Movie Tough Guy William Smith Was a Real-Life Air Force Badass

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William Smith Hawaii Five-0
William Smith starred as Det. Kimo Carew on the final season of "Hawaii Five-0." (CBS)

You may not know his name, but you will recognize the face of brutally handsome, powerfully built actor William Smith if you watched television or went to the movies over the past seven decades. The actor died July 5 at the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California at age 88.

Smith played more than 250 roles during his career, always in demand by casting directors who needed a guy who could throw or take a punch. Perhaps his most famous role came as bare-knuckle fighter Jack Wilson alongside Clint Eastwood in the 1980 movie "Any Which Way You Can." Eventually, the two have a showdown, but they come to each other's aid in a bar fight earlier in the movie.

You can look at Smith as a real-life version of Cliff Booth from Quentin Tarantino's 2019 movie "Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood" if Cliff had been an actor like Rick Dalton instead of a stuntman. Tough, smart and maybe a bit dangerous, he had more life experience than all the other actors combined.

Smith enlisted in the Air Force at age 18 and became fluent in Russian, German, French and Serbo-Croatian. During the Korean War, he flew secret missions over Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries. He received a top security clearance and planned to go into intelligence work after his studies at Syracuse University, the University of Munich, the Sorbonne in Paris and UCLA.

While he was building his intelligence chops, Smith was also earning acclaim as an athlete and bodybuilder. His website says that he won the Air Force Light-Heavyweight Boxing Championship, was a champion discus thrower at UCLA, twice won the 200-lb. World Arm Wrestling Championship and held a black belt in martial arts (Kung Fu and Kenpo Karate). Readers of bodybuilding magazines from the '60s and '70s are sure to recognize him from numerous covers and articles.

With all that going for him, how did Smith end up in Hollywood? As a kid, he made numerous uncredited appearances in classic movies like "The Ghost of Frankenstein," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "Gilda" and "Going My Way." When MGM came calling a decade later, Smith decided to give acting a try.

He kicked around for a few years with guest appearances on series like "Perry Mason," "Batman," "Combat!" and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." He had a lead role on the now-forgotten series "Zero One" before breaking through as Joe Riley on the NBC western series "Laredo."

William Smith Chrome and Hot Leather
William Smith became a biker movie legend in films like "Chrome and Hot Leather." (American International Pictures)

One particularly memorable role was as the hippie biker Moon opposite Joe Namath in the 1970 biker exploitation flick "C.C. and Company." Old Joe couldn't exactly act, so Smith and Ann-Margret had to pick up the dramatic slack for the NFL quarterback. Other biker movies that featured Smith in prominent roles include "The Losers," "Run Angel Run," "Angels Die Hard" and "Chrome and Hot Leather."

WIlliam Smith Red Dawn
WIlliam Smith starred as Soviet Col. Strelnikov in the "Red Dawn." (MGM)

Smith was terrifying as the Russian commander Col. Strelnikov in the 1984 classic "Red Dawn." He's a Soviet, so his fate is sealed, but Smith's evil performance makes Patrick Swayze's big scene even more satisfying.

William Smith Rockford Files
William Smith as Jerry Grimes on "The Rockford Files." (NBC)

Other memorable roles include Falconetti in the 1976 blockbuster miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man" and its sequel; Det. Kimo Carew in the final season of the original "Hawaii Five-0;" Capt. Ripley in "Maniac Cop;" Jerry Grimes in the first episode of "The Rockford Files;" and Arnold Schwarzenegger's father in "Conan the Barbarian."

Smith also did guest shots on "The Virginian," "Gunsmoke," "Kung Fu," "Ironside," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Mission: Impossible," "The Streets of San Francisco," "Columbo," "Mod Squad," "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," "S.W.A.T.," "Barnaby Jones," "Vega$," "Fantasy Island," "The Dukes of Hazzard," "The Fall Guy," "CHiPs," "T.J. Hooker," "Simon & Simon," "The A-Team," "Hunter" and "Murder, She Wrote."

That's an incredible run, one that any character actor would be proud to have on his or her resume. A true renaissance man, Smith was also a photographer and poet. We're not likely to see his kind again anytime soon.

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