The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Bill Duke

Film director and actor Bill Duke was born on February 26, 1943 in Poughkeepsie, New York and is the son of Ethel Douglas Duke and William Duke, Sr. After earning his A.A. degree from Dutchess Community College, Duke became interested in the performing arts while attending Boston University, although he initially enrolled as a pre-med student. He eventually majored in theater there and then went on to earn a M.A. degree in fine arts from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Duke later enrolled in the American Film Institute (AFI).

Duke began his career as an actor in New York City theaters like The Public Theater and New Federal Theater, performing in plays such as LeRoi Jones' Slave Ship and Melvin Van Peebles’ musical Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death. Duke’s first movie role came in 1976 when he portrayed a fierce young Black Muslim revolutionary named “Abdullah Mohammed Akbar” in Car Wash. Duke’s television directorial debut came in 1982 when he directed episodes of Knot's Landing, Falcon Crest, and Flamingo Road for Lorimar Productions. Duke's most prominent and critically acclaimed television work, however, has been his direction of teleplays for the PBS series American Playhouse including “The Killing Floor,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and “The Meeting,” a 90-minute drama that depicted an imaginary meeting between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. During the 1980s, Duke amassed more than 100 television directing credits, including more than 70 episodes of roughly 20 television series such as Miami Vice, Dallas, Crime Story, Cagney and Lacey and Hill Street Blues. Duke directed his first feature film in 1990, a film adaptation of Chester Himes' novel A Rage in Harlem. Duke went on to direct many other films including Deep Cover, Sister Act 2, Hoodlum and Deacons for Defense.

In 2004, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Duke to the California Film Commission, which works to enhance the economic climate of the state by keeping film industry jobs in California. Duke also works with non-profit and charity organizations such as Educating Young Minds, an organization that helps inner-city students excel at school and in life. Duke is the recipient of numerous awards including the AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the NAACP’s Special Award for Outstanding Achievement, SCLC’s Drum Major for Justice Film Award and a Cable Ace Award. President Bill Clinton appointed Duke to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Duke was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on September 19, 2008.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Middle Name



Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School

Duchess Community College

Boston University

New York University

Search Occupation Category
First Name


Birth City, State, Country




Favorite Season

All Seasons


New York

Favorite Vacation Destination


Favorite Quote

True Power Is An Individual's Ability To Move From Failure To Failure With No Loss Of Enthusiasm.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State


Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Los Angeles


United States

Favorite Food

Ice Cream

Short Description

Actor and film director Bill Duke (1943 - ) began his theater career in Harlem. He went on to direct several television series, including 'Hill Street Blues' and 'Knots Landing,' and films, such as 'A Rage in Harlem' and 'Deep Cover.' Duke also starred in 'Car Wash,' 'American Gigolo' and 'Menace II Society.'


Negro Ensemble Company

Howard University

Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Bill Duke's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Bill Duke lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Bill Duke describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Bill Duke recalls his maternal family's move to Poughkeepsie, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Bill Duke describes his mother's upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Bill Duke describes his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Bill Duke describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Bill Duke describes his father

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Bill Duke describes how his parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Bill Duke describes how he takes after his parents

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Bill Duke describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Bill Duke describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Bill Duke talks about his family's self-sufficiency

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Bill Duke remembers his upbringing in Poughkeepsie, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Bill Duke describes the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Poughkeepsie, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Bill Duke remembers Violet Avenue Elementary School in Poughkeepsie, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Bill Duke remembers his early experiences with dyslexia

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Bill Duke describes his early interest in writing

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Bill Duke remembers Dr. James Hall

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Bill Duke recalls his introduction to theater at Boston University

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Bill Duke remembers Lloyd Richards

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Bill Duke recalls developing his skills as a director

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Bill Duke remembers his favorite film and television programs

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Bill Duke describes his early theater career in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Bill Duke remembers his introduction to Hollywood's entertainment industry

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Bill Duke describes his short film, 'The Hero'

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Bill Duke remembers co-starring with Richard Gere in 'American Gigolo'

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Bill Duke describes his transition to directing

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Bill Duke remembers directing 'The Killing Floor'

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Bill Duke recalls directing 'A Raisin in the Sun' for PBS

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Bill Duke remembers acting in 'Commando' and 'Predator'

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Bill Duke recalls his directorial credits in the 1990s, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Bill Duke remembers directing 'Deep Cover'

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Bill Duke describes his directorial philosophy

