William Henry Duke Jr. (born February 26, 1943) is an American actor and film director. Known for his physically imposing frame, Duke works primarily in the action and crime drama genres often as a character related to law enforcement. Frequently a character actor, he has starred opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando and Predator, and has appeared in films like American Gigolo, No Man’s Land, Bird on a Wire, Menace II Society, Exit Wounds, Payback, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Mandy. In television, he is best known as Agent Percy Odell in Black Lightning.
He has directed episodes of numerous television series including Cagney & Lacey, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, The Twilight Zone, and American Playhouse, and the crime films Deep Cover and A Rage in Harlem, for which he was nominated for a Palme d’Or, as well as the comedy Sister Act 2.
Early life and education
Duke was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, the son of Ethel Louise (née Douglas) and William Henry Duke Sr. He attended Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park and later received his first instruction in the performing arts and in creative writing at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. Duke worked menial jobs 7 days a week to cover his living expenses and intended to halt his education until Dr. James Hall, a DCCC Dean gave Duke a personal check to cover room, board and books for his next 3 years at Boston University, where (Duke) had secured an academic-based sholarship, intending to pursue medical school after graduation, to please his parents. “My room smelled like formaldehyde.” Later switching to English Education and then instruction in dance and drama for the completion of his B.A.. Duke then did graduate work at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. Unable to secure quite enough acting working, he pan-handled, as well as shop-lifted groceries. He did however appear on Broadway in the 1971 Melvin Van Peebles musical Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. With acting roles dried up, Duke next attended the prestigious AFI Conservatory to study film-making. Which resulted in him accidentally securing a directing job on Knots Landing, due to a secretarial or clerical error, however the producers were pleased with his work and retained his services.
Standing at an imposing 6 feet 4½ inches and with a closely shaved head, Duke first became a familiar face to moviegoers in Car Wash (1976), where he portrayed fierce young Black Muslim revolutionary Abdullah Mohammed Akbar (formerly known as Duane). He expanded his repertoire with American Gigolo (1980), where he played a gay pimp, who co-orchestrates a murder, pinned on star Richard Gere.
As the action-film-oriented genre became more popular, Duke portrayed a string of tough guys. He worked opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger with a small role in Commando. Then alongside Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura in the scifi action thriller Predator, followed by a role as a police chief in the 1988 Carl Weathers vehicle Action Jackson. Duke appeared uncredited as a DEA officer in The Limey (1999), as well as a police chief opposite Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds. Although he only had about 5 minutes of screentime, he played a detective investigating a murder in Menace II Society, in which he delivered the often-quoted line,
“You done fucked up, you know that, don’t you?”
He played a corrupt law enforcement agent in two films opposite Mel Gibson—Bird on a Wire (as an FBI agent) and Payback (as a police detective). Duke appears in X-Men: The Last Stand as Trask, Washington in National Security, Levar in Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Nokes in Bad Country and Caruthers in Mandy.
Duke was one of the first four Black directors on TV. He accidentally secured a directing job on Knots Landing, due to a secretarial or clerical error @ AFI Conservatory, however, the producers were pleased with his work and retained his services. He was racially profiled as a deliveryman by a gate security guard on his first day at the CBS TV lot in Los Angeles. He began his TV directing career in the early 1980s on Knots Landing (10 episodes, 1982-87) and then its mother show Dallas and its sister show Falcon Crest (6 episodes). Next came action and cop shows Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Starman. He credits the benevolence and humanity of people like Larry Hagman and Jane Wyman for his early TV directing success, while occasionally hearing derogatory remarks, and even racial slurs, from crew members, including the Teamsters.
Duke directed the TV movie The Killing Floor in 1984. He began directing theatrical films in the 1990s with crime dramas A Rage in Harlem (1991), Deep Cover (1992) and Hoodlum (1997). He also directed The Cemetery Club (1993) and the Whoopi Goldberg comedy sequel Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993).
For television, Duke directed the A&E Network original film, The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2000). In 2007 he directed the historical reenactments in the award-winning, PBS-broadcast documentary Prince Among Slaves, produced by Unity Productions Foundation.
Duke teamed with screenwriter Bayard Johnson to co-produce Cover, a 2007 film which explores the HIV epidemic.
