The actor: Although Phil Morris made his acting debut in an episode of Star Trek in 1966, his role as Grant Collier in the 1988 TV reboot of Mission: Impossible (now on DVD)—playing the son of electronics expert Barney Collier, the character played by his dad, Greg Morris, in the original series—served as a significant kick in the pants to his career. Since then, Morris has continued to work in front of the camera, most memorably as fast-talking attorney Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, while also becoming an in-demand voice actor, delivering memorable performances in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Cartoon Network’s The Secret Saturdays, and in various vocal guises within the DC animated universe.
Mission: Impossible (1988-1990)—“Grant Collier”
Phil Morris: Just from the outset, even the audition process was interesting. The 1988 version of Mission: Impossible was strike-precipitated. There was a writer’s strike going on at the time, and any new production was pretty much stopped unless the studio, network, or whatever could come up with a project where they couldn’t change one word of dialogue, they couldn’t change the character’s name, and it would translate well to the modern audience. And Mission: Impossible was the show they came up with. Ironically enough, here I am an actor of the same age that they kind of wanted for this particular character, and… all of my friends at the time went in and auditioned for this role, which—at the time—was for Barney Collier. So I was getting calls from guys all the time: “I went in today, my meeting was at 12, when are you going in?” And I was, like, “I haven’t gotten a call yet.” And I thought they weren’t going to go with me because it was just too on the nose, you know what I mean?
Well, lo and behold, of course, the zero hour came, and I went in, and they were very happy to see me. They chose me. I honestly got cast as Barney Collier when I got the part. And when we started to do the promotion and P.R. for the show, the writers’ strike broke, so they could change the name, and they ingeniously made me the son of that character, which was a lifetime study, obviously. [Laughs.] It was just surreal. Surreal that Mission: Impossible should be the show, that I would be an actor that was old enough to accept the role, and that they would choose me. I mean, just so many things fell into place. That Peter Graves, that my “uncle” Peter [Laughs.] would be the lead of the show again. And I don’t think I’d seen him since my father and he finished their version of Mission: Impossible, so it was a huge reunion for he and I. We shot the show in Australia. It was absolutely incredible. An incredible experience for me. My father came down and did three episodes—one single episode and then a two-parter to start the second season—and my family went down there. My daughter was born in between seasons. Incredible.
The A.V. Club: When we talked before, you said things were a little off when you and your dad worked together.
PM: Well, I wouldn’t say things were off. I mean, certainly not on the screen. But… I think my father was in a place at that point in his career that wasn’t completely positive, and I was more than aware of that. And then when he came to Australia, he wasn’t in the best of shape. And I was aware of that before he showed up, so I was a little trepidatious about it. But when he got down there, and if you watch the scenes, they’re just riveting. Certainly some of the best work I’d done up to that point in my career. And just to have the chance to act opposite your father, or any of your siblings or your family members, is indeed a blessing and a privilege, and I look at it as that even though he was struggling in his life at the time to a degree. You know, we learn the lessons, the good ones and the bad ones, from our people. It was just an amazing experience to be able to share the screen with him. I mean, he was an amazing actor and it was an amazing character, so I was very fortunate.
Star Trek (1966)—“Boy In Army Helmet” (uncredited)
PM: [Laughs.] Absolutely the best screen name ever. Yes, that was a bit of a stunt cast on that episode. “Miri“ was the episode. I think what the creators wanted were kids who were not actors to play the surrounding characters. They had a couple of actor kids who played the kind of lead characters in that episode—certainly Kim Darby and Michael J. Pollard were seasoned actors—but, you know, they wanted kids who were not actors but knew how to conduct themselves on a set. And who better than actors’ kids? Or directors’ kids or producers’ kids. And that’s who we all were. We were all somebody’s kid. [Other notable offspring in the episode include Dawn Roddenberry, Lisabeth and Melanie Shatner, and Scott Whitney, son of Grace Lee Whitney, a.k.a. Yeoman Janice Rand. —ed.]
My sister Iona and I both did the episode—my sister Linda was far too young to do it—and, to be honest with you, it freaked me out a little bit. [Laughs.] Because if you remember at all the scene where we’re in the schoolhouse, and one of the Grups who has been ravaged by this disease runs through, and she’s this hag with white hair and all these applications on her. I don’t recall them telling us that’s what was going to happen. And when it happened, my reaction was absolutely visceral and honest, because it freaked me out! So if you watch the episode and you see us all running and scurrying to various corners, I think we really were scared, and it worked brilliantly. I mean, Shatner was brilliant in it, and DeForest Kelley was amazing. For a kid to grow up right on that lot, the Paramount lot, was amazing, so to do that episode and to be a part of that kind of iconic legacy… again, very special.
