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: David Alan Grier was already a Tony-nominated actor (for playing Jackie Robinson in the musical The First) before making his big-screen debut in the Robert Altman drama, Streamers, but he’s spent most of his career alternately resisting and listening to the siren song of comedy. A bit part in one Keenen Ivory Wayans comedy led to a four-year stint on the groundbreaking sketch show, In Living Color, where he met and worked with several of his future collaborators, including Damon Wayans and Martin Lawrence. But he’s also kept one foot on the stage, appearing in a Broadway production of Porgy And Bess before landing the role of his lifetime—The Cowardly Lion in The Wiz Live!
Grier currently stars in the Danny McBride-led black comedy, Arizona, which is in theaters now and available on iTunes, and will (arguably) lead the senior-citizens hangout comedy, The Cool Kids, on Fox this fall.
David Alan Grier: I didn’t really know Danny McBride, but we met on a plane ride cross-country. I’ve always been a big fan of his, and we talked briefly. I just went over to him and kind of fanned out. Then I read the script, which made me more excited and happy to work with him. It was really a fun shoot, and it did look just like the movie. They made the neighborhood a little more deserted, but everything else was pretty much the way it is.
Arizona is a dark comedy—“dark” is the operative right there.
The A.V. Club: It also has slight Western feel to it thanks to your character, who’s the only law around. How does housing crisis fit into the story?
DAG: It just is perplexing how long ago [the housing bubble] seems right now, that so much has changed. Not in the housing market, not in the economy so much, but politically, socially in the country—it’s always interesting to me when you do a period piece, yet it’s within all of our lifetimes, everything we remember. Most of the people watching the film—unless you’re 3, in which case you shouldn’t be watching it—have gone through it. So we all have memories of that time during the economic crisis when people were losing their houses left and right. I know I have experienced it and seen it here in California in different neighborhoods and areas out in the Valley and the desert, Rancho Cucamonga, all those developments that just sprang up overnight. I mean, with everyone grabbing houses and really at the fever pitch of getting in on the real estate market because that was the key to wealth and stability, because that’s what we’ve all been taught.
AVC: This is an interesting combo, because you had your first feature role in Robert Altman’s Streamers, then years later you popped up in The Player as yourself. Did it feel like coming full circle?
DAG: Well, The Player was really fun—everybody was willing and really gung-ho to do any part in it. Robert Altman’s office called and asked that I do it. I played myself in it, in this scene with Julia Roberts, where there was a safe or like a walk-in vault or something. Mostly, I remember I talked to Dennis Franz the whole day, who was really great. But then, months later, Altman’s office called—they couldn’t find me in the movie. [Laughs.] So they were like, “David, help us find you. Describe your scene.” So I describe the scene. And if you go back and look in The Player, you see probably like my head or something. I mean, you know, Dennis Franz and I are standing there, and Julia Roberts walks by and [production] goes, “Okay, we got it!” So yes, I was in it—briefly, and used very sparingly, but I was in it.
AVC: Your role in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka was small, but it was the start of a longstanding and fruitful collaboration. Did it feel that way while you were filming it?
DAG: Well, I met Keenen [Ivory Wayans] when I was a student at the Yale School Of Drama. I took the bus down to New York to do an open mic at The Improv in [Hell’s Kitchen]. I signed up like everybody else, and I think I went on at like 2 in the morning. And Keenen was the only regular there—you know, one of the big shots. He was the only person that talked to me, and he gave me some advice. He was like, “Just don’t be too crazy,” and “remember your jokes,” and “talk into the mic.” I tried to do all that, and I don’t know if I was successful, but I did get onstage.
That was my first memory of meeting Keenen. I don’t even think he remembered, but we became reacquainted after I did A Soldier’s Story. There I met Robert Townsend, who was best friends with Keenen, and he introduced me to Keenen and Damon [Wayans], and then the whole Wayans family. I’d gone out for pilot season, and they told me the whole plan that they had to take on Hollywood—they were going to start their own movie production company, that they were going to do these films, and they had these scripts they were working on. That was the start of the friendship.
I hadn’t really been doing comedy, but Keenen said, “Listen, you’re really funny, and I want people to see how funny you are, and I want to put you in this movie.” And that was that. He gave me this little part of the news reporter and really let me improvise. So it was the start of a really fun experience. I don’t even know where he got the money, but it was just—it was definitely guerrilla filmmaking. It was very punk and just kind of “go out and do it.” The vibe was just really exciting back then.