He is set to direct The Power of One: The Diane Latiker Story, a film based on Chicago activist Diane Latiker.
Duke made an appearance on Kojak in 1976, as Sylk in the episode “Bad Dude”, in the third season of the series. He guest-starred in the fourth episode of Lost in its third season as Warden Harris, in the episode “Every Man for Himself”.
Duke had a starring role in the short-lived TV series Palmerstown, U.S.A., produced by Norman Lear and Roots author, Alex Hailey. Although the series was critically acclaimed and won an Emmy, it ran for only 17 episodes in the 1980–81 television season.
He guest-starred in Battlestar Galactica remake in 2004, the season two episode “Black Market”.
Duke was cast as recurring character Capt. Parish in the action television series/crime drama Fastlane. He made a guest appearance on Baisden After Dark in the episode broadcast on July 18, 2008 and guest-starred on Cold Case as Grover Boone, a corrupt politician, in the 2008 episode “Street Money”. Duke voiced a detective in the episode “Thank You for Not Snitching” of the animated television series The Boondocks. The character and his entire scene were references to Menace II Society. Duke appears in Busta Rhymes’ music video “Dangerous”. Duke also appears in an episode of Law & Order: SVU as a lawyer. In May 2017, Duke appeared on episode 6 of the first season of the Outdoor Channel show Hollywood Weapons: Fact or Fiction?. Duke discussed with host Terry Schappert his time filming Predator, his character Sgt. Mac Elliot, and what it was like to fire an M134 Minigun.
In 2018, Duke joined the second season of The CW superhero drama series Black Lightning as recurring character Agent Percy Odell, a dedicated A.S.A. government official.
He has served on the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute, as a member of the California Film Commission board, appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger, in the Time Warner Endowed Chair in the Department of Radio Television and Film at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and as a member of the National Endowment for the Humanities, appointed by President Bill Clinton.
2011 directed documentary Dark Girls, which was nominated for an NAACP Award & 2015’s Light Girls
Duke is also the founder & owner of the Duke Media Foundation that helps prepare young people for a career in all aspects of film, video and TV production. Duke became a teacher of Transcendental Meditation in Ethiopia in 1973 under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
As of 2018[update], Duke resides in Los Angeles.
Duke is an honorary member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
|1976||Car Wash||Duane||1978 Charlie’s Angels Season 2 Episode 25, “Angels On The Run” – Cameo|
|1980||American Gigolo||Leon James|
|1987||Predator||Sgt. Mac Eliot|
|1987||No Man’s Land||Malcolm|
|1988||Action Jackson||Capt. Earl Armbruster|
|1989||Street of No Return||Lt. Borel|
|1990||Bird on a Wire||FBI Agent Albert “Diggs” Diggins|
|1993||Menace II Society||Detective|
|1993||Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit||Mr. Johnson|
|1998||Susan’s Plan||Dect. Scott|
|1999||The Limey||Head DEA Agent||Uncredited|
|2001||Exit Wounds||Chief Hinges|
|2002||Love and a Bullet||Mysterious Voice on Phone|
|2002||Red Dragon||Police Chief|
|2003||National Security||Lt. Washington|
|2005||Get Rich or Die Tryin||Levar Cahill|
|2006||X-Men: The Last Stand||Secretary Bolivar Trask|
|2010||The Big Bang||Drummer|
|2012||Freaky Deaky||Wendell Robinson|
|2014||Bad Country||John Nokes|
|2014||Clipped Wings, They Do Fly||District Attorney Adam Stevenson|
|2016||Restored Me||Officer Brantley|
|2018–present||Black Lightning||Agent Percy Odell||Recurring role (season 2–present)|
|2019||High Flying Bird||Spence|
|2021||No Sudden Move||Aldrick Watkins|
1978 Charlie’s Angels Season 2 Episode 25, “Angels On The Run” – Cameo
|1984||The Killing Floor|
|1991||A Rage in Harlem|
|1993||The Cemetery Club|
|1993||Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit|
|2000||The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery|
|2001||Angel: One More Road to Cross|
|2007||Cover||Also a producer|
|2009||Not Easily Broken|
|2011||Dark Girls||Also a producer|