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)—“Trainee Foster”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1996 & 1997)—“Remata’Klan” / “Thopok”
Star Trek: Voyager (1999)—“Lieutenant John Kelly”
AVC: Star Trek recurred in your career several other times after that first gig.
PM: You know, I wished I could’ve done Next Generation and, ultimately, Enterprise. But they didn’t happen. I actually was doing another show at the time for Paramount when Next Generation started. But, yeah, it’s been… [Hesitates.] I’m not a Trekker or Trekkie or whatever you call them. I’m just an actor who enjoys great work, and when you play on Star Trek, in any iteration or variation of it, you’re gonna be guaranteed to be given amazing material, passionate, high stakes to play. And I got that in every episode I did. I think the only experience I had that wasn’t quite like that was The Search For Spock, which was kind of an innocuous moment, and which I just saw the other day, as a matter of fact. Me on the bridge with Admiral Kirk, as he was at the time. It was kind of an innocent, naïve moment, and I never had another one of those again. Every other show I did for them was, like I said, high stakes. I was either playing a Klingon or a Jem’Hadar or the man who first encounter alien life or an alien spacecraft. Just incredible stakes. And I always had an amazing time doing the work, because they give you so much.
AVC: What’s funny is that, of all those roles, without actually revisiting any of them, the one where I can instantly place you is The Search For Spock. You’re on the bridge as the Enterprise is returning to Earth, asking Kirk if there’s going to be a ceremony for their return.
PM: [Quoting Kirk.] “A hero’s welcome, son? Is that what you’re looking for? Lord knows we’ve paid for it with our dearest blood.” [Laughs.] I just saw it. And it was just… to see my face, with those clear eyes and longish hair? Just wild.
The Young And The Restless (1984-1986)—“Tyrone Jackson”
PM: Woo-hoo! [Laughs.] You know, as you mention these characters, a lot comes to mind. I mean, each one of them has come from an iconic show, The Young And The Restless being one of the iconic daytime dramas of all time. Yeah, Tyrone Jackson. I first came on that show as the brother of a character who had been established. Jon St. Elwood, who was playing Jazz Jackson, who was basically a leg-breaker for the mob in the fictitious town of Genoa City, which is where Young And The Restless takes place. They gave him a brother he was putting through college, to give him kind of the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold thing, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] So he didn’t look so reprehensible and was kind of like the big giant with the soft heart.
So he’s putting this young man through college. Unbeknownst to this young man—me!—he is this mob figure. I think he’s just a businessman who’s done well and has sent me this money, and I’m eternally beholden to him. I show up in Genoa City to surprise him, ’cause I’ve graduated with honors, and he does his best dancing to try and keep me from finding out his dark secret. So that played well for a while. I’m dating the police chief’s daughter, Amy, played by Stephanie Williams at the time on the show. Then I find out who he is, and we have this big blow-up. I had been undercover as a drug dealer to try and break up the mob, and he’s been sent to kill me. [Laughs.] It was awesome soap-opera stuff. And then they had this incredible, ingenious idea to send me under cover as a white person. A white guy.
Pretty crazy, and, you know, I thought for sure this would last a week, maybe. And in soap-opera time, that’s a lot, because that’s five shows. Six months I was up under that makeup, playing make-believe, actually marrying the mob boss’ daughter, and then on the wedding night, she finds out. I mean, it was just… the stakes couldn’t be higher. [Laughs.] Again, incredible experience. I started the show with maybe a three- or four-page scene in a phone booth, telling Paul Williams that I’m coming to Genoa City, and then I ended the show with 30 pages of dialogue a day and my own storyline. I had a three-year contract, and left after two years because… I was ready to leave. I was ready to do other things and move on. I haven’t been back since, other than to say “hello” and to see some friends. A lot of people become soap-hoppers. They jump from soap to another. I was determined for some reason not to do that, to go into prime time or to mix it up with comedy or something. As an actor, it was something I required. So a great experience and a great place to start, and to move on from. [Laughs.]