AVC: Is that what changed your mind about doing comedy?
DAG: You know, it was something that everyone was talking about. Eddie Murphy talked about doing a “black Saturday Night Live.” Eddie tried and dropped it, but Keenen really wanted to do something like that. So yes, I auditioned with Susie Essman, Martin Lawrence, and Chris Rock. I remember being on a callback with Martin Lawrence, who didn’t get the show, but I think he did all right. [Laughs.]
I, however, did get the show, and I think I said “no” three times to doing it. It just was not what I wanted to do. I moved back to New York after going out in L.A. after the whole audition process because I didn’t want to do this show. I didn’t come from a stand-up background, I didn’t have this arsenal of characters in my pocket. I just didn’t think it was the right move. So Kim Wayans called and talked me into it. She told me that I was making a big mistake, and she was absolutely right. So I went back out, and I did the series. Another reason I took it—in that year, I think I must have auditioned for almost 30 pilots, just everything. I was usually the actor that would come in and they’d go, “Well, David, you know, maybe they’ll go a different way. Maybe they’ll do a black actor—we don’t know. We don’t know what we want.” It was always that kind of thing. Just out of frustration, I thought, “Well, at least in In Living Color, I’ll get to work with my friends,” and I just took it as that. I mean, it’ll be fun to do this pilot.
So we did the pilot, and it sat for almost a year. In that year, I was doing other things—I remember I did an episode of ALF, and the crew members came over to me on break, and they’d all seen [the In Living Color pilot]. What happened was people had started circulating bootleg copies of it, and everybody was going to work—the crew, the directors, the producers would be like, “What is this tape I saw? It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” And that’s how it existed.
Finally, Vanity Fair did a blurb about In Living Color, how it hadn’t been picked up, but everybody was seeing it. And they were saying, “What is this bootleg pilot that everyone is talking about?” And I think because of all of that, it really pushed Fox—Barry Diller was running it at the time—to pick up In Living Color and to do this show, which hit immediately. It was a really huge hit.
AVC: You had dozens of roles on In Living Color, but who was the first character you came up with?
DAG: Well, Damon Wayans came to my dressing room, he said, “Look, you have to have your own signature character,” and we just started talking. He helped me come up with Calhoun Tubbs, which was based on old blues singers, [specifically] on a guy named Shakey Jake that used to perform around Ann Arbor where I went to school at University Of Michigan. He’s like a campus mascot. But Shakey Jake was a terrible guitar player. He couldn’t sing, but for some reason, all the kids loved him. So that was what the whole impetus of the character was: a really horrible blues singer.
AVC: You and Damon teamed up frequently, in recurring sketches like “Men On Film” and “The Al Sharpton And Lou Farrakhan Comedy Hour.” What made you guys work so well together?
DAG: It’s funny, because Keenen and Damon were originally going to do “Men On Film.” The original sketch was they were brothers and they were reviewing made-up movies. So I asked, you know, “Well, let me take a shot at it.” So Damon and I started working on the sketch, and the thing that we changed was instead of made-up movies, they were reviewing straight movies that had no gay theme or we just inferred all of the gayness on these movies. So from there it just, you know, evolved in this character.
And that would happen a lot. The Hedleys were a Jamaican family, and their phrase was, “got to go to work.” And I originally was doing that, but I could not do a Jamaican accent. I didn’t know any Jamaicans. I’d never grown up around Jamaicans. I sounded like a Lucky Charms commercial. So they gave it to Damon, and he did that. So that’s kind of like a lot of the way we worked. But the most fun we had was on the prison cable network show, a sketch I was instrumental in writing, because it just had the entire cast. Usually a sketch would have two or three people in it as the main people and, you know, a bunch of extras, but the prison cable channel—everyone was in it, and it was fun to get everyone in this one sketch and do it.
AVC: Ultimately, Eddie Murphy wasn’t part of the “black Saturday Night Live,” as he put it, but you ended up making Boomerang with him. Was that difficult to work out, given that you were on In Living Color at the time?
DAG: Over at Paramount, I would see Reggie Hudlin and Warrington Hudlin around, who had done House Party. Everybody was a big fan of theirs. And I would be like, “Dude, when are we going to work together?” So I got cast in Boomerang, and Keenen let me do it. But what I didn’t know was he never got approval from Fox. He just told me and the Hudlins, he said, “David has to be back and available for work on these times and these days.” And what he did is he just covered for me, which is an amazing, unheard-of gesture.
