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

Russell Williams, II

Russell Williams, II was the first African American to win more than one Academy Award in any category. Two-time Academy Award and prime-time Emmy Award winner Russell Williams, II was born on October 14, 1952 in Washington, D.C. His mother, Lillie Mae Williams, worked in retail, while his father, Russell Williams, Sr., was an employee at Union Station. Williams’ mother passed away one day after childbirth. Williams grew up an avid movie-goer, raised in Washington, D.C. by his aunt and uncle, James and Ruth Harshaw.

In 1970, Williams attended the American University where he earned his B.A. in film production and literature in 1974. While pursuing his B.A., in 1973, Williams began working as an audio engineer for WRC/NBC-TV. He then moved to WMAL-TV (now WJLA-TV) and worked there from 1975 to 1976. Williams returned to work at WRC-TV from 1977 to 1978. In 1978, Williams formed his company, Sound Is Ready. He then transferred to work at WMAL/ABC Radio as an engineer and editor. Williams moved to Los Angeles in July of 1979, where he attended the University of Sound Arts, studying sound mixing and earned a certificate in electronics.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1979, Williams began working as the sound mixer for various films including Making the Grade (1984); In the Mood (1987); Billionaire Boys Club (1987) and The In Crowd (1987). In 1988, Williams won a prime-time Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound for Terrorist on Trial (1987). In 1990, he won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Sound for Glory. In 1991, Williams made history when he won another Academy Award for his contribution as a sound mixer for Dances With Wolves, making him the first African American multi-Academy Award winner.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Williams did the sound recording for several films and made for television movies including Field of Dreams (1989); The Distinguished Gentleman (1992); Boomerang (1992); Waiting to Exhale (1995); How to Make an American Quilt (1995); Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story (1996); 12 Angry Men (1997), which he won another prime-time Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound; The Negotiator (1998); The Temptations (1999), which he earned a prime-time Emmy Award nomination for Part One of this miniseries for Best Sound; Rules of Engagement (2000); Life (1999); Training Day (2001); and The Sum of All Fears (2002). Williams also received accolades as a sound recordist for the civil rights documentaries, Eyes On The Prize: Bridge to Freedom and Eyes On The Prize: Fighting Back in 2006.

In 2002, Williams was hired as Artist in Residence at his alma mater, The American University. He has also taught at Howard University, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.

Williams is married to Rosalind Williams and has two children from a previous marriage: Myles Candace Williams and Khemet Ellison Williams.

Williams was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on September 26, 2007.

Accession Number

A2007.273

Sex

Male

Interview Date

9/26/2007

Last Name

Williams

Maker Category
Occupation
Schools

Woodrow Wilson High School

Randle Highlands Es

Davis Es

American University

Kramer Middle School

First Name

Russell

Birth City, State, Country

Washington

HM ID

WIL43

Favorite Season

Fall

State

District of Columbia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Kenya, Hawaii

Favorite Quote

Any Day Above Ground Is A Victory.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Interview Description
Birth Date

10/14/1952

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Sushi

Short Description

Film producer Russell Williams, II (1952 - ) was the first African American to win multiple Academy Awards, two, in the history of motion pictures. He also won Emmy Awards all for his sound mixing work for films and television movies. Williams' film and television credits include, "Dances With Wolves," "Glory," "Jungle Fever," and, "12 Angry Men."

Employment

'12 Angry Men'

'Rules of Engagement'

'Dances with Wolves'

'The Temptations'

'Jungle Fever'

'Field of Dreams'

'In The Mood'

'Glory'

'Just An Overnight Guest'

