By Teryl Warren

After 40 years in any given profession, most people are thinking about retirement. But veteran actor, director, producer and author Bill Duke – who first burst onto the scene in the 70’s – is still growing, still learning and still operating at the highest levels in Hollywood. In his latest role, he stands tall as part of an A-List ensemble cast which includes Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Ray Liotta and John Hamm in Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move.

Currently streaming on HBO Max, the crime thriller – which marks Duke’s third time working with director Steven Soderbergh – follows a group of small-time criminals who are hired under mysterious circumstances to steal what they think is a simple document. A journey filled with missteps and double-crosses quickly unfolds – building to an entertaining crescendo deftly orchestrated and performed by Soderbergh and his uber-talented cast.

“Steven Soderbergh is a brilliant director. One of the things I love about him is that he takes characters who are so-called bad guys and always shows their humanity.”

Actor, author, director, producer and humanitarian Bill Duke

His portrayal of “O.G.” Aldrick Watkins is just the latest in Duke’s long legacy of bringing images of powerful, introspective and complex Black men to the screen.  But, despite amassing more than 70 acting credits – and even more credits behind the camera – even Bill Duke is not immune to the many challenges the entertainment industry poses – particularly as one grows older.

“I’ve come up with a 4-part metaphor using my name to describe what it’s like to age in Hollywood,” he shared with a smile. “Who is Bill Duke? You gotta get me Bill Duke!  Get me a younger Bill Duke!  And…who is Bill Duke?”

In addition to being a harsh reality, that’s a metaphor just begging to be unpacked.

“Who is Bill Duke?”

“When I first came to Hollywood, I thought I was one of the coolest people in the world because I was one of the first people who were able to buy a cell phone. It was huge and it came in a suitcase with a handle.”

Educated at Boston University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the prestigious AFI Conservatory, Bill Duke arrived in Hollywood at a time when roles for Black actors were scarce, and opportunities for Black directors were practically nonexistent. After establishing himself as a talented actor, Duke blazed trails as one of 4 Black directors in Hollywood – persevering through racial hostility – to direct episodes of some the most iconic series in television history, including Knots Landing, Dallas, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice.

“You gotta get me Bill Duke!”

From blockbuster action films like Predator, Commando and X-Men: The Last Stand, to hip hop generation favorites like Menace II Society, Exit Wounds and Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Bill Duke’s imprint as an actor can be found on some of the most influential and popular films in the past 4 decades. Audiences will also recognize him from his role as “Agent Percy Odell” on The CW’s superhero drama Black Lightning.

“One of the things I really loved about [Black Lightning]” – besides being a part of it – was the depiction of a Black superhero and a Black nuclear family.”  

In fact, he created his production company – Duke Media Entertainment – to bring quality “Edutainment” to audiences around the globe.  And, as an award-winning producer and director, through films like Deep Cover, Hoodlum and A Rage in Harlem – for which he was nominated for a Palme d’Or – Duke has succeeded in entertaining global audiences while, simultaneously, illustrating many of the complexities of life as a Black person in America.

“In many ways, we’re alchemists. You give us guts, we turn them into chitlins. You give us pig feet, we turn it into [a meal]. Our history is so full of accomplishments that we have to tell those stories.”

“Find me a younger Bill Duke!”

Standing 6’4” Bill Duke literally towers over most men in Hollywood. From a sheer stature standpoint, few young actors can fill his shoes – though versatile talents like City on a Hill’s Aldis Hodge and Black Panther alum Winston Duke (no relation) come to mind as possible heirs apparent. Fortunately, no casting call is needed to find the next Bill Duke, because he and his team are grooming the next generation of artists, philanthropists and thought leaders through the Duke Media Foundation. 

“What’s happening in many of our communities is devastating. There are places where kids are graduating from high school with second grade reading skills. How do you survive in a global economy with second grade reading skills?”

For the past ten years, the Duke Media Foundation has prepared youth for the future by exposing them to specific new media tools and financial literacy tools that will enable them to compete, survive and thrive.

“We try to bridge the gap and teach young people who want to get into the business the reality of the business. We teach what we call ‘media literacy’ to give them information about the many opportunities that exist in the business. And then we teach them financial literacy: not just how to spend a dollar, but how to use a dollar.”

Who is Bill Duke?

“Through digital platforms and social media, there are opportunities now that didn’t exist when I first came to Hollywood, and we should leverage them to our benefit.  People are no longer waiting to be discovered. They’re discovering themselves.”

So, Hollywood stereotypes about race and age aside, who, exactly, is Bill Duke?

In a single word, Bill Duke is a force. He’s an innovator and craftsman who uses his powers for good as evidenced by his upcoming YouNite Network: a platform that provides inspirational, educational and entertaining stories of individuals and organizations speaking purpose, hope and uniting hearts around the world every day.

He’s the inspiration who’s been quietly, consistently pushing us to do better, go higher and think deeper.  And he’s the cultural provocateur we need now more than ever.  In his 1992 crime thriller Deep Cover, he pointedly poses the question: “What’s the difference between a Black man and a nigger?” 

Bill Duke is quick to point out that he doesn’t have all the answers. And that’s okay. Because, through his work and through his life, Bill Duke shows us that the real power lies in having the balls to even ask the question.

To check out the YouNite Network, please visit: younitenetwork.com.

To keep up with Bill Duke, please follow him on Twitter at:


For more information about the Duke Media Foundation, please visit: https://dukemediafoundation.org/.

2 Responses to “WHO IS BILL DUKE?”
  1. Tom Berrigan says:

    Ever since I first saw him in “Car Wash” in 1976, I have liked his work. He is the consummate professional. I hope he keeps at it.

  2. John “Jack” Fitzpatrick says:

    Answering the question “Who is Bill Duke” also requires learning of the raw courage he demonstrated upon arrival for his freshman year at Boston University. I repeatedly told my young son this story to inspire him.

Leave A Comment