Antonio Fargas, Pam Grier, Rudy Ray Moore, and Ron O’Neal) made a cameo appearance on Snoop Doggy Dogg’s music video “Doggy Dogg World”, where he appears as himself using his pro-football nickname “The Hammer”. Williamson co-starred with George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in From Dusk till Dawn (1996), directed by Robert Rodriguez. He was in the cast of the original The Inglorious Bastards (1978), which would later inspire Tarantino’s 2009 film of similar name. Williamson has continued his career as an actor and director into the 21st Century, appearing in the reboot film Starsky & Hutch (2004) derived from the 1970s television series.
Directing and producing
Since the 1970s, Williamson has had another career as a director and producer. His first film as producer was Boss Nigger (1975), in which he also starred. His second film as producer was with Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), a predecessor of the Rambo films which similarly featured a violent Vietnam Vet plot (though the novel First Blood on which the film First Blood was based was written in 1972). He has since directed over 20 features. In the middle of the 1970s, Williamson relocated to Rome, Italy and formed his own company Po’ Boy Productions, which started to produce actioners including Adios Amigo (1976) and Death Journey (1976), both of which starred and were directed by Williamson. Although his most recent efforts as director and producer have mainly been direct-to-video, Williamson remains an active film maker.
Williamson has been married twice. His first marriage was to Ginette Lavonda from 1960 until 1967. Williamson has been married to Linda Williamson since 1988. Williamson has at least three children but some sources state he has at least six. Williamson has black belts in Kenpō, Shotokan karate and taekwondo. Since 1997, Williamson has had a home in Palm Springs, California. He endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 United States presidential election. In June 2020, The Daily Beast reported that Williamson had allegedly attempted to grope an assistant costume designer during a wardrobe fitting. He denied the charge.