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An Appreciation

The most important lesson I took from Clarence Williams III’s death

The actor who portrayed Mr. Simms in ‘Tales from the Hood’ was 81 when he died of colon cancer

Clarence Williams III was an actor’s actor whose career spanned seven decades across multiple genres and stages. On June 4, he died at the age of 81, leaving a dynamic legacy in his wake. But if Mr. Simms, the demonic character Williams portrayed in 1995’s Tales from the Hood, was my horrifying introduction to his career, it’s the real-life manner of how Williams died and its prevalence within the Black community that’s even scarier.

Colon cancer, the second-deadliest of its kind, gravely and disproportionately impacts Black people. Statistics from the American Cancer Society reveal Black folks are not only 20% more likely to get colon cancer, but also 40% more likely to die from it. My uncle was 42 when he lost his battle with colon cancer. Almost 10 months ago, Chadwick Boseman, at 43, lost his life to the same illness that claimed Williams, who was nearly double his age.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized how Black men’s health is exponentially more vulnerable than it is invincible. With that realization comes a clarity that I’m getting closer to the age my uncle was when he died. Throughout the past several months, under the suffocating anguish of a pandemic, I’ve thought constantly about scheduling a colonoscopy. Not because anything is wrong or I’ve experienced symptoms, but because I know it’s the responsible and potentially lifesaving thing to do. Nevertheless, there’s always been work or some life experience — mostly good, for the record — to convince me to put it off until there’s more time. Buying a house and getting married pushed my own health down my priority list, I’m ashamed to say. That was, at least, until the news about Williams hit me in a way I didn’t expect.

Williams’ portfolio was as accomplished as it was diverse. He was raised in New York City by his grandparents, Clarence Williams, who frequently collaborated with blues icon Bessie Smith, and singer/actress Eva Taylor. Yet his acting career began by happenstance. At a Harlem YMCA that employed his sister, he happened to pop by to watch a run-through of a play and was part of the ensemble by the end.

Depending on the generation, Williams’ career has a litany of entry points: Linc Hayes in the ABC series Mod Squad from 1968 to 1973, Prince’s father in Purple Rain in 1984, Kalinga in 1988’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Taft in 1992’s Deep Cover, the hilariously deranged kingpin Samson Simpson in Half Baked with Dave Chappelle in 1998, Ja Rule’s “Down Ass Chick” and “Down 4 U” videos in 2002, and Maynard in Lee Daniels’ The Butler in 2013. Yet, for me, it was his role as Mr. Simms in the 1995 interpolation of HBO’s popular series Tales from the Crypt.

There was something about Williams’ character that seemed so sinister, yet effervescent that even though my elementary-age self might’ve been on edge, his quirky charisma was intoxicating. This was the absolute worst decision as Mr. Simms turned out to be The Devil. (Spoilers don’t exist for movies over a quarter-century old, for the record.) For the next several years, whenever I saw Williams, my first thought went to Mr. Simms, instantly recalling that feeling of watching Tales from the Hood for the first time as a kid. But there was also respect as I came to learn about his entire career. Every role he took on was singularly him, such that sometimes it was hard to tell whether Williams was ever acting in the first place.

So when the news of his death came down, I mourned the man and the life he gave to his craft. But it also came with an epiphany. Life was telling me to slow down, stop living so fast and never forget that blessings mean nothing if we’re not here to cherish them.

I know what colon cancer looks like and how those final months are some of the hardest a person will ever have to witness as a loved one slowly withers away. The world lost an incredible actor on June 4. While his countless roles will continue to entertain those perusing his deep catalog, his death includes another lesson: value getting yourself checked out. Value preventive care. Especially in the Black community, because the alternative potentially comes with a lifetime of grief.

And that’s far more terrifying than Mr. Simms on Tales from the Hood.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.