Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: For decades, actor-comedian John Witherspoon has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on ad-libbed roles as cantankerous old men. As a young standup comedian, Witherspoon was a staple of L.A. institution the Comedy Store in the late ’70s, where he made friends like David Letterman and was picked to join the cast of the short-lived but influential sketch-comedy program The Richard Pryor Show in 1977. In 1987, another Comedy Store veteran, writer-director Robert Townsend, chose Witherspoon to play his boss in the low-budget cult comedy Hollywood Shuffle. Witherspoon’s improvised rant about his desire to make “ho-cakes” cause “hos gotta eat too” won him a reputation as a gifted ad-libber who could make comedy out of nothing and helped earn him a cult following among the hip-hop generation. Flashy, largely improvised roles in cult classics like House Party, Boomerang, and Friday followed, as did regular series work on television shows like The Wayans Bros. and The Tracy Morgan Show. In addition to his career as a popular, perpetually touring standup comedian, Witherspoon has continued to work steadily in television and film, sometimes with his friend and champion Eddie Murphy, with whom he appears in the new A Thousand Words. In 2005, Witherspoon’s relationship with House Party director Reginald Hudlin helped him land a plum, quintessential cantankerous-old-man role: the grandfather on Aaron McGruder’s adaptation of his beloved comic strip The Boondocks. The Boondocks’ third season ended in August 2010, but the show has been renewed for a fourth season and is currently back in production.
A Thousand Words (2012)—“Blind Man”
John Witherspoon: Well, [in A Thousand Words] Eddie Murphy is a slick fellow. He’s always running his mouth and using his mouth to get him over. And apparently he scratched his hand on this weird tree and then when he got home, a tree was in his yard just like it. The tree had a thousand leaves on it, and every time he spoke, the leaves started falling off. So, he asked the guru, “What’s happening?” He said, “Yep, yep, you got a contract with this weird tree.” He said every time you talk, a leaf will fall off, and you got about a thousand leaves on this tree, so that means you’ve got a thousand words before you die. So, I am a blind man trying to get across the street and I ask him about it, and he don’t want to talk. I say, “Is it safe to walk across the street because you know it’s a lot of cars—I hear all the cars.” He says, “Mmm. Mmm.” And I say, “Well, thank you, fellow.” And I start walking across the street, and I’m telling you, all chaos breaks loose, because he’s trying to help me, because he sees this bus coming, so he’s moving me around all these cars, and it’s very, very funny. A very funny scene.
The A.V. Club: You go way, way back with Eddie Murphy. When you met him, what your first impression? How many films and projects have you done with him at this point?
JW: I think I’ve done three or four movies with Eddie. Eddie used to hang out at the Comedy Store years ago. I met him there and he saw me on a movie called House Party and he heard me and heard the director, Reginald Hudlin. ’Cause he loved us so much, he said, “[House Party] is a funny movie. You can direct this guy like this—I want you to direct my movie, Boomerang.” So I got the part of David Alan Grier’s father coming in from the South, and David Alan Grier is like a banker type, and I come in like a country bumpkin. So they think David Alan Grier’s daddy is going to look just like him. So I met Eddie, and ever since then, we’ve been making movies and movies and movies that are so funny. I am the character that everybody really likes because I ad-lib a lot. My thing is ad-libbing. I got a name out there from my ad-libbing.
AVC: What was Eddie Murphy like as a young comic? Did he look up to you?
JW: No, actually, Eddie Murphy was on Saturday Night Live for years. And before that, he was in New York working. I was in L.A. working. So what happened is, this kid that they had hired on Saturday Night Live [eccentric street performer Charlie Barnett], who used to be a top guy in New York, they realized he couldn’t read. And they had already gave him a contract, so they said, “We need a guy to take his place because he can’t read.” And so Eddie Murphy was right there, in the right place at the right time. He got the kid’s spot on set. And before that, he was like a comic sitting around in New York trying to get a job, trying to get a spot.
AVC: He was incredibly young at that point, wasn’t he?
JW: Yeah, very young. He was very young and he lucked up and got that job. Right place, right time, and that’s what happened, and that’s his success story and he’s made so many movies. I mean, he’s very successful. So, I admire Eddie Murphy. He’s very funny on the set. We have such a good time on the set. We just laugh about old times and old stuff—oh my God. If they can tape some of that stuff—that stuff is funnier than the movie.
AVC: How did you get into standup comedy yourself?
