Sonny Landham was an American actor and stunt man, popular for his Herculean build and deep voice. He has appeared in movies such as ‘48 Hrs,’ ‘Action Jackson,’ ‘Lock Up,’ ‘Poltergeist,’ and the most famous of all, ‘Predator.’ He had to start his acting career with X-rated movies before landing mainstream roles and becoming a professional stunt man, an issue that had its repercussions not only in his brief political career but in his personal life, too. He played football at the university and joined the ‘US Army’ for a brief period of time, before going to acting school for 2 years. Given his part-Cherokee descent, robustness, and dark hair, Landham landed a number of Native American roles, the most distinct of them being the role of a Native American tracker in the movie ‘Predator.’ He developed strong bonds with his co-actors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. Inspired by their success in politics, Landham tried securing endorsement from the ‘Republican Party’ to run for the governor’s office in Kentucky. However, he was unsuccessful in launching his political career. He was put behind bars for a few years in the 1990s, for making threatening calls to his wife at the time. Upon his death, co-star and dear friend Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted that Landham was a talented actor and was always fun to work with.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born William Marion Landham, III, on February 11, 1941, in Canton, Georgia. He was raised in Rome, Georgia, along with his sister, Dawn Boehler. He was part-Cherokee, part-Seminole. He also had Jewish roots.
He attended the ‘Saint Mary's Catholic School’ and ‘Darlington School,’ Georgia. He then joined the ‘University of Georgia,’ where he played college football for a year. After college, he joined the ‘US Army’ for 3 years.
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He studied acting for 2 years at ‘Pasadena Playhouse,’ California, before moving to New York in 1968, to pursue his dreams as an actor.
He has more than 50 films and TV credits to his name, but making his way through to Hollywood was not an easy ride for him. He had to work as a Baptist minister and toil in oil fields before succeeding on the big screen.
It was not unusual at the time for actors and models from non-influential backgrounds to start their acting careers with the adult film industry, like Landham did. He also posed in the nude for ‘Playgirl’ in the 1970s.
Despite the nature of his previous work, Landham managed a small role of a subway policeman in Walter Hill’s cult classic ‘The Warriors’ in 1979. Even though it was a forgettable role, it gave the much-needed impetus to his career. In 1981, he was called by Hill for ‘Southern Comfort,’ and their on-going association gave Landham his first substantial role in Hill’s action comedy ‘48 Hrs’ (1982), in which he worked with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy.
During the 1980s, he established himself as an actor suitable for tough roles in action movies, which placed him in the company of notable action stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger (in ‘Predator,’ 1987), Carl Weathers (in ‘Action Jackson,’ 1988), and Sylvester Stallone (in ‘Lock Up,’ 1989). Many critics believed that despite a strong cast in ‘Predator,’ Landham’s portrayal of a self-sacrificing Native tracker in the movie stole the limelight in the end.
Despite some success in mainstream cinema, his career steadily declined in the 1990s, with only a few small roles and low-budget films coming his way.
Following in the footsteps of his friends in Hollywood, Landham decided to run in the ‘Republican Party’ primaries, for the governor’s office in the state of Kentucky, in 2003. He ran as an independent candidate after he failed to secure the party’s nomination, only to withdraw in the end and endorse the ‘Republican’ candidate.
After yet another failed campaign for the ‘State Senate,’ in 2004, he decided to run for the ‘US Senate’ in 2008, with the support of the ‘Libertarian Party.’ However, his call for an Arab genocide on a radio show proved to be a slip-up, leading him to lose his candidature.
His final appearance on the silver screen was in the movie ‘Mental Scars’ in 2009.
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He also wrote a book, ‘Total Man,’ which was published in 1981.
He directed and produced the 1996 movie ‘Billy Lone Bear.’
Family & Personal Life
He married five times, but not much is known about his wives. He was married to Belita Adams from 1995 to 1998 and Jessica Wilson from 2007 to 2015. He was also married to Marlene Willoughby. He had four children, including a son named William and a daughter named Priscilla.
In the late 1990s, he was sentenced to 3 years in prison for making obscene and indecent phone calls to his wife at the time. However, he was released by the ‘US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ after the reversal of his conviction in 2001.
In 2015, he was involved in a terrible car accident in Ashland, Kentucky, causing his right leg to be amputated. He later recovered. However, this accident caused a decline in his overall health.
He breathed his last due to congestive heart failure on August 17, 2017, in Lexington, Kentucky, at the age of 76.
After his performance as ‘Billy Bear’ in ‘48 Hrs,’ he adopted the names “Billy” and “Bear” for his later movies.
He was involved in lawsuits with TV stations that showed his movie clips without paying him, which were later settled.
It is said that the actor was in a financial crisis during his last years and a campaign on the website ‘GoFundMe’ raised funds for him to buy a battery-powered wheelchair.