American University

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
0,0:1536,30:2304,39:6240,137:8544,174:8928,179:9792,189:14840,217:16212,232:16898,240:17290,245:17878,253:18956,266:23562,338:24444,349:28319,362:28734,368:29149,374:30726,399:32386,425:41845,524:42670,546:45895,617:49570,682:49870,687:50545,697:50920,704:51295,710:59686,758:60412,772:61072,785:63316,825:66088,883:70349,933:71511,948:72175,960:72507,965:75744,1049:78317,1084:78981,1093:79479,1098:81886,1136:88041,1228:88680,1238:91023,1314:92514,1353:93792,1385:94147,1391:99898,1567:108970,1680:110815,1722:114786,1785:115272,1792:115677,1798:116730,1810:118836,1846:119484,1855:123453,1938:124506,1956:131580,2076:132056,2084:132532,2098:138856,2256:147386,2379:148940,2423:152714,2530:153010,2535:153380,2542:153750,2548:156266,2600:157154,2612:157968,2628:163458,2651:163730,2656:164070,2662:165498,2690:173114,2856:173590,2864:174270,2880:181398,2952:190944,3293:191536,3305:192646,3330:199160,3382$0,0:1014,36:2496,61:6708,153:8268,177:8736,184:9126,190:9828,200:10218,206:10998,219:11310,224:12480,264:20642,309:22229,334:26162,430:26645,442:27128,451:27611,466:28094,476:28577,484:29750,507:33476,595:33752,600:34235,609:35132,628:35822,639:36650,653:38168,690:38444,695:40652,736:49608,832:54940,928:57090,980:57692,988:59068,1008:59842,1018:62508,1065:63196,1079:65862,1121:66378,1128:67324,1146:73680,1188:73932,1193:74751,1209:75318,1220:76389,1238:76830,1248:77271,1256:77523,1262:77964,1274:78468,1284:80862,1338:81303,1346:81681,1354:86620,1373:88520,1381:90455,1393:91076,1404:92703,1425:93287,1434:93725,1444:94017,1449:94382,1456:97448,1516:97959,1525:98543,1536:104570,1591:105130,1599:105770,1608:106890,1623:107930,1638:111290,1685:111610,1690:113450,1718:114330,1735:114730,1741:115610,1754:120810,1898:133692,2148:134528,2162:137644,2215:138328,2226:145852,2358:146840,2375:148056,2396:148360,2401:155220,2433:155724,2442:156444,2455:157236,2472:158532,2502:158820,2507:159252,2514:165012,2634:177250,2800:178672,2823:181674,2885:181990,2890:183254,2914:183886,2925:193303,3028:193871,3037:197563,3119:198983,3148:203030,3246:203314,3251:204237,3271:204663,3278:205160,3287:205657,3296:207219,3330:207503,3335:214254,3380:215946,3412:217262,3430:218810,3438
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Russell Williams, II's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Russell Williams, II lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Russell Williams, II describes his mother's death

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Russell Williams, II describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Russell Williams, II talks about his maternal grandfather

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Russell Williams, II remembers his maternal family

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Russell Williams, II describes his maternal great-grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Russell Williams, II describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Russell Williams, II describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Russell Williams, II recalls learning about his mother's death

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Russell Williams, II talks about his maternal aunts

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Russell Williams, II describes the Benning Heights neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Russell Williams, II describes the segregation of Washington, D.C.

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Russell Williams, II remembers trips to the movie theaters

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Russell Williams, II describes his father's civil rights activities

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Russell Williams, II remembers Davis Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Russell Williams, II remembers school desegregation in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Russell Williams, II describes Randle Highlands Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Russell Williams, II recalls the television programs of his youth

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Russell Williams, II describes the racial tensions in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Russell Williams, II remembers the March on Washington

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Russell Williams, II remembers Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Russell Williams, II describes his early interest in music

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Russell Williams, II recalls the uprisings after the death of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Russell Williams, II recalls the music of his youth

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Russell Williams, II describes his decision to attend American University in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Russell Williams, II describes his experiences at American University in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Russell Williams, II describes the anti-war movement at American University

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Russell Williams, II remembers being tapped by the Selective Service System

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Russell Williams, II describes his college radio show, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Russell Williams, II describes his college radio show, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Russell Williams, II recalls the Hanafi siege of the District Building in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Russell Williams, II remembers joining WRC-TV in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Russell Williams, II remembers the Watergate hearings

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Russell Williams, II talks about the importance of sound in films

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Russell Williams, II describes his decision to move to California

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Russell Williams, II describes the film industry in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Russell Williams, II describes his early television work

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Russell Williams, II describes his transition to feature films

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Russell Williams, II describes the production of 'Field of Dreams'

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Russell Williams, II recalls being hired for the film 'Glory'

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Russell Williams, II describes the plot of the film 'Glory'

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Russell Williams, II remembers the production of 'Glory'

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Russell Williams, II describes his sound mixing equipment

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Russell Williams, II talks about Denzel Washington

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Russell Williams, II recalls winning his first Academy Award

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Russell Williams, II remembers winning his first Primetime Emmy Award

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Russell Williams, II remembers winning his second Academy Award

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Russell Williams, II reflects upon his success

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Russell Williams, II remembers working with William Friedkin

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Russell Williams, II describes his approach to sound production

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Russell Williams, II recalls the production of 'Dances with Wolves'

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Russell Williams, II remembers the production of '12 Angry Men'

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Russell Williams, II describes the filming of 'The Temptations' miniseries

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Russell Williams, II talks about his work on Spike Lee's films

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Russell Williams, II describes his decision to return to Washington, D.C.