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Bill Duke reflects upon his experiences as a director

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Bill Duke talks about the art of acting

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Bill Duke talks about his favorite actors

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Bill Duke recalls his directorial credits in the 1990s, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Bill Duke talks about his book, 'Black Light'

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Bill Duke describes the film 'Deacons for Defense'

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Bill Duke talks about the California Film Commission

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Bill Duke describes his civic involvement

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Bill Duke describes his concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Bill Duke reflects upon his life

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Bill Duke describes his plans for the future

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Bill Duke reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Bill Duke talks about his family

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Bill Duke describes how he would like to be remembered







Bill Duke talks about the art of acting
Bill Duke talks about his book, 'Black Light'
--As an actor, it's a different kind of feeling. It's just--it's like writing. I'm a writer, but I don't write much anymore; it's just like too isolated for me, you know? If I get married, or I'm gonna be a writer again because I can--somebody's there, but writing is a desolate, desolate experience. People don't understand, I don't think how--writing is like--just, just you and, as they say, the tabula rosa [sic. tabula rasa]. It's that blank piece of paper, and you're writing, and you go, what the hell? What is that? You try to make it better. You don't, you don't even know if it's better; you feel it's better. That's how acting is. Acting is like--[HistoryMaker] Lloyd Richards used to say something like, it's falling into darkness backward; you just gotta trust. It's not because you're so bright or talented, but the degree of your research and preparation is important in the final analysis. See, stage fright--they call it stage fright, which you've probably seen, is this (gesture). You go on stage, and you're supposed to be John, but the actor is observing himself being John. So who's onstage? The actor and John. The writer didn't write the, the, the part for Bill and John (laughter), he just wants John (laughter), so Bill has to surrender whatever he is to John. That process of surrender is called trust, and if you cannot do that, you end up being a--kind of a mannequin-like version of John 'cause John's not there. You watching John, or pretending to be John, is there.$$Well, you know, we, we still have like certain iconic actors, I guess, that people write for them to be them playing a role, you know, in a way. I mean, I guess in the old days, like John Wayne really, you know, his parts were really written for a guy to--for John Wayne to be the, you know, the person, except for when he played Genghis Khan [in 'The Conqueror'] (laughter) (unclear) which didn't work out too well. But they, you know, they kind of write 'em for him, you know, he's just (unclear) (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Well yeah. And that--there's nothing wrong with that. They're called personality actors, and that's okay, and I, you know, I don't put that down. But the great actors of our time, the great actors of all time, you know, the great stage actors, the great--they play a spectrum of people from fathers to murderers, and every role they're in you believe it, you believe them. They have that facility, the ability to surrender to the craft in a way that's just phenomenal.$You published a book called 'Black Light: The African American Hero' [Paul Carter Harrison, Danny Glover and Bill Duke].$$It's a collaboration between [HistoryMaker] Danny Glover and myself.$$Okay.$$Uh-huh.$$And now what were you trying to do in that book?$$Pray--pay homage to all the people who had made it possible for me to be here, all the sacrifices they had made, all the deaths, all the, the limbs that had been cut off, all of the--coming over on this middle passage. All the not being able to go in the same bathroom, at the same water fountain, standing up for who you were and are, and--so that we could be here talking now.$$So it was like a photo essay type of book, right?$$It's, it's, it's, it's photographs, but also it's writing about the history and so on.$$Okay. Now, it's read at--that directors write history and stuff, but you, you see--you don't see yourself just as a director, I guess, in the generic sense, right?$$Well, directing--in order to direct successfully, I really think that you have to be dabbling in everything from writing to painting. I mean directorially, you're creating composition, and it's moving motion pictures. If you study the composition of still pictures, then you get an understanding of what balance is in a frame, and so you try your best to study the greatest painters of all time, which I tried to do, and to borrow from them in terms of understanding composition. 'Cause composition is not only where you place people, but composition also has to do with texture and color because someone that's way in the back can be the center of focus of the, of the frame if they have red on and everybody in the front has on white. You learn things from painting and sculpture and great writers from T.S. Eliot to, I mean to, name them, I mean you know. You, you set yourself to a standard. If you're, if you're your only standard it's kind of convoluted, but if your standard is to be as--if someone has set a mark for you and you say, I would like to be able to tell a story as well as Lorraine Hansberry or T.S. Eliot in his poetry, or whoever it is, that's, that's to me is part of it.