I really don’t mean to tie these editorials of mine together, but it just happens that way. I watched Poltergeist to write the post about the ending and comparing it to The Conjuring ending. I hadn’t seen it in years and so I wanted to get a refresher on it.
While doing so, I saw Sonny Landham in a bit part as a pool contractor. My first thought was:
“Billy was in a lot in the 80s.”
That’s when the idea to do this was born. I want to take a moment to give attention to actors that have done a lot of work, but maybe never got top billing in anything major. Also, people that have had an interesting life behind the camera or personal life.
My first spotlight is on Sonny Landham. Probably best known as Billy Bear in 48 hrs. and Billy Sole in Predator.
Sonny Landham was born on February 11, 1941, in Canton George. His birth name was William Marion Landham III. His parents were Cherokee and Seminole. He also had some Jewish roots as well. His parents raised him and his sister in Rome, Georgia.
He attended school at Saint Mary’s Catholic School and Darlington School. Afterwards, he went on to play a year of football at the University of Georgia. He ended up graduating from Oglethorpe University.
After graduating Landham did a stint in the US Army for three years. I couldn’t find any more information on this, so I can only assume he didn’t deploy or if he did, he didn’t see any action. I’m not at all sure what his time in the Army was like. No matter, good on him for serving, nothing but respect for it.
Sonny Landham studied acting for two years at Pasadena Playhouse in California. He then moved to New York to pursue acting even further. During his early acting years, he struggled to find work and did what many did for a paycheck back then, made porn movies. He also posed nude in Playgirl magazine.
The decision to make porn movies is something he later regretted in life. Speaking on doing that kind of work Landham said:
“If I was going to do it now – knowing that I’m going to have four children, knowing that I was going to run for office – no, I wouldn’t make that choice. But at the time I made the choice of getting a paycheck, staying alive for your big break.”
He got some steady work acting from the late 60s up through the 70s. He got a small bit part as a police officer in Walter Hill’s cult classic The Warriors in 1979.
This was a turning point for him as Hill called on Landham again for a small part in Southern Comfort. I honestly don’t even remember him being in it, although I haven’t seen it in a couple of years or so.
It was after that he got the aforementioned part as a landscaper in Poltergeist. I think he had maybe one minute total of screen time. It didn’t matter, because his career was just about to have a boom. His continued association with Hill landed him a breakout role in 48 Hrs.
He played criminal Billy Bear, with his partner in crime James Remar, who was also in The Warriors. They played opposite Nick Nolte, a detective who was reluctantly partnered up with an ex-con, Eddie Murphy. The movie was a hit and from it, the sub-genre “buddy cop movie” was coined.
This was huge for Sonny Landham, after this, the movie possibilities came pouring in. He quickly became one of the big guys of the 80s action scene, making movies with Carl Weathers as a drug pusher in Action Jackson, a fellow inmate opposite Sly Stallone in Lock Up, he was in Firewalker with Chuck Norris and of course the Native American special forces tracker Billy in Predator.
Predator is clearly the role he’s most well known for. It’s one of the greatest action flicks of all time, let alone the 80s. One could argue that Landham’s role as Billy was one of the most memorable. His selfless sacrifice to the Yautja was simply heroic.
The TV offers were coming in hot as well. They were mostly one-offs for shows like B. J. and the Bear, The A-Team and The Fall Guy. However, he had some TV movie roles as well. He was in The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission and Northstar to name a couple. The latter being a hilariously bad movie, if you like bad movies, watch it.
For like many in the acting business, things slowed down for Landham. In the 90s the offers dropped off. He had some work throughout, such as Best of the Best 2, but nothing I’d call relevant. At least none of which I’ve seen, so take that with a grain of salt.
He did star in a movie he also directed called Billy Lone Bear in the late 90s. It also starred Charles Napier, Frank Stallone and Brion James. I’ve never seen it, but that sure is an all-star cast if I ever saw one. Well, maybe not Frank Stallone.
Landham also wrote a book that was published in 1981 by Ashley Books called Total Man. From what I found, it seems no one has bought a copy. I couldn’t even find one review of it, so there’s that.
In the 2000s, Sonny Landham got into politics. He ran for Governor of Kentucky in 2003 on the Republican ticket. If he had won, he would have been the third cast member of Predator to become Governor. Following the success of Jesse Ventura as Minnesota Governor and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In 2008 he announced he’d be vying for the U.S. Senate seat held by Mitch McConnell as a Libertarian. However, following a few choice words calling for the “genocide” of Arabs, the Kentucky Libertarians voted unanimously to withdraw Landham’s nomination. They claimed his comments were not in line with the party’s values.
Due to health problems and a car accident, Landham eventually had both of his legs amputated. Apparently, he was in financial troubles and a GoFundMe was set up to get him a new battery-operated wheelchair. Unfortunately, Landham passed away on August 17, 2017, at the age of 76.
Sonny Landham wasn’t a major blockbuster movie star, but he left an impact in the roles he did take up. He may have played predominantly side characters, but he did great work with those characters.
He is sorely missed, but thankfully we have the movies he was in to look back on and remember him for the iconic roles he played, giving life to characters and making movies he was in that much better.