AVC: So how was it to live the life of a Caucasian for six months?
PM: It was… you know, fairly do-able. [Laughs.] The makeup was tough, because I’d be the first one in makeup at 5:30 in the morning or whatever, and I’d have to stay in it all day. And at the time, that was when they first started tours over at CBS on Beverly Boulevard, so they’d have people coming in. I felt a bit like a monkey or some other zoo creature, because the tour guides would be [Whispering.], “And there’s our actor who’s playing a white guy, the unique and most mysterious Phil Morris.” [Laughs.] You know what I mean? “The elusive Phil Morris. Don’t look him in the eye!” I started to feel a bit like a freak, and it was emotionally difficult at the end of six months, because I was getting kind of controversy from the community and other actors, saying, “I would never do that!” Hey, you know, man, how many white actors have played Othello? It’s just another challenge. So that’s how I looked at it.
PM: [Bursts out laughing.] Oh, my God. Dipping deep into the treasury, are we? Calvin, who was, I think, a producer in a two-part episode of Webster where Alex Karras and Susan Clark were not speaking with each other. So I did the whole episode without them, but with Ben Vereen, who’s just terrific. And it was directed by a guy named Joel Zwick, who I actually just worked with again just recently. He’s been around for a while. You know, I don’t have a lot of memories of that character, because to me it was, well, quite frankly, it was just another job. It wasn’t something that really resonated for me in any real deep way, other than that I had a chance to work with Ben Vereen. But other than that, it was really lackluster, to be honest with you.
Seinfeld (1995-1998)—“Jackie Chiles”
PM: The most fun of all of these characters that we’re talking about. See, I think what’s most interesting to me is the whole “how you got the job” process and the “where did it all come from” thing. How I got the job was very organic. I went in on an audition for this show, Seinfeld. I was not a Seinfeld fan. And I think, for me, that’s good, because you’re not intimidated when you go in. You’re not, like, “Oh, I really love you in the show! I watch it every week! You’re so funny!” It can really paint your expression. You become more of a fan than you do the character. So I was happy that I was not a Seinfeld fan. I had worked with Michael Richards on a show called Marblehead Manor, so I knew Michael and I knew his crazy genius, but I wasn’t intimidated.
I knew Johnnie Cochran well. We went to the same barbershop, so I had seen him pontificate on the Raiders moving to Oakland and any of a number of transgressions, plus I’d been watching him for over a year from the box. And that’s what they wanted: someone to come in and kind of do a take on that character. So I came in, and I think there were two of us who pre-read. The other, ironically enough, was Michael Dorn. [Laughs.] I’m sure they didn’t think Michael Dorn could be funny, and they weren’t sure about me, either. I’d done an episode before, but it was a pretty straight role. So I went in, I did three lines, and the casting director said, “You got it. Let’s go.” So we went over to Jerry and Larry [David]’s office, walked upstairs, and everybody’s waiting around. It was a Saturday, it was blistering hot, and we were all in suits. We looked like the Motown mafia. It was really wild. So I went up, I’m doing my thing, and I’ve told this story before, but Jerry stops me in the middle of it, and he says, “Hold on.” And he goes over to the thermostat and turns the air conditioning higher, and he says, “You’re so funny you’re making me sweat.” Which I thought was good. [Laughs.]
So, you know, I got the job, I do the gig, and Jackie, he just took over. We were just talking about certain parts where, you know, it is what it is. This was one of those parts that was far beyond that, a character that you slip into, but he exists beyond you and you do your best to try and hold onto this person. [Laughs.] That’s what Jackie was for me: so readily available all the time that there was not much I had to do and not far I had to go once I’d established who this character was. They could give me anything, and I would kill it. Because I just knew the guy. And I was playing him not just as a knock-off of Johnnie Cochran but equal parts pimp, preacher, and hustler. That’s who this guy was. And that’s what you saw.
AVC: So the patter wasn’t difficult to master?
