Though he's best known as one of Saturday Night Live's original Not Ready For Prime Time Players--he was a member from 1975 to 1980--Garrett Morris has worked regularly in a variety of media since joining The Harry Belafonte Singers in 1958. An actor, writer, singer, and activist, Morris spent much of the last decade working on sitcoms (Roc, Martin, Cleghorne!, The Jamie Foxx Show), stage plays (Porgy And Bess, Showboat), and small films (Black Scorpion, Twin Falls Idaho) while recovering from a 1994 shooting that shattered a vertebra and nearly left him paralyzed. In his latest role, the 64-year-old steals scenes in Jackpot, a quirky road movie by Twin Falls Idaho's Michael and Mark Polish. Morris recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about casting, self-hypnosis, and the racial makeup of Jesus Christ and Beethoven.
The Onion: You've been in both of the Polish brothers' films. Do you have future plans to work with them?
Garrett Morris: I didn't have plans this time. They're the ones who made the plans. You'll have to wait right now, because I have no plans to do anything. I'll just have to wait and see what other people are doing. I'm trying to get in another situation where I can make a good movie. Not necessarily for $30 million, but a reasonable sum. Right now, I'm just pushing the movie and seeing what happens after that. I'm ready for anything, as long as I'm making money. [Laughs.]
O: I read an interview a while back where you were dreaming of touring with your blues band. Did anything happen with that?
GM: I wish that would happen. That's fine with me. It can happen right now if it wants to. I would love to travel with any band, as long as there's some money in it. [Laughs.]
O: What do you most want to be doing next year?
GM: Making some money. You know, I can write, sing, act... Whatever's coming down the pipe that looks interesting, I'll jump on it. If there's something you know about, send it to me. [Laughs.]
O: Have you done standup work?
GM: I'm not a standup comedian. That's not my thing. I have great respect for them, because that's fabulous, to be able to stand up there and make people laugh. That's a great gift.
O: It just seems like it would be a natural extension of your comedy background.
GM: Not for me, though. That's not my thing. I can do a lot of things, but I'm not a standup. I don't pretend to be.
O: Have you ever returned to Saturday Night Live since you left in 1980?
GM: Uh, I don't return anywhere I'm not invited. Pay me money, and I'll return anywhere. Pay me the right cash and I'm there. [Laughs.] There's no need for discussion more than a minute or so, to say, "Hey, give me some money. Is this the right money? Then let's go."
O: How did working with The Harry Belafonte Singers lead to working with Saturday Night Live? Obviously, there were years in between, but what did you do that led you from one place to the other?
GM: Well, my first gig was as a singer/arranger for Harry Belafonte for about 10 years. I worked with him, and during that time I did a whole lot of other things, from arranging music to writing a couple of plays that were also produced in New York City. I taught high school, I taught in private school, I taught in prison. I taught in a drug-rehabilitation place, Mobilization For Youth, which was a funded program for... When they got off the ground, I was the first guy to hook up the music program. When I left, that was it, but I was there for five or six years. All this happened during the period leading up to Saturday Night Live. I did a lot of things that were like a dress rehearsal for other things. Before The Harry Belafonte Singers, I went to Tanglewood, which is an internationally known music workshop over in Massachusetts. I always like to tell this story, because people put down black education. At Tanglewood, for the international class and a contest to reward the best course conductor for that year, as a 19 1/2-year-old teenager who had only studied at a black college and a black high school in New Orleans, I won. I was the only black guy in the class, and there were 20 or 30 of us, with people from Israel and Russia, all over the world. At the time, I was like, "There's one for black colleges." Even in 1957, when I won it, black education was going strong and doing all right.
O: In the '90s, you acted in a lot of black-themed TV showsRoc, Martin, The Jamie Foxx Showall of which were on smaller networks. Why do you think there aren't more black shows on the three biggest networks?