When we were in the middle of doing Boomerang, Fox was planning to air the Super Bowl live show [of In Living Color], and one of the stipulations was, Keenen told the guys they had to get me on a plane and get me back in L.A. in time for that live show. So I remember leaving the hotel, and the hotel staff, the doormen, everybody was telling me as I got in the car, “We’re going to be watching you, so you better be funny.”
But I don’t think any of us knew the significance of that broadcast. Because you have to remember, before In Living Color took over that halftime show, they didn’t have Janet Jackson or Prince or these big name performers during halftime. The NFL knew they had a captive audience—they put on Up With People or Kathie Lee Gifford to sing the national anthem. They never made an effort—they didn’t have to. They knew nobody was going to turn the channel.
So when In Living Color and Fox started their counter-programming, they told the nation during the Super Bowl to switch the channel to Fox during halftime, and we stole their audience. And after that Super Bowl live show, that is when the NFL—in an effort to keep their audience and never have that happen again—they went after very big names. And that’s how that Super Bowl halftime show started to escalate so that they made sure no one would leave halfway.
AVC: When Blankman came out, superhero movies didn’t have the same clout they had today, even after one Superman franchise and Tim Burton’s Batman movie. Did that make it easier to make a spoof like this?
DAG: You know, I’m not a superhero [movie] guy. I kind of wish they’d stop making them. I’m so tired of them. They all have the same plot, and it’s just lazy filmmaking. That being said, I would love to be in one of those tired superhero movies that I’m criticizing. [Laughs.]
Blankman was exciting, though—I mean, that was a whole new and different terrain. Like you said, they had made like Superman from way back since the ’70s, but no, they were not in the midst of the Marvel revolution and these huge, megabucks extravaganzas. It was a totally different thing. You know, there are certain staples in black comedy at the time in the ’90s. There are certain tropes that almost every back comic did. What would it be like if we had a black superhero? That was a set piece. Another one: Could you imagine ever a time in America when we had a black president? So those were things that, we as comedians and comedians of color, constantly would reference and fantasize about and work on. And that really, I think, was the impetus for Blankman and The Meteor Man and those couple of early movies, those types of movies.
But it also means you can have something like Black Panther, which was an amazing experience. It was really, really exciting. And it was exciting to see the positive reception worldwide that that movie so rightfully received. It just brings me joy, man. I love it. In that sense, I’m a fan, you know, as well as a performer. When I go to the movies, there’s nothing more fun and exciting than watching my friends’ work and coworkers that I love, cheering their work and their achievement.
DAG: Rusty [Cundieff] and I met when I first started doing stand-up, before In Living Color—we were doing The Merry Wives Of Windsor for Shakespeare In The Park. I like to audition first of all because rather than hoping a group of people in room will say, “Oh, we see David in this role,” I would much rather audition and show you that I can do this and show you that I am much more than what you think I am, you know, that I can handle and do these different roles.
So [Carl] is a really horrible and abusive stepfather, and I think Rusty’s concept for my character was that yes he was a monster in private, but when you met this man in person—you know, because Rusty played the teacher—and the way he presented himself was a straight, conservative, by-the-book guy. It wasn’t until he closed the door he became that monster to his family and to that little kid. So that’s why he cast me, which was totally against type. I was not physically a brute upon appearance, yet I turned into it. And that was really intriguing. That’s what I really liked about that role, that I was able to switch and show that difference and that psychosis in this guy’s character.
The Carmichael Show (2015-2017)—“Joe Carmichael”
AVC: With shows like Roseanne and Last Man Standing coming back, does that make the short-lived run sting more?
DAG: Well, it was short on a whole bunch of areas, like [NBC] should have ordered more shows, they should have put us on during their regular scheduling, not just as a summer dump. It was frustrating. Those are the most frustrating parts. I mean, I think before our third and final season, we were off the air for over a year. The network picked us up but purposefully put us on a schedule in which we couldn’t even qualify for the Emmys. I mean, I never understood the marketing for that show. We had built such a momentum with critics and audiences, only to be taken off and flounder for nine, 10, 11 months, and then get a minuscule order. We had to fight to get a 10-episode order.
So all those things are frustrating, but the work was always good. I loved working with Jerrod and everyone on that show. Loretta [Devine] and I had known each other since Dreamgirls in 1983, so our relationship, working and personal, spanned over 30 years. So it was really a joy, all those other aspects, but yeah—at least we got on the air. You know, but I wish it would have been longer. I wish we would have had more to do, but that’s out of my control.