PM: Not at all. I got it. In fact, when I did the final episode, they sent me the script, and my opening statement to the court…. I did not understand. I mean, I just did not understand it, because I was looking at it as Phil Morris trying to learn this speech. As soon as I started to think like Larry David, I got it completely. Suddenly, that weird logical illogic logic made complete and total sense to me, and I nailed it. Funnily enough, though, I never got it all the way through on the taping. I never could get through that all the way through. I would always blow something. I mean, when you see it, it’s seamless, but Larry and I… I’d come off, and Larry would be, like, “Ohhhhhhh! You almost got it! You almost got it!” But we just had to move on, because it was three in the morning, and people had to go to sleep! [Laughs.] A great character, though. An amazing character. To this day, people love him and want to see him in his own show. And I’m, like, “Really? Uh, I think that boat has sailed…”
AVC: You did recently get to bring him back for a few shorts, though.
PM: Yeah, I did the Funny Or Die stuff, which I came up with. It was kind of motivated by my now-manager Chris Barrett, who said, “Why don’t you do this? What about Jackie?” So I was, like, “Okay!” [Laughs.] So I wrote these little bits, and Funny Or Die was very excited to have them. We sent them to the Seinfeld people—or the Castle Rock people, who are really the keepers of the flame for the Seinfeld legacy—and they came back and went, “Run with it. Go with it. We got no notes. Don’t change a word. It’s all good.” So, again, I was, like, “Okay!” [Laughs.] It was just another exercise for me to do more work, and to try and plumb that gold again, to mine that gold. And I thought it was highly successful.
AVC: Did you ever hear what Johnnie Cochran thought of the character?
PM: A couple of times. The first time I saw him was, well, it was in the barbershop again, actually. Like in a Clint Eastwood Western, and he comes up from having his face shaved… and he just started laughing. He shook my hand, and he was very proud. But, you know, four Honda commercials and a Diet Dr Pepper commercial later, with all of this recognition for Jackie—there was a New York Times featured article—and I get a letter from his office, pretty much saying, “Cease and desist.” I don’t know if he thought it was putting him in an ill light, or if he thought Jackie was becoming a little too big for his britches, or… I don’t know. But it was a little too late: He’d already signed off, so we were off and running.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) / Atlantis: Milo’s Return (2003)—“Dr. Joshua Sweet”
PM: Okay, animation is tough, and animation features are even tougher, because right now the trend is for big movie stars to do the voices. I had been put on the radar for Disney on a movie called Mulan, where Eddie Murphy plays Mushu, a little dragon. And, you know, there’s about a three- or four-year schedule for animated features—it’s a long process—so they have what’s called scratch tracks, so that the animators can get a jump on it and start to really put this thing down, because it takes so long. Well, the big-name actors, not only can they probably not afford to do it, but they don’t want to spend their time doing the scratch track. They want to be in the final. So they hire actors to come in and approximate what a particular actor might do, so they can get a jump on it, and they hired me to do the Eddie Murphy part in Mulan. And they had some sound bites of Eddie doing it, so I had a sense of what he was going to do, but it wasn’t for the whole movie, so I essentially did much of the movie for the scratch track. And they loved it. They absolutely loved it. So when Atlantis came up, I went in to do the scratch track for Dr. Sweet, and during one of the sessions, I said, “Well, if you don’t find Morgan Freeman or Danny Glover or somebody like that, why don’t you give a brother a shot?” [Laughs.]
So one day, I get a call from my agent saying, “They’re giving a brother a shot! You’re the guy!” And I was so thrilled, because, all of us have been fans of Disney animated features, and I am a huge animated feature fan, but especially of Disney. So this was just absolutely mega. To get it was incredible, but then to go voice it on the soundstages where they’d done Snow White or whatever? Absolutely an actor’s dream come true. So it was an amazing experience. But I never worked once with any of the other actors. It was all done singly and solo. I only met Michael J. Fox at the premiere. I never met him before I met him during some press. I never really worked with him, even though I’m in scenes with him. We have these campfire scenes, but we all voiced them separately. So a very wonderful experience, and a highly unique one as well.
The PJ’s (1999-2001)—“Thurgood Stubbs”
AVC: It’s funny that, in Atlantis, you kind of preceded Eddie Murphy, whereas not long before that, you’d sort of succeeded him on The PJ’s.
PM: Yeah, you know, I’ve got this kind of reputation for some reason as doing an Eddie Murphy thing, but I’m not doing Eddie Murphy. I do what Eddie Murphy’s character voice might do, but I don’t do Eddie Murphy. But I got called to come in on The PJ’s because Eddie was in New Jersey and didn’t want to come out for every episode, and if they could find somebody to fill in for him for Thurgood Stubbs, so be it. So they hired me, and then I’d record with the other cast, but I would be in a separate booth, so that if Eddie chose to be in the episode, they could just lift my voice right out.