JW: I’m from Detroit. My brother, he ran a theater group. So, he would go Thursdays and Fridays and do plays. I said, “Boy, that looks very interesting.” I’d go see him perform and I’d say, “Wow, I want to be an actor.” So I looked in the Yellow Pages and found an acting school and applied, and the guy gave me some private lessons, and every year they would put on a show—a comedy show—he’d say, “I want you to do something funny.” Well they had me doing Shakespeare and I was in a Shakespearian group—oh my God, I was tearing up Shakespeare. You’re not supposed to laugh at Othello. But I had them cracking up. “Desdemona! Desdemona!” [Laughs.] I said, “I don’t know anything about comedy.” He said, “Look, I want you on the show.” So I thought of something funny and stole the show. I said, “Man, wait a minute. I can be a comic.” So that’s how I got into standup.
AVC: Did you ever do open-mic nights?
JW: Open-mic night in Detroit? I would go to these old-folks homes in the afternoon and they were about 80 and 90 years old each, and I got this guy who was on the show with me. He was a singer, I was a comic. I bought myself a little cheap P.A. system and I got me a microphone and I’m up there doing the comedy. I used to do impressions, and these people couldn’t hear, they couldn’t hardly see. So I started talking to myself. I didn’t get many laughs, but they were like, “Who is it?” I said, “Oh my God, what am I doing here?” I started to get out of the business. But I moved to New York and I started working in improv. They would put me up in the Improv, and New York stays open until 4 in the morning. I would go on at 3:45 in the morning. I had to get up and go to work. So, that’s the trials and tribulations I went through to try to be a comic. Then I drove from Detroit to L.A. by myself cause I went to the Comedy Store and that’s where I met all of the people I know now: Letterman, I know Dave. Richard Pryor was there. Jay Leno. They were all young and we all were there. Eddie Murphy came out there later on.
The Richard Pryor Show (1977)—“Various”
JW: [Head writer] Paul Mooney got all the guys from The Comedy Store—you know, if you want to have a funny show, you’ve got to get funny comics. We didn’t get paid hardly any money, but we were just happy to be on the show. We worked so hard and we would create lines and we didn’t care. We created lines to make the scene funny. But Richard was getting a little too high. He couldn’t hang. Some of the cats, they’re so great and they had to get high. They can’t sleep; they got to take medication to sleep. I slept like a baby when I got that money. But Richard had his problems, so we only lasted about four, five weeks. We were supposed to do 22 weeks but we all got fired after five weeks. [Laughs.]
AVC: Who else was in the cast?
JW: Well, we had Robin Williams. He was an extra. Tim Reid from WKRP In Cincinnati. We were all day players. Marsha Warfield—she had her own TV show at one time. So we had a lot of famous people who got famous from that show. And they went on to do very well. But I was looking forward to working 22 weeks on NBC. My God—8 o’clock show? But, we got canceled after five shows, five weeks. Oh, I was disappointed.
AVC: Were you angry at Richard Pryor?
JW: No, you know, I was just happy that we did it. And now, looking back, you can buy the five shows and it’s just as funny—you can use it today, it’s so funny. Sandra Bernhard, she was there. We all went on the show. We all ad-libbed, and it made it so funny. Oh man, I was very disappointed. But I mean, every bit helps to pull my career, because I went on to be on The Wayans Bros. for five years.
The Jazz Singer (1980)—“MC, Cinderella Club”
JW: Jazz Singer, yeah. [Laughs.] I used to be an extra in New York when I lived in New York. I was an extra on a Sophia Loren movie called La Mortadella. I was a security guard. One other movie I did was Hospital. And my scene was to try to keep people back who were trying to rush the hospital. I ain’t never done anything like this. The guy told me, “Look, you have got to make this real. When they come toward you, you got to move them back.” I said, “I got to make it real, huh?” He said, “Look, you gotta make it real.” Man, when they busted through that line I started swinging on them people. [Laughs.] They were like, “Jesus! This is just a movie!” [Laughs.] Oh, I made it too real. They didn’t want to come on my side, they saw me, said, “He’s nuts! He knocked the hell out of me!” But they should have had a rubber nightstick. You know, it shouldn’t have been a wooden billy stick. They gave me a real billy stick, threw me in to knock the people out. [Laughs.]
Hollywood Shuffle (1987)—“Mr. Jones”
JW: [Laughs.] Well, you know Robert Townsend was at the Comedy Store also. Robert Townsend had written his movie, and it wasn’t long enough. So they had to go back and shoot some more scenes. They said, “You only have 50 minutes. A movie has to be at least 90 minutes.” So that’s 40 more pages. So, he came to the Comedy Store and started looking at us. He was a comic himself there. So he said, “Look I want you to be in this movie. I want you to be Mr. Jones. I want you to run this rinky-dinky hot-dog stand.” So, now you got us ad-libbing again, see? You got all the people in the movie, all the actors—Keenan Wayans, all the Wayans brothers, they were all [in there], and all the people from the Comedy Store who were comics.