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Russell Williams, II talks about his children

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Russell Williams, II reflects upon his life

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Russell Williams, II reflects upon his legacy

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$5

DAStory

4$2

DATitle
Russell Williams, II describes his college radio show, pt. 1
Russell Williams, II talks about the importance of sound in films
Transcript
Quickly before we move beyond American University [Washington, D.C.], were you still active in music?$$Well, when I was at American I, I played, you know, a little impromptu jazz ensembles here and there, but my real music interest shifted from being a performer so much, you know actually playing an instrument, to another student and I decided to petition the local radio station for some airtime because back then and you know, we never wanted to resemble the comment and as you go back to, to quotes, we never wanted to resemble that comment that used to be bandied about, more--I think more in my dad's time and before then now, but it--probably apply now too. So if you wanna hide something from a black person, put it in a book. So we never wanted to resemble that remark to go back to the Bowery Boys. So in, in--and also being kind of associated with the gentleman that ran BEST [Black Efforts for Soul in Television], as a communications attorney he said that the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] regulations state that the city of license for any broadcast facility dictates what that facility should broadcast. So at that time WAMU-FM [WAMU Radio, Washington, D.C.] broadcast pretty much nothing but European classical music and of course there were a NPR [National Public Radio] outlet as they still are. But they didn't really have anything aimed at the so-called black community and the black listening audience. They said well we don't really have that many black listeners. So we were like yeah why, I wonder why, gee, nobody, you know. So we said we just wanted to have a little two or three-hour show and at that time they weren't on the air twenty-four hours. So on Saturdays I don't think they came on the air until noon. So we said if we could get maybe a couple hours before noon that weren't part of your broadcast schedule anyway and do a show with black public affairs and jazz, and other black classical music, maybe some campus events, et cetera, et cetera. And so we--Ger- Gerald Lee [Gerald Bruce Lee] was the gentleman's name who's now a federal judge over in Alexandria [Virginia]. We loaded up for bear with all these documents and all these precedents and all, 'cause he, he was still undergrad, but of course he's practicing for his big--his big role as an attorney. And we, we had decided who was gonna play the good cop, who was gonna play the bad cop. Someone had to get an FCC license, and my, my mentor Larry Bryant over at Channel 5 [WTTG-TV, Washington, D.C.], you know, helped me with what I would have to know in order to get the FCC, at that time, third class radio telephone license. And so we, we also would have to probably get one of their engineers to help us engineer until we learned how to do the, you know, the board ourselves. But when we went to this meeting with the production man--with the station manager and the production dir- program director, I'm sorry, we were expecting all this resistance, and you know, they came in and says, "Oh you know what we're gonna do, we're gonna give you a 10:00 to 12:00 show, 10--10:00 to 12:00 slot, were gonna do this, do this, gonna put you with Bill Brown" [ph.], who was a student that I knew from Randle Highlands [Randle Highlands Elementary School, Washington, D.C.]. I didn't even know he was working up here. And you know, "You go on the air November 6th," da-da-da-da.$Were there other movies at the time that were really sort of calling you to that industry?$$Cheryl [Cheryl Butler], I can't really remember another film that, you know, made me really think seriously about being in the film industry other than 'In the Heat of the Night.' I mean--I mean and, and if, if there were, I apologize to the filmmakers. I mean there're plenty other films I enjoyed, but something about that film, I mean because not only the quality of the film, the subject matter, the way it was shot, the sound, the music, every- everything about that film really resonates with me. I'll stop and watch that film on television regardless of where I am in the--if, if I'm in the last scene of him in the middle I'll stop and watch, you know, Sidney [Sidney Poitier] and Rod Steiger go at it, you know.$$So you really are interested in the--in the production value of film at this time. I mean you're--it's--it almost sounds like when we had [HistoryMaker] James Ingram talking about his method of composing music, but your appreciation of, you know, the sound and the pictures, and the combination of all that sounds like the magic of composing in a way?$$Well to me, the, the film business or the process of making a--what we know is a feature film, which is of course is changing, but what we know is the process of making a feature film is really kind of our highest peak in the process of storytelling. I mean assuming that it's done right. Because you get to appeal to just about every sense but the sense of smell, you know. So you, you utilize music or not. You definitely utilize people's voices and the performance of people's voices, I think, gets--doesn't get as much credit as it--as it should, because yeah you might remember the shot of such-and-such and such-and-such a movie, but you're really gonna remember the line that So and So delivered it, you know, and from 'The Godfather' you're gonna remember Sidney saying, "They call me Mr. Tibbs" ['In the Heat of the Night']. You know, you're gonna remember. You know, "She's my daughter, she's my sister, she's my daughter," ['Chinatown'] you know. You know, you're gonna remember what people were wearing and you're gonna remember if, if they do it right how the camera just moved up to the actor at this particular moment when they turned and looked and said so. So for me all of this is, is like composing music. And even working on, on a big production when the crew and the director and the actors are all in sync, it is like making music. I mean when you--when you just as an observer, even though I'm part of the shot, I'm not really part of the shot like the dolly grip or the cam- the microphone boom operator or the actor. I'm actually just sitting back, you know, in my old job just writing faders and looking at levels and reading the words and looking at the monitor. But even in rehearsal I can look over and see, you know, grips, you know, adjusting lighting and, and an electrician, you know, moving a light and a camera oper- a camera operator focus pull and make it fine--a really fine adjustment there and the actor kind of checking their mark, but not looking at their feet to see where their mark is, you know. And all this has a flow in real time. Even though, we know, we always think in terms of getting a take one, a take two, a take three. If you nail it on take one, you know, that might be it. That might be what we record to history.