Eddie’s Thurgood is a lot more nuanced than mine. He’s a genius, first of all, and this was his character that he created. He flat kills it. And I did my best to try and approximate that voice, which I did. I did well. But if you listen to the two, to me, there’s no comparison. I would pick Eddie’s every time. And I know the difference. Mine is far more bombastic and has less subtleties and fluctuations. His has far more. And since he created the character, he knows the character better. But, again, I worked with some amazing talent: Ja’net DuBois, Kevin Michael Richardson, Shawn Michael Howard, James Black, crazy talented voiceover people. It was an amazing experience. I really wish that show had gone on and on, because I thought it was hilarious.
Smallville (2006-2010)—“J’onn J’onzz—Martian Manhunter”
PM: Well, I’m a huge comic-book fan, and, you know, again, we’re talking about a character that comes out of an iconic setting: the DC Universe, which I am more than familiar with. I have more than 20,000 comic books in my own personal collection. I’ve collected since 1966. I know the first comic I ever got—Tales Of Suspense, with Iron Man and Captain America, which was the bomb—and I’ve still got it. [Laughs.] So I was rank and file. I was one of the fanboys, so I thought, “If I get this role, I’m representing the fanboys!” So I walked into the audition feeling like I had a leg up on every actor who was coming in, because I knew who J’onn J’onzz was, I knew his history, I knew his vulnerabilities, I knew his strengths. I walked in so ready for this. But I read, and then I didn’t hear from them for a long time. Then the producers from Canada came down, and I read for them, and I didn’t hear for a long time again. And then finally they told me I got it. It’s incredible, because J’onn J’onzz in the show Smallville is more like a mentor to Clark Kent, the future Superman. In the book, he’s not so much that way. It’s a different kind of roll-out for him. So in the show, there was a lot more opportunity to play a compassionate, understanding, kind of a “take my hand, young alien, I will show you the way” thing. And, again, for a comic-book fan to be in scenes with the guy who’s playing Superman, to see yourself actually flying, shape-shifting, using super-strength… I mean, what can I tell you? It was unbelievable, and I really wished I would’ve done a lot more. I really wished they had brought me up to play with him more. I think it would’ve taken the show into another, more interesting area. But it wasn’t the J’onn J’onzz show, so there you go. But Tom Welling? Phenomenal. A gentleman every time. Gracious. I think he did some of his best work when we were up there playing together, and I loved the experience.
AVC: The character wasn’t black in the comics, but for J’onn J’onzz, it worked because it made sense in the context of his powers. It was, like, “Yeah, okay, he can be anyone or anything, fair enough.”
PM: Right. And, you know, as far as why an African-American, I asked Al Gough about it. I said, “Was that a purposeful thing? Did you do it because you understood the disenfranchisement of African-Americans and thought it would translate really well with J’onn’s character, as the only one left of his kind? Does he go to an African-American guise because, of all the people on the planet, African-Americans are probably the most disenfranchised in their own country?” And he was, like, “No, but I’m stealing it!” [Laughs.] But to me, that’s what I saw in it, or that’s what I could play. Maybe that’s more the case. You choose what you can play honestly and organically and run with. And I could honestly play a human being who feels a little outside of his own societal system or circle. And then it would translate well to the loneliness and the detachment that a true alien would feel.
AVC: As a fanboy, you must’ve been thrilled to voice all of these different characters in the DC animated universe.
PM: Yeah, and they were non-traditional characters—not really mainstream guys, but very established, solid characters within the DC Universe. I haven’t done much Marvel stuff, but the DC universe has been very good to me. I’m doing Vandal Savage again in the new straight-to-DVD Justice League movie, Doom, though it’s a different Vandal Savage in the movie than you’ve seen in the series.
King Faraday was Darwyn Cooke’s favorite character in New Frontier, and so when I met Darwyn and heard him say that, I was honored to find that he absolutely loved the performance. When the original creator tells you they loved the performance, you know you’ve done something right. Weirdly, I played King Faraday in scenes opposite Martian Manhunter in New Frontier before I got the job as Martian Manhunter on Smallville, which was outstanding.