[Townsend’s character] wanted to be an actor, so he would go off and leave and read the parts. I’d say, “You’ve got to stay here, Bobby, because I made this place. I’m trying to give you a position here. You can be the head chef.” When I came up with the “ho-cake” line, nobody knew what ho-cake was. He said, “ho-cake?” I said, “Yeah, hos gotta eat too.” That became a powerful catchphrase. People use that today when they see me. But everybody laughed so hard that the cameraman shook the camera. It was so funny.
AVC: Did you ever figure out what exactly a ho-cake was?
JW: Yeah, my mother used to make ho-cakes. It’s like a huge biscuit. You don’t get the round thing that makes the biscuit itself. You put it all in the skillet so that it’s just a huge biscuit and you cook it on top of the stove.
AVC: It’s like a sort of mutant piece of cornbread?
JW: Yeah, it’s a mutant biscuit, like a biscuit on steroids.
AVC: Hollywood Shuffle famously had a pretty non-existent budget. It was one of the first films to be paid for entirely via one man’s credit cards.
JW: Yeah, what was horrible about it was that we didn’t get paid that much. [Laughs.] But at that time, we didn’t care. We were so excited about being in a movie.
AVC: It ended up being one of the first black independent films to really cross over to a more mainstream audience.
JW: Yes, and Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up. I was excited about seeing that. I said, “Wow!” Things you never think about. You do your scene. You do your angles, you go home, you never think you actually touched somebody. But any time you’ve got a movie, they can look at it when you’re gone. So I was shocked that that movie became so big and had a cult following.
AVC: You don’t think that 25 years later, people are still going to be quoting those lines.
JW: You never think about it, but it’s like Boomerang. It was like, 20 years ago. The anniversary was about it two weeks ago.
JW: Clint Eastwood’s girl Sondra Locke made this movie called Ratboy. She directed Ratboy and Clint Eastwood would come by. He would come by to the set ’cause that was his girlfriend. But we were sitting and talking. He is cool. You would never think a guy like that is that cool, but he is really cool. They told me, “In some scenes, if you want to say something, you go ahead say it.” I said, “Really?” And so it turned out to be that I said a couple of things and Clint Eastwood laughed so hard that when he started doing Bird, he called me “Chicken Wing.” Because I said [in Ratboy]… This little rat-looking guy—he looked just like a rat, they called him ratboy. And, Robert Townsend was in it, and he didn’t do much at all, but Robert asked him, “Why do you think he looks like this?” I said, “He’s been eating too many chicken wings!” So, Clint Eastwood laughed so hard on that day he called me Chicken Wing. He called around and said, “I want Chicken Wing to be in this movie Bird.”
AVC: What was your character in Bird?
JW: I played the trumpet. Oh, God, what was that name? I don’t even know my name. You know I can play the trumpet. I played the trumpet in school. But I played the trumpet and I think was there for about three weeks on that movie. Very, very good movie.
AVC: That had to be a big change of pace, going from being the ad-libbing comedy guy to doing a heavy drama.
JW: Oh yeah, right, heavy drama. But it was a pleasure. You know I used to do drama before I got into comedy. I used to wear Gucci shoes and grey slacks and a double-breasted Gucci navy jacket. But I couldn’t make any money, so I got me some white shoes and a flower and a bowtie, and I’m doing pretty good. [Laughs.]
House Party (1990)—“Mr. Strickland”
JW: Reginald Hudlin came to the Comedy Store and saw me, and he said he wanted me to be in his movie. The movie had been going on for a while and he said, “When the kids are having this party, we need somebody to holler out the window at them.” And he said, “Spoon, when you go up there and you holler out the window, as long as you holler at the kids, I’m going to keep the camera on you.” I said, “Really?” So I went into my dressing room and wrote down some ideas and I had them in my back pocket. When I saw the kids coming out I said, “Hey, stop making all that noise! Hey, I pay $15,000 for this house and I ain’t paying that kind of money to hear all this noise! Who’s over there! Who’s throwing that party? Who’s giving a public enema? Who’s giving a public enema? What’s a public enema?” I talked and talked and talked, and this time I didn’t even have my rent money. So what I did was—it was a smart move—I looked back into the window and talked to my wife. So that means they got to shoot an interior scene with me and my wife. That wasn’t even in the script, see? So I get some more money to pay my rent. So that worked out real well. I hollered at the kids and that became one of the highlights of the whole movie.
