Clarence Williams III Never Heard of Prince Before ‘Purple Rain’

Clarence Williams III, a veteran actor who starred as Lincoln Hayes on the classic TV series The Mod Squad, has died after a battle with colon cancer. He was 81.

Though Williams was best known for playing the brooding undercover cop in the 1968-73 ABC drama, he had quite a few acting credits under his belt. One of those included playing the troubled father in the 1984 musical film Purple Rain opposite legendary singer Prince, who Williams had never heard of before the movie.

Clarence Willams III and Prince
A collage image of Clarence Willams III and Prince | David Livingston/Getty Images; Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

‘Purple Rain’ catapulted Prince to stardom

Around the time Prince released his Purple Rain album on June 25, 1984, his film of the same name hit theaters.

Purple Rain is centered around a Minneapolis-based musician The Kid (Prince) as he rises to fame with his band The Revolution. In the film, The Kid pours all he has into his music, which he uses to escape his dysfunctional home life — his father verbally and physically abuses him and his mother — and the temptation to repeat what has been done before.

This film also focuses on The Kid’s romance with beguiling singer Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), who fellow performer Morris (Morris Day) aims to steal away from the musician and eclipse his stardom.

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The movie made Prince a household name and thrust him to superstardom. Following the film’s release, the singer became a prominent entertainment figure synonymous with the 1980s, alongside Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna. 

Purple Rain grossed over $72 million worldwide and won an Oscar for Best Original Song Score in 1985.

In 2019, the film was added by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Today, it is regarded as one of the greatest musical films in pop culture history.

Clarence Williams III didn’t know of Prince before ‘Purple Rain’

Before Purple Rain propelled Prince into international stardom, not many people knew of him or his music.

Even Williams, who played The Kid’s father in the film, wasn’t familiar with the singer as he had not heard of Prince until the making of the movie was brought to his attention.

“This guy Prince is going to star in this thing and he wrote the music. Well, so far behind the musical curve, I’d never heard of Prince,” Williams explained to Michael Weinfeld, former Entertainment Editor for Associated Press Broadcast, in 1997. “I’d never heard of Prince.”

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Willams admitted to asking his friend’s housekeeper who Prince was. It was then he learned that the singer was a star in the making.

“I was staying at a buddy of mine’s house in Pacific Palisades. So I got back out to the house, and I asked the housekeeper, ‘Have you ever heard of a person called Prince?'” the actor remembered. “She said, ‘Oh Mr. Williams, my children have all of his records.’ He is this, he is that, he is this, he is that.”

He continued, “So anyway, they wanted me to do a screen test and I said, ‘Oh fine, it’s ok.’ So I go into the studio. I shot this piece of film, and Prince happened to walk into the production room just as my tape was being put in the VCR. He stood back there and he looked and he says ‘Get that guy.’

Clarence Williams III was impressed by Prince’s talent

Even though they starred together in the film, Williams shared that he and Prince didn’t talk very much behind the scenes. However, the Sugar Hill actor noted that the “Kiss” crooner took the job very seriously, which he respected a great deal.

“He was a total professional. Very, very, very quiet,” Williams told Weinfeld. “We didn’t talk off the set that much but a total professional and I like that a lot. I like that big time.”

As for what he thought of Prince’s music, Williams had nothing but good things to say.

“I thought it was sensational. I thought it was absolutely sensational,” he shared. “I thought [Purple Rain] was a great score. I think that probably in a hard day’s night, the best probably Rock ‘n’ Roll movies I think that were made, not counting documentaries.”