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Bill Duke

Film director and actor Bill Duke was born William Henry Hudson Duke, Jr. on February 26, 1943 in Poughkeepsie, New York to Ethel Louise and William Henry Hudson Duke, Sr. Duke earned his A.A. degree from Dutchess Community College before attending Boston University, where he originally enrolled as a pre-med student, but earned his B.A. degree in theatre. He received his M.A. degree in fine arts from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Duke later attended the American Film Institute.

Duke began his career as an actor in New York City with the Negro Ensemble Company, 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 was in 1976 when he portrayed a young Black Muslim revolutionary named Abdullah Mohammed Akbar in Car Wash. Duke then held the recurring role of Luther Freeman in the series Palmerstown, U.S.A. before his directorial debut in 1982, directing episodes of Knot's Landing, Falcon Crest, and Flamingo Road. Some of Duke's most prominent work was his direction of teleplays for the PBS series American Playhouse including “The Killing Floor,” which was chosen for Critic's Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985, “A Raisin in the Sun,” which received an Emmy nomination, and “The Meeting.” During the 1980s, Duke amassed more than 100 television directing credits, including more than seventy episodes of roughly twenty 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. He went on to direct many other films including Deep Cover, Sister Act 2, Hoodlum, Deacons for Defense, and Prince Among Slaves. Duke was also featured in numerous television series, including in Fastlane, Karen Sisco, and Black Lightning, as well as in films like Predator, Menace II Society, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and High Flying Bird. In 1993, he co-authored Black Light: The African American Hero with Paul Carter Harrison and Danny Glover; and, in 1996, he published The Journey: A Tale of Human Healing. Duke published his memoir in 2018.

In 2004, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Duke to the California Film Commission. Duke also worked with non-profit and charity organizations such as Educating Young Minds, and has taught at several universities including Howard University and New York University School of Arts. In 2008, he founded the Duke Media Foundation, aimed at teaching new media skills to youth.

Duke is the recipient of numerous awards including the American Film Institute’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 also appointed Duke to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Duke was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on September 19, 2008 and November 20, 2019.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School

Duchess Community College

Boston University

New York University

Violet Avenue Elementary School

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Favorite Season

All Seasons


New York

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Favorite Quote

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

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Los Angeles



Favorite Food

Ice Cream

Short Description

Film director and actor Bill Duke (1943- ) has over 100 directing and acting credits, including for directing American Playhouse, A Rage in Harlem, and Sister Act 2, and acting in Fastlane, Commando, Predator, Menace II Society, and X-Men: The Last Stand.


Negro Ensemble Company

Howard University

Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Bill Duke's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Bill Duke lists his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Bill Duke describes his mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Bill Duke recalls his maternal family's move to Poughkeepsie, New York</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Bill Duke describes his mother's upbringing</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Bill Duke describes his mother</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Bill Duke describes his father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Bill Duke describes his father</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Bill Duke describes how his parents met</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Bill Duke describes how he takes after his parents</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Bill Duke describes his earliest childhood memory</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Bill Duke describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Bill Duke talks about his family's self-sufficiency</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Bill Duke remembers his upbringing in Poughkeepsie, New York</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Bill Duke describes the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Poughkeepsie, New York</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Bill Duke remembers Violet Avenue Elementary School in Poughkeepsie, New York</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Bill Duke remembers his early experiences with dyslexia</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Bill Duke describes his early interest in writing</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Bill Duke remembers Dr. James Hall</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Bill Duke recalls his introduction to theater at Boston University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Bill Duke remembers Lloyd Richards</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Bill Duke recalls developing his skills as a director</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Bill Duke remembers his favorite film and television programs</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Bill Duke describes his early theater career in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Bill Duke remembers his introduction to Hollywood's entertainment industry</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Bill Duke describes his short film, 'The Hero'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Bill Duke remembers co-starring with Richard Gere in 'American Gigolo'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Bill Duke describes his transition to directing</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Bill Duke remembers directing 'The Killing Floor'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Bill Duke recalls directing 'A Raisin in the Sun' for PBS</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Bill Duke remembers acting in 'Commando' and 'Predator'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Bill Duke recalls his directorial credits in the 1990s, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Bill Duke remembers directing 'Deep Cover'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Bill Duke describes his directorial philosophy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Bill Duke reflects upon his experiences as a director</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Bill Duke talks about the art of acting</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Bill Duke talks about his favorite actors</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Bill Duke recalls his directorial credits in the 1990s, pt. 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Bill Duke talks about his book, 'Black Light'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Bill Duke describes the film 'Deacons for Defense'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Bill Duke talks about the California Film Commission</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Bill Duke describes his civic involvement</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Bill Duke describes his concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Bill Duke reflects upon his life</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Bill Duke describes his plans for the future</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Bill Duke reflects upon his legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Bill Duke talks about his family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Bill Duke describes how he would like to be remembered</a>







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.