GM: Well, I don't know of anybody at ABC, CBS, or NBC who really gives a fuck. Because it seems to me that ABC, CBS, and NBC spend a lot of time, even nowadays, creating all-white shows. As if there are no blacks, no Latinos, no Middle Easterners, no Asians in the country. ABC, CBS, and NBC don't care to put something on that is obviously Latino, because they're afraid, scared, or they don't give a damn. They don't do it. They are involved in what I call, and this is a term that everybody's gonna use, they are involved in the "WAM Phenomenon." They're married to it, they're tied to it, they're addicted to it, they don't give a damn about nothin' else but the WAM Phenomenon. What is WAM? White Adult Males. That's all they care about satisfying. They don't care if the Latino population is growing. They don't care if blacks are growing. They don't care if Middle Easterners are growing. They know WAM, and they know that everybody else follows WAM, and that WAM doesn't follow anybody. If, in fact, you take, say, Friends... Warren Littlefield stole the idea for Friends from Living Single, and then did not honor it by allowing even one person [on the show] to be black. Not even one! They didn't put even one single solitarywhy? Because of the WAM Phenomenon. They didn't want to take a chance on anybody in the White Adult Males rejecting it, so they put everybody white in it. They took Friends, and for that matter, Mad About You and all those other shows, and put them in a New York that doesn't exist, and that is one without any blacks or Latinos or Asians. Look at Mad About You and find one episode where you see one black person, or one Asianas an extra, even. Find one episode of Friends where you see one extra thing that looks like New York. You don't find it at all. And they don't give a damn. They know nothing and don't care about it. You have to at least get somebody there who cares about Latinos, who cares about blacks, who cares about Asians, who cares about taking colorthat multifaceted thing that is always a part of the real Americaand bringing it to TV at last. If America is going to be half Latin, why don't we see that on ABC, CBS, or NBC? You go to New York City and try to get a cab driven by somebody from the United States, and you are out of luck. You can't find an American cab driver, except in Mad About You or Friends. To me, it's just ridiculous. Everyone says Latinos are growing, and you don't see any evidence of the Latino population growing at all on ABC, CBS, or NBC. The WAMs look at only white adult stuff, that's all. To me, that's not American. So you got to get... [Laughs.] I'm on a pulpit. [Laughs.] I'm just saying, ABC, CBS, and NBC have got to change these executives, these kids from Harvard or Yale who know nothing about history. When they cast, they don't cast from knowledge, they cast on hearsay. If you say, "Do a film right now about Jesus Christ," the average White Adult Male is not going to check out the Bible; he's going to check out the calendar in every Christian church. In every Christian church, the calendar shows a Swedish guy with blond hair, blue eyes, and white skinwho was born in Africa! People talk about the Middle East, and one of the countries in the Middle East is Egypt, which is in Africa. But it was taken out a long time ago, so it wouldn't be associated with Africa. Suddenly, Egypt, Israel, Yemen, all these places are [considered part of] the Middle East. Why? Because you don't think about Africa. Well, let's get it right: Jesus was born in Africa! All right? Even if he was born in Norway and had come to Africa, within a month or two he would have had tan skin. But the guy they get to play Jesus this year, next year, and every year is going to be a guy who looks not only like he was born in Norway, but like he was born underground where the sun couldn't touch him until they cast the movie. Even though Jesus is described in the Bible as having hair like lamb's wool, which means Africanized white hair gone prematurely gray, and he had brown skin. So, tell me, how does hair like lamb's wool and brown skin wind up being a blond-haired man? You know why? Because the people who produce it don't care, they don't know, and if they do know, they're going along with the program that white people have done everything great in the world, including being an African from Bethlehem. I understand why white people would want to claim Jesus, but there has to be one brave producer with the guts to say, "Hey, the Bible says hair like lamb's wool, so let's get Blair Underwood. Let's get somebody who looks like that and put him in the film." You know what they'd do? They'd fire that mutha, and everyone knows it. They stole Jesus, and they stole Beethoven. The reason it's a shame that producers would come along and cast Beethoven as a white man, which they do, is because his life was lived differently. If you ever look back and understand... When they show Beethoven now, they show a white guy who looks like he didn't comb his hair. But the fact is, by the time he got to the age of 40, Beethoven not only had hair standing up like Huey Newton did in that chair, but he was so pissed off that people were trying to fuck with him that he was making sure people understood that he was not a white German. But when you do a picture about Beethoven nowadays, those gutless wondersthose gutless wonders!will get a white man anyway, and thereby not only commit a crime, but a vulgar crime. I'm telling you, at the end of his life, Beethoven was saying, "Not only am I this, but I'll show you who I am, and I'm the baddest motherfucker in the world." With Beethoven, it's such a crime, because Beethoven's life, at a certain point, was militantly lived. In other words, "I'm proud to be this." So when that was taken away, it was like slapping him in the face. All I'm saying is that if anyone gets the guts to produce that, they're going to lose their job, and they know that. Casting would be no problem if the truth were told about history. If you want to produce [his life story], you couldn't have Beethoven as a white man. Nobody wants to tell the fucking truth. They want to tell the accepted lie. Somebody's got to get up there who understands the world, and understands that change has got to come. You have racial revisionists lying, and a whole lot of white people are ashamed of that. Let them get up and say, "Hey, we're sorry about that. We'll tell the truth." Somebody's got to do that, because casting is going to be affected if it isn't. [Pauses.] I'm through now. I'm messing with the forces of nature. The guy the network got killed? That's me right now. [Laughs.] Okay? So, we