Playing in the DC universe with Bruce Timm as a creator, Andrea Romano as vocal director, it gets no better. That’s the sharp end of the stick. They are the top of the food chain, so you’re working with the best in the world when you go do those jobs, and when you work with them, you understand why. Their attention to detail and understanding of these characters are second to none, as is the reverence that they have for them. I’m rank and file, so I go in there and there’s no one I have to please more than myself, so if I’m happy with it. I’m pretty sure most people will be happy with it.
I’m doing a character for the new Green Lantern animated series, which was written and then they thought of me and brought me in, and it’s right in my wheelhouse: It’s a Zen-like Lantern named Saint Walker. I’m a martial artist and know a lot about Zen and the Tao, so it just was right up my alley. Every time I go play with these people, it’s just another great experience.
Love Boat: The Next Wave (1998)—“Chief Purser Will Sanders”
PM: The new Love Boat, the new Mission: Impossible… I seem to be the new guy. [Laughs.] You know, the best part about working on that show was working with Robert Urich. My dad did Vega$ with him, so I’d known him for years. I hadn’t seen him for years, but I’d known him for years. When I worked with Bob, it was after his initial cancer scare, and he was just trying to get—no pun intended—his land legs back. And, you know, he was incredibly vulnerable, which made him incredibly endearing. A beautiful cat to be around. [Laughs.] That’s one of my dad’s phrases. “A beautiful cat, man.” Again, working with somebody who my father had worked with was surreal, and I’m sure it was surreal for him, too. But it was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. We would go out on a legitimate cruise ship for eight days and shoot all the exteriors and atrium stuff, then we’d come back and shoot at a studio in Sherman Oaks or wherever. The most beautiful extras, making a ton of money, playing dress-up and make-believe with a fun cast. You know, not the greatest material in the world, not the most riveting entertainment, but great fun and a great experience.
I loved working with Aaron Spelling. Our last day, he came to the set, and Bob is kind of introducing the cast, saying nice things about Joan [Severance] and all the people who were working on the show. And he got to me, and Aaron took the mic from him and said, “I got this.” [Laughs.] And Aaron starts to talk about how “every so often you run into a talent that surprises you,” blah blah blah, all these glowing things, “and to that end, I give you…Phil Morris!” And, I mean, the place went nuts. And I’m, like, “Aaron Spelling is giving me this great build-up/send-off?” He was just lovely, and if he loved you, he would do anything for you. He was well-loved by everybody who worked for him. That’s my last abiding memory of him. And that’s one of my last memories of Bob, too, where we were all saying, “We love you, thank you for such an incredible experience.” It was pretty insane. I had a great time on Love Boat. Ironically enough, I’d do Love Boat, which was, like, No. 99 in the ratings, and then the next week I’d go do an episode of Seinfeld, which was No. 1. So I’d go from the last to the first, the last to the first. [Laughs.] It was pretty humbling!
Tracks Of Glory (1992)—“Marshall W. ‘Major’ Taylor”
PM: A seminal character for me, because he was one of the first—if not the first—African-American champions in any sport, let alone cycling, which was the sport of kings. And it was in 1902, which I don’t even think black people registered in America until 1957—not as black people, anyway. [Laughs.] We were other things, but we certainly weren’t us. So it was an incredible story to play. I worked opposite Cameron Daddo, who was a big Australian star. I’d just done Mission: Impossible in Australia for the last two years, so I was going back with my family to do another project in Australia. I had auditioned for White Men Can’t Jump, and you know, I just knew that Wesley was going to get that. I knew it, and he ended up getting it. This came up right after that. And then there was another movie that came up at the same time, and I chose this because I thought Major Taylor was a worthy character to play.
For me to go back to Australia, which at the time… I don’t know about now, but at the time, it was still very racist. We had… not problems, but we had issues with my kid trying to get into school. I mean, the Australians know who they are, so I’m not telling tales out of school. But to go back there and play this character who completely thumbed his nose at that society… I got very emotional. Every interview I ever did, describing both my experience with Mission: Impossible and now this chance to play this character who kicked the doors down in so many ways. I was in the most amazing shape of my life, probably, at the time, because you’re riding a bike for eight hours a day. We worked with one of the Australian Olympic pursuit gold medalists as our trainer, so we were all incredibly fit. These Australian actors were incredibly talented, the Australian crews very professional. I love working in Australia, so the chance to do all of that was just something I couldn’t pass up.
