William Smith, the action star who tussled with Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can, made a lasting impression as the evil Falconetti on TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and was a regular on the final season of Hawaii Five-O, died July 5 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA. He was 88.
His wife Joanne Cervelli Smith confirmed the death. A cause of death was not disclosed.
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Smith was born in Columbia, MO, in 1933 on his family’s cattle ranch where he grew up surrounded by many beloved horses. Although the Smith family moved to Southern California before he was 10, it was his time spent on the ranch that influenced the roles he’d take during his more than seven decades-long career in TV and film.
He began his career in entertainment as an extra in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein when he was eight years old. Though he played a small uncredited role, more opportunities would follow in Meet Me in St. Louis and The Song of Bernadette.
Before playing a fictional tough guy, he played one in real life after enlisting with the Air Force during the Korean War in 1951 where he flew secret missions. During his service, he made time for higher education he studied at institutions in Syracuse, Munich, and Paris before graduating Cum Laude from UCLA where he earned a master’s degree.
Smith intended to work for the government before agreeing to a contract with MGM in mostly western and biker-themed films and TV shows like Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Perry Mason, Batman, Lassie, and The Mod Squad. In 1965, Smith nabbed the lead role in NBC’s Laredo where he portrayed Texas Ranger Joe Riley for two seasons until its cancellation in 1967.
He played a lawman again in 1979 when he joined the final season of Hawaii Five-O as Detective James “Kimo” Carew, one of three newcomers to come onboard after James MacArthur’s departure. Smith, who was known for playing mostly bad guys, really enjoyed being able to play a hero on the popular CBS procedural.
He followed with appearances in Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, Kung Fu, The Rockford Files, The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard, Six Million Dollar Man, and Knight Rider.
Perhaps his most memorable TV role came in 1976, when he played the villainous Anthony Falconetti in the hit miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, later reprising the role in the sequel Rich Man, Poor Man Book II. The bloodthirsty Falconetti was the archenemy of the series’ central family headed by the Jordache brothers (played by Peter Strauss and, in the first installment only, Nick Nolte).
Smith rumbled in the boxing ring with Eastwood in Buddy Van Horn’s Any Which Way You Can in 1980. Though Roger Ebert said the movie “is not very good” in his two-star review at the time, he did enjoy the pairing of Smith and Eastwood.
“It was to my immense delight that I immediately recognized the actor playing Jack Wilson,” Ebert wrote. “He was William (Big Bill) Smith, who played a lot of motorcycle gang leaders in films of the late 1960s and still looks as fearsome as ever. He and Eastwood meet while out jogging one morning, and then he falls off a cliff and is rescued by Eastwood, after which he beats up a lot of guys who insult Eastwood’s girlfriend in a bar. All in a day’s work.”
Smith, an avid bodybuilder, appeared in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian as the titular character’s father opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger. His final appearance in a film was in Steve Carell’s 2020 comedy Irresistible.
Smith is survived by his wife of 31 years, Joanne Cervelli Smith, son William E. Smith III, and daughter Sherri Anne Cervelli.
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