who are about to die talk a lot. And, then, 10 years later, you see they're doing what you say. To me, it's a shame that they don't have at least two departments that are aimed at other parts of the community than the WAM Phenomenon. We buy the stuff that they advertise. I'm losing my job here, but the truth has got to be told that this is one thing that's wrong with ABC, NBC, and CBS. The next time they make a movie about Jesus, if they read this, I just want them to go to the Bible and see: He had hair like lamb's wool. Mind you, Jesus died when he was 33. That means, by the time he was 28 or 29, people were saying that about him, which means he was prematurely gray. So, even if you don't get a black guy to do it, don't get a guy with long blond hair from Norway. Please! At least get a guy who's prematurely gray from Norway. Don't do stupid stuff that insults people who are intelligent and who know history. If they do a thing about Pushkin, you know what they're gonna do? They're gonna make him a white man, because he was the greatest Russian poet. Pushkin very definitely was my color, and I'm not talking anything around Colin Powell. I mean, he was a dark-skinned Russian. I plan to do a movie about Pushkin. If there's a producer out there who has the guts to simply say the truth about history, let 'em call me. I've got two plays that have already been produced, I've got one that was produced several times and that Bill Duke directed. I've got no doubt that I could write a successful play, but I do have a doubt that on ABC, CBS, or NBC, we'll everever!find anybody with the guts to simply stand up and do the right thing. [Pauses.] My wife is saying, "Did you talk about the movie?" [Laughs.] Let's stop talking about this and talk about the movie. I should be talking about Jackpot. I'm co-starring in it with my man Jonathan Gries. Jonathan is the guy who was my buddy in Martin, and he also was a computer expert in [the TV series] The Pretender. I play his manager, he's a karaoke singer, and I think you might like the movie. It's not really a comedy, it's not really a drama; it's in between. It's almost like a film with no subject, but it is about a subject. You know how Seinfeld is about nothing, but it is about something? Jonathan and I have a pretty good empathy thing going, and I like that. It works well for us in the film. Daryl Hannah is in it, and so is my man Mac Davis. He was really nice. We have Crystal Bernard, and Peggy Lipton from The Mod Squad. So... Yeah, I'm all for that other stuff. Anybody who knows me knows that if I'm at a party, they can stick around for the Jesus and Beethoven speech. You just got it. My wife is back here talking, like, "What's all this Beethoven? What the fuck are you doing?" We won Best Feature at the Seattle International Film Festival. The Polish brothers are really quite good. It was two weeks of grueling work, but we got it done, and I believe it might be some of the best work I've ever done. [Laughs.] I haven't really made up my mind yet. After about 18 years or so, I'm jobless. I've been working straight for about 18 years. I'm not complaining, but this is the first year that I'm actually out of work, except for the film. I've actually got at least one employee I've got to pay every week, and I don't have any money coming in. So you may see me on the off-ramp of Vermont anddon't laughwith my oranges. I'm selling navel oranges very cheap. I don't know if they're contaminated with bugs or not. Just boil 'em in the water.
O: How are you progressing in your recovery from the shooting?
GM: Let me tell you, I ran the marathon in 1993, and in '94 the guy shot me. I sustained a spinal-cord injury. The bullet went into my spine and messed with the neurons, and it threatened to make me a quadriplegic. It did not because the bullet did not explode. [The wound] became infected, and we had an excellent person dealing with the infection. It just happened that a trauma team was there that night, and an expert heart man was there, just by accident, because the trauma team had been disbanded for about six months, and had come together there for some reason on this very night. You talk about believing in miracles; you can't get me not to believe in 'em. Basically, my hands and feet and legs have a continual pain thing. I'll tell you what it's like: You know, when somebody hits your funny bone real hard, and you say, "Aaaaaah!" If that's a 10, I'm at about 4 or 5 all the time. I can go to 6 or 7 just by getting up, unless I use pain control, and I can't use chemicals, because the chemicals that could handle this would be morphine or Demerol. You can't go around town like that, just because you have less pain; people won't know what you're talking about, and your wife will probably divorce you. So I had hypnosis under my belt anyway, and I revisited the guy who taught me, and learned how to integrate it with some meditation that I do. The self-hypnosis doesn't bring the pain down so much as it raises my level of euphoria, which seems to transform the pain into something else. Once you get these hypnotic things going, you just revisit them every morning, and it's cool. So it's not as if I'm without pain. I do have knowledge of something, and every once in a while a funny-bone-type thing will peek through: I'll be like, "Aaaah! You got me!" But I'm lucky to have self-hypnosis as something I can use. For those who think I'm jiving, I've used it for root canal and minor surgery. [Pauses.] Yeah, I tell my wife, "If they get anywhere around Jesus or Beethoven, that's their ass." So that was your ass. Once you even mentioned something that has to do with casting, that's your ass. I hope this isn't just taken as rantings. I have a history. I've been chased by the police and boycotted by [the actors union] Actors' Equity. Me, Bill Duke, and a cast of about 25 people did a play by a guy named LeRoi Jones, who became Imamu Amiri Baraka, who was an activist. For about a year and a half, we would go to auditions, and because of stuff we had done, we were told... To this day, I don't understand it. I have a history, that's true. But that doesn't mean that what I'm saying is not true or relevant. If you're a producer, and you're a 25- or 30-year-old wonder, don't accept that everything important was done by white guys. Racial revisionism has done a very bad thing. And I know there are a lot of white people who say, "I know the truth, but I don't want to go through it." Well, we've got to go through it. A lot of people want that off their backs, the notion that [white people] did every single thing that was great in the past. I mean, it's ridiculous.