R.I.P. Clarence Williams III, the hip undercover detective Linc on The Mod Squad
The former paratrooper later had memorable roles in Purple Rain and Twin Peaks. He was 81.
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Few TV shows epitomized the late 1960s like The Mod Squad. At a time when Westerns, rural sitcoms, and fantasy series reigned supreme, The Mod Squad pushed the boundaries to reflect the attitudes and trends of the times. It's the show that did the near-impossible — successfully combine aspects of counterculture and law enforcement to create a critically acclaimed drama. The action centered around three hip undercover cops, a flower child (Peggy Lipton), a well-to-do rebel (Michael Cole), and a Watts native who was arrested in his neighborhood's infamous riots (Clarence Williams III).
Lincoln "Linc" Hayes was arguably the most memorable member of the trio. A reference to the character decades later in Pulp Fiction reinforced Linc as a counter-culture icon. Casting Williams in the role was a large part of crafting his cool.
Williams' father was a musician, as was his grandfather and grandmother. Before he joined The Mod Squad as Linc, Williams had a successful career on Broadway. That background undoubtedly informed his role, years later, as Prince's dad in Purple Rain (1984).
In 1968, when The Mod Squad premiered, there was simply nobody like him as a star on a television series. "When [a black man] comes home hungry and tired and sees a guy like himself reflected on TV — with dark skin, a flat nose and kinky hair — it makes him feel good," William told a British television reporter in 1968, in an article titled, "The Explosive New Factor — The Hero is Black!" Here's proof of the show's impact: At the end of its first season, The Mod Squad was voted the No. 2 favorite show on television by readers of The Courier in Waterloo, Iowa. The poll results featured pictures of Dean Martin and Williams at the top of the page.
At the time, Williams was married to actress Gloria Foster, who guest-starred on The Mod Squad. Today, people likely remember her best as "The Oracle" in the first two Matrix films. The Mod Squad would feature fantastic guests like Richard Pryor, Andy Griffith and Harrison Ford (who popped up in the premiere).
After The Mod Squad ended in 1973, Williams was a rare sight on television throughout the Seventies, until the TV movie The Return of Mod Squad in 1979. His career picked up over the next decade, as he guest-starred on cop shows (Hill Street Blues, T.J. Hooker, Miami Vice) and returned to fictional law enforcement as FBI Agent Roger Hardy on Twin Peaks in 1990. The David Lynch mystery series was a Mod Squad reunion of sorts, as Peggy Lipton portrayed Norma Jennings on the cult favorite.
Speaking of late-'60s television team-ups, Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch made her big-screen debut in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Keenen Ivory Wayans' (and his Wayans brothers) spoof of the the Seventies blaxploitation genre. The comedy showcased loads of iconic Black talent from the past, including Williams. Plumb played his wife.
Williams continued to work through his 70s, turning up in the movie Lee Daniels' The Butler and on the Fox series Empire.