Now, when I look at it, I’m very proud of the work. But, I mean, as I look at it, I see flaws in my work as an actor. I see choices that are arbitrary. But you learn through those experiences, to hopefully shape you into a better performer later. And that’s what that did for me. And to carry the torch for Major Taylor, who was a completely unknown sports figure to me and many others, was a great honor, an absolute joy to play. Also, it was the first time in my career that I was first on the call sheet. [Laughs.]
Clay Pigeons (1998)—“Agent Reynard”
PM: Great movie. It really is a good movie, with or without me, a nice little dark comedy. Early Vince Vaughn, early Joaquin Phoenix. We shot it in a place called Brigham City, Utah, which has, like, 1,200 people—literally. They all look the same. [Laughs.] I’m just kidding! But, yeah, 1,200 people, and it’s way away from the metropolitan area. So we’re out there shooting, and Vince Vieluf, who’s a great character actor, he and I became fast friends, and we hung out and palled around almost every day that we were there. The first read-through of the script in the director’s room went like this. We’re all there: Janeane Garofalo, Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix, me, Vince, and Scott Wilson, another brilliant character actor who’s now on The Walking Dead. We’re all in the room, and we’re all doing this reading, ’cause the director needs to hear it, and we’re all trying to learn each other and know each other. I hadn’t met anybody until this time. We start doing this reading, and Joaquin is reading at an inaudible level. We cannot hear him. And the director says to him, “Come on, man! What are you doing? Come on!” And Joaquin looks at him, and he says, “You know I don’t do this! I’m here ’cause you asked me, but I don’t do this. This is not what I do.” And he continued the reading an inaudible level, and with every scene that we played in that room, nobody could really understand him. So Vince Vieluf and I walk away, and we’re, like, “What the heck was that?” [Laughs.] You know? “Where did that come from? Is this guy a team player, or what?”
So we had a bit of a dim view of Joaq early on. But ultimately, when you work with that dude, he brings it. So he didn’t bring it then. Again, a valuable lesson for me, because it was, like, I’m a team player. I can be accused of being sometimes the most accommodating actor in the world—to my detriment, to a certain degree, because it’s not my job. That’s the job of the lighting or the camera or the sound. That’s not up to me. So sometimes when you’re an accommodating actor, the person who takes a back seat is your character, and Joaq was not the kind of actor to have him or his character take the back seat to anybody. So to look at that was incredible. This was a guy who had lost his brother a year before, the same year I lost my dad, so we had that in common. We were very good friends on the set. And I’ll never forget: The Lakers were playing Utah, and we’re in Utah, and Kobe Bryant is sucking. [Laughs.] It’s his second year, and he’s just horrible, and I’m pissed, ’cause I’m a big Lakers fan. I’m with Joaquin, everybody had gone home for the weekend, and he and I are in there drinking watered-down beers and looking at these hundreds of publicity photos that he has right of refusal on, ’cause he’s the star of the movie. So we’re watching the game, I’m pissed, and I say, “Dammit, Kobe Bryant! These young athletes, they just…” And before I could finish, Joaquin interjects, “Are playing under so much pressure.” He goes, “Do you realize the millions of dollars, the millions of eyes on this kid? How old is he, 19?”
Bro. Here I am, sitting with a guy who just lost his brother, he’s younger than me, but he’s the star of the show and picking the publicity photos for the film, mine and everybody else’s included, there’s so much pressure on him every single day… and I got it. I’m, like, “Wow.” We don’t see that as fans. It’s very easy to just sit back and judge somebody’s performance or somebody’s intentions and philosophies. When this kid hit me with that, man, I got so much respect for him, I got so much respect for Kobe, and I put all that in the back of my mind, and from then on, the shoot couldn’t have gone any better. We partied with him, and I guess he was with Liv Tyler at the time, and we drank with Vince Vaughn and Janeane and, you know, we all lived and worked together. That’s what doing movies is all about when you’re on location. And I think because of all of that, that chemistry really came across onscreen. And it’s a lovely little film. The director, David Dobkin, is an incredible director who ended up doing Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights. So, yeah, an incredible experience. I loved Janeane. We were not the same kind of people. [Laughs.] We are very different people, but it really worked.
