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Billy Dee Williams defends blackface in exchange with Bill Maher: 'If you're an actor, you should do anything you want to do.'
Photo by: Weiss Eubanks/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Billy Dee Williams defends blackface in exchange with Bill Maher: 'If you're an actor, you should do anything you want to do.'

Billy Dee Williams said that he believes actors should be able to do what they want to do, including blackface. The comments were made on Bill Maher's show, "Club Random with Bill Maher."

Williams called attention to Laurence Olivier's performance in "Othello," where he wore blackface. "When he did 'Othello,' I fell out laughing. He stuck his a** out and walked around because black people are supposed to have big a**es."

Following the comments, Maher replied: "Today, they would never let you do that."

"Why?" Williams responded. "You should do it. If you're an actor, you should do anything you want to do."

"That's a great point of view, but the theater would be bombed," Maher replied back.

Williams mentioned that he refused to "go through life feeling like, 'I'm a victim.' I refuse to go through life saying to the world, 'I'm pissed off.' I'm not gonna be pissed off 24 hours a day."

A recent example that the two brought up in the exchange was Bradley Cooper's prosthetic nose in last year's Oscar-nominated "Maestro." Cooper portrayed the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein, and he appears to have sported a fake nose that some denounced as anti-Semitic.

Non-Jewish people portraying Jewish people in performances has been characterized as "Jewface" by some.

Cooper responded to the claims when the film was released.

“I thought, ‘Maybe we don’t need to do it,'” Cooper said, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “But it’s all about balance, and, you know, my lips are nothing like Lenny’s, and my chin. And so we had that, and it just didn’t look right [without the prosthetic].”

Despite some of the outrage, the Anti-Defamation League came to the film's defense, saying: “Throughout history, Jews were often portrayed in antisemitic films and propaganda as evil caricatures with large, hooked noses. This film, which is a biopic on the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, is not that.”

Bernstein's three children — Jamie, Alexander, and Nina Bernstein — also came to Cooper's defense of the performance, per Variety.

“Bradley Cooper included the three of us along every step of his amazing journey as he made his film about our father. We were touched to the core to witness the depth of his commitment, his loving embrace of our father’s music, and the sheer open-hearted joy he brought to his exploration.”

“It breaks our hearts to see any misrepresentations or misunderstandings of his efforts," the three continued. "It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose. Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would have been fine with it as well."

"Any strident complaints around this issue strike us above all as disingenuous attempts to bring a successful person down a notch — a practice we observed all too often perpetrated on our own father. At all times during the making of this film, we could feel the profound respect and yes, the love that Bradley brought to his portrait of Leonard Bernstein and his wife, our mother Felicia. We feel so fortunate to have had this experience with Bradley, and we can’t wait for the world to see his creation.”

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