AVC: It seemed like at that point you were getting known as a cantankerous old man.
JW: Oh yeah, cantankerous. Oh yeah, that’s me. [Laughs.]
AVC: You found your niche there.
JW: Yeah, but you know what? You’re typecast, but the typecasting is worth it. I could never play a judge anymore. I used to play detectives and judges and lawyers and things, but you can’t make money. You’re too straight. But I realized that I love comedy acting.
Boomerang (1992)—“Mr. Jackson”
JW: Now, see, that’s another one. Eddie Murphy got Reginald Hudlin again to direct Boomerang and he directed House Party. The movie was over and Eddie said, “You know, I want Spoon to play David Alan Grier’s father.” And David Alan Grier is always dignified, looking like Obama. I come in looking like Red Foxx, being his daddy, and he’s embarrassed of me. So Paramount told him, “We don’t want this Spoon to do this scene. We’re over-budget; we’ve finished. We’re done. It’s over. We’ll take the movie how it is.” He said, “I’m not going to continue until we get Spoon in this movie. They’re going to be so funny!” They were mad at Eddie Murphy, Paramount. They flew me and Bebe Drake-Massey up there—we were in House Party, [Hudlin] saw us last at House Party. He put her with me again, and so I flew out there and I said, “Where’s the script at?” They said, “There’s no script—you gotta make it funny.”
I said, “What? There’s no script?” And they told me to just think of something. You come in a room, you come in a house, you’re David Alan Grier’s father, and you’ve gotta go think about it. So they sent me to the wardrobe department to pick out an outfit. I picked out the mushroom jacket, the mushroom shirt, the mushroom belt, and I had mushroom socks on, but they didn’t show that part. And the director said, “Okay Spoon, people from Paramount are here and they’re kind of mad, so you’ve got to make this funny, so what are you going to do?” I said, “When I come into the door to say hello, to come into the dinner, I want you to ask me how do I pick my clothes. Have somebody ask me how do I pick my clothes.” And that’s how I got my, “You got to coordinate. You’ve got to co-or-di-nate.” [Laughs.]
Vampire In Brooklyn (1995)—“Silas Greene”
JW: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite movies. I had the chance to holler and scream. Well, Eddie Murphy—I had been working with Eddie Murphy so much, so he had Reginald Hudlin again to be the director—no, it wasn’t Reginald Hudlin, it was…
AVC: Wes Craven
JW: Wes Craven! My man—Wes Craven, that’s right. So Eddie said, “I want Spoon to play the old man who’s security at the docks, and let him do whatever he wants. Let him ad-lib.” And they said, “Ad-lib?” Wes Craven said, “We’ve got a script. He should read the script—it’s very funny.” I said, “It’s all right. I like to ad-lib.” You talk about a funny guy—he should be in movies.
AVC: Wes Craven?
JW: Wes Craven, oh my God, he’s funny; he’s hilarious. But so, they let me ad-lib. But the worst thing about ad-libbing is that when you shoot it again, you don’t remember what you said. So he would take notes and tell me what I said. I said, “I said that?” So many lines that you say you forget that you say anything—you’re just ad-libbing, you’re not committing it to memory. So it was kind of difficult working with him, because he shot a lot of scenes, you know, instead of shooting one scene and get the genius of it all, he’d shoot it from different angles. So now I gotta think about what I said. He had a little pencil and he wrote it down, he came up to me said, “I want you to say that again, that was so funny.” That was kind of a difficult movie. But by the end of it, I just stuck with the script. [Laughs.]
Murder Was The Case: The Movie (1995)—“Drunk # 1”
JW: I’m trying to think, what movie was that now?
AVC: It was a long-form Snoop Dogg music video
JW: Oh yeah, the video.
AVC: How’d you get involved with that?
JW: Snoop called me. You know, I’ve been knowing him for years. When you’re on television, they come by. We were on The Wayans Bros.—he would come by the set and he’d know everybody and he said, “Man, I’ve got this video, I want you to be in my video.” And I was on The Tracy Morgan Show and he was on that show, so you know they were going to call me and say, “You got a scene for an old crazy man.” So, that’s how I get those jobs. You know, one job leads to another. One job leads to another. You know the people, you grew up with them, it’s part of this business. When you know people, they call you. They don’t even have you cast.
AVC: It seems like a lot of roles come with being part of a community of standup comedians as well.
JW: Right. I’ve done David Letterman’s shows so much, they call me and say, “When are we doing this thing?” So of course if you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. But I’ve worked so much, you know, I go on David, I work on the road—you know, I’m on the road 40 weeks out of the year.