Love That Girl! (2010-present)—“Delroy Jones”
PM: Bentley Kyle Evans is the creator of our show. I’ve worked with Bentley on Martin and The Jamie Foxx Show. We’ve known each other for years, and we’d wanted to work together full-time for years. He wrote this and built this around a real-estate company, and Bentley’s father is the guy that I play. His real-life father is who Delroy really is. Delroy is the kind of guy who… I look at him like my father a little bit, if my father was mad successful and my mother had passed away right before he was successful. No one would have been there to tell him—excuse the expression—that his poo didn’t stink. [Laughs.] So my dad, as weird as he was, would’ve been almost unbearable.
Delroy’s that guy. He’s raised these two children, his wife passed early, probably at the point where he was becoming successful. He’s an incredible force of nature, very old-school. He’s made it his way, and that way won’t change. So there’s nobody at home to tell him, “Look, you’ve got to come into the modern world now,” or “You’re being an idiot,” or even, “Take out the trash!” So he doesn’t have anybody to give him the perspective that my father had, or to give us perspective as kids, saying, “Your father’s crazy.” Which our mother did—quite frequently. So those kids don’t have that person in their lives, so they’ve grown up with this father who really believes everything he says and is completely committed to his philosophies, right, wrong, or indifferent. He loves his children as much as the day is long, but he’s really kind of stuck in… I’d say Delroy’s stuck in about 1987, around there. He loves his Jet Magazine, he loves his pork rinds and malt liquor, ladies of the night, and strippers. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? He flies to Vegas at the drop of the hat, he’s all about old-school music and old-school sports figures. He doesn’t have a computer. He uses White-Out. He’s got a Rolodex, and he eschews everything except probably his cell phone.
So Delroy’s a very full and colorful character, very different from Jackie or any of the others I’ve played. He has a heart of gold. His secretary is definitely a hood rat who he probably saved from the street, one of the children of the night. But she’s loyal to him, and he loves her, so don’t mess with her, or you’re gonna be messing with him. He’s disappointed in his son, like many fathers are, and loves his daughter to death. He’s a very, very interesting character. I’m very happy with the shows this year. They have a lot of heart. They’re funny, but they have a lot more heart than they did last season. We’ve raised the level a notch or two. I don’t do it much, but every so often, I do a little shout-out to my pop. When it comes to what of Delroy does, if I have a problem with where I think he should go, I just think about what my dad would do—’cause my dad was stuck, man. He just loved that time of life, and he never really grew past it. Delroy’s very much the same guy.
Black Dynamite (2009)—“Saheed”
PM: Michael Jai White is a genius. He, Byron Minns, and Scott Sanders, they’re geniuses. Michael Jai White is a legitimate martial artist. So am I. He and I met at a Hall Of Fame banquet in New Jersey. We’d known about each other for years but had never met. So we met on the dais, and he breaks out his PDA, and he’s, like, “Check this out!” And he shows me this footage. He says, “I got this movie…” He shows me this footage of he and Tommy Davidson in crazy outfits, stack shoes, and afros, running around in downtown L.A., with this crazy score and this crazy dialogue. It was bananas! He said, “We’re doing this movie, and I want you do to a part in it,” blah blah blah. I’ve heard that a lot. But I come back to L.A., and another writers’ strike is on, so I’m in line, putting my placard together for the Smallville writers. “Smallville Writers are the Real Heroes” or whatever. [Laughs.] I finish my placard, and, boom, my phone blows up. It’s my manager, saying, “You got a job!” I’m, like, “Wait, I’m getting in line for the strike. How can I have a job?” You know Michael Jai White?” “Yeah!” “They’re doing this movie Black Dynamite.” I said, “Son of a bitch. This guy actually did it. He did it!” And at the time, he didn’t even have a script. All he had was funny names, funny characters, and a concept. And he sold the movie based on that, and then they wrote the script.
So I went to work, and I’ll tell you something: It was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had. Just playing with Tommy Davidson and Buddy Lewis and Darrel Heath and Chris Spencer. Every day we would come and clown and clown and clown, and we’d just hope to try and take that onto the set with us, to take all of that off-set stuff to the screen. And for me, it was completely successful. Just absolutely wonderful. A great concept, and I had the best time playing that guy. That guy I patterned after Calvin Lockhart, who was, like, the real good-looking dude in all the ’70s blaxploitation films. [Laughs.] But, you know, as I look at that character, he looks like my father. The chops, the sideburns—everything speaks Greg Morris when I look at that guy, so I patterned him a little after him, too. So there you go: another little tribute to my pop.