JW: Yeah, I leave tomorrow for Tampa. Oh man. I do 40 weeks a year, in and out of L.A.
AVC: And you manage to squeeze in all of these movies and TV shows.
JW: Yeah, it’s how I work it. I leave Wednesday, I work Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday—come back. Monday I have off—I get in Monday. Then I go to do the Boondocks cartoon on Tuesday. And we’re back now for the fourth and fifth season. Then I leave again on Wednesday. But when I get home, then I take off with my wife and I go to Europe, go to France, and we just sit around and, you know, lay. Get up, go and do anything, get bored after a while. [Laughs.] But I’m happy, because I used to be very broke, see. So I cannot say that I don’t like this life. Because the other life I had wasn’t that cool. Oh no!
AVC: There’s no such thing as too much work, right?
JW: Oh no. It is too much work sometimes, but you know what? I get my sleep. I get up in the morning and do some radio, and then I go to do my shows and I go back out. I don’t go to clubs and stuff, so I keep healthy.
Bulworth (1998)—“Reverend Morris”
JW: Oh yeah! I had a funny scene in there but they cut most of that out. I was in the church and I was preaching and Warren Beatty had something hit him in the head, and he thought he was black. So Halle Berry, Warren Beatty, and I was a preacher just at the church, and I was just preaching, and preaching, and preaching, and that was my scene. But you know—he’s a cool dude, oh my God.
AVC: He’s also a guy who makes about one movie every 15 years, so to be able to work with him must be exciting.
JW: Yeah, very nice, very nice. He says, “You’ve got 48 seconds to do your preaching. You go ahead and you do it now.” So you know, he’s really nice. His kids went to school with my son at Buckley in Sherman Oaks together. I would see Annette Bening there all of the time. One time I saw Annette Bening tying my kid’s shoe, I said, “Look at this picture.” Just a little kid—yeah. She was tying his shoe. Very nice, very nice lady, and a very nice couple.
Soul Plane (2004)—“Blind Man”
JW: That was funny, playing a blind man. So what happened was, you know other people, like I said, for other movies, they had me ad-lib. And so I got a yellow suit on and they said, “You’re on this plane.” I said, “Let me, ’cause I can’t see—I’ve got my cane, let me just reach around while I’m walking down the aisle, finding my seat. Let me grab something—the ladies.” So they had to pay the ladies extra because, you know, they don’t want any lawsuits, and the girls were like, “Please grab me! I got to get my rent money!” Trying to get extra money. [Laughs.] And so I said, “Don’t worry about it, because I can see behind these glasses, see?” [Laughs.] And my wife was the lady sitting next to me that was insulted by my being fresh with her. That’s my real wife, Angela Robinson. [Laughs.]
AVC: So you got to grope actresses with their encouragement and work with your wife at the same time?
JW: Oh yeah, and then we got extra money for the family. [Laughs.]
The Boondocks (2005-present)—“Robert ‘Granddad’ Freeman”
JW: You know how this thing is in comedy. You’re a comic and you work with good people like Reginald Hudlin and Aaron McGruder. It was Aaron McGruder’s baby, so he got Regi to be his executive producer with him. So Regi called me and said, “Man, oh my God, there’s a ‘Granddad,’ part I want you to play.” I said, “What is it?” He says, “It’s a cartoon.” I said, “A cartoon?” I played some cartoons before, but I’d only played three to four days on a cartoon. He said, “Well, I want you to be the granddad on this cartoon. It’s very, very funny.” I said, “I don’t want to do no cartoon.” And he talked me into it, and man, it’s been three years now. And, we’re about to do our fourth and fifth season. We’ve started taping, as a matter of fact, at the end of this month, for the fourth season. And I’m having a wonderful time. Regi’s not there anymore, but Aaron McGruder is there.
AVC: Were you a fan of The Boondocks as a comic strip?
JW: Yes, yes. Uh-huh. You know, Aaron McGruder is a brilliant guy. He didn’t want to come back for the fourth and fifth season, but Sony told him if you do more shows, he’d get syndication money. So that makes his pen start working again. [Laughs.]
AVC: Thanks for talking to us.
JW: I have a tweeting page, can I put my Tweeting page up? @John_POPS_Spoon. And I have a new cooking show called Cookin’ For Poor People. It’s on YouTube. Cookin’ For Poor People, and because you’re hungry, everything tastes good.
AVC: Will you teach people how to make ho-cakes?
JW: Ho cakes? I just did a show called “Ho-Cakes.” [Laughs.]