AVC: How do you feel about the recent clamoring for shows about working-class families, where people have differing political opinions, given that that was a part of The Carmichael Show?
DAG: Yeah, it was, and also it reminded me so much of my family. I think a lot of what you just said ties into the audience and their connection with the show. That’s really what it’s like to go home and have dinner with your family. Like you said, nobody’s... I don’t know any family where everybody is on the same page about everything, no. And the thing I loved about the relationship of the Carmichaels was everybody was determined to have their say. Whether or not they even knew what the fuck you were talking about, it didn’t matter. “I’m going to tell you what I think about this.” It was really fun, and it did remind me of a lot of dinners at my house.
The Wiz Live! (2015)—“The Cowardly Lion”
AVC: You talked about working with Loretta Devine in Dreamgirls, which is a huge musical. And you were recently part of The Wiz Live!, which is something you’ve said you were dying to do for a long time.
DAG: Yeah, man. The Wiz was probably the first Broadway show on Broadway I ever saw. Me, my college roommate, Reg E. Cathey—the late-Reg E. Cathey—and a couple other friends drove cross-country from Ann Arbor, Michigan to New York City for spring break. The Wiz was at the Majestic Theatre at the time. We sat in the last row at the top of the second balcony, but we had a ball.
So I had my headshot, my little 8x10, and I went to the stage door after the matinee performance. And as the actors are leaving, I go to the stage manager, “May I leave my resume? I want to be on Broadway.” So the guy goes, “Stop. Wait. Stay right here.” And I go, “Okay. It’s going to happen. I’m about to be a star.” So he calls some of the cast over, and he goes, “Tell them what you just said to me.” And I said, “Here’s my headshot, I want to be on Broadway. Can I leave it?” And they all burst out laughing. And they were like, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is happening.” And they totally goofed on me. I left the little headshot, and I went away. But it didn’t matter. I was determined. I’m like, “Nah, I’ll be back.”
Cut to when I met Stephanie Mills, who I had met over the years, I told her that story, and how influential all those performers were. Gregg Burge, who was in The Wiz, Ken Page... um, I forgot who played the Cowardly Lion on Broadway… wait, it was Ted Ross. Both on film and onstage, these were all our early influencers and heroes as young actors in Michigan. I looked up to all those people. And so to get a chance to do that role was an amazing thing to me and for me. And what was so fulfilling about that project was the response that I got and that the production got.
I can’t even tell you the amount of emails and texts and phone calls and messages and letters I got from people I hadn’t heard from in 20 years, longer. Strangers. Black women who were describing dancing and singing and crying with their kids in their home watching the production of The Wiz. And it was overwhelming. It was just great. We were in The Carmichael Show, and originally, because of the scheduling, all that bitching and complaining I just did about them not giving us a full schedule, had they given us a full pick-up, I never would have been able to do The Wiz. And in fact, in the beginning, NBC didn’t know if they—they didn’t want to release me if there was a conflict, but fortunately, because of their scheduling, I was able to do The Wiz Live! and it all worked out. So sometimes there is a greater power, I guess. I don’t know.
AVC: Did you have a different kind of luck on McHale’s Navy? Because your co-star Bruce Campbell wrote in his memoir [If Chins Could Kill: Confessions Of A B Movie Actor] that shooting it was a “hellish experience” because people were writing their own dialogue.
DAG: [Laughs.] I love Bruce Campbell. Wait, why did he say it was hellish?
AVC: In his book, he writes that Tom Arnold kind of left it to the cast to write your own dialogue for yourself.
DAG: Oh my god. Yeah, so it definitely crashed and burned. But Bruce and I kept each other alive. I love Bruce Campbell. We laughed and laughed. But yeah, he’s right. Henry Cho, myself, a group of other actors and comedians, yes, there were times when everyone wrote their monologue, and everyone was determined to recite it when they said “action.”
We were stuck in this town, Mazatlán, Mexico, on the Baja Coast. Probably the best thing about it, I remember I went fishing in this like 20-foot like bathtub of a boat, and I caught seven sailfish. I caught huge yellowfin tuna. Like seven! I’d never had—this was the best fishing day in my entire life. Every time I chartered a boat in Hawaii, I always got the boat captain who just had Johnny Depp the day before. They just caught a marlin the size of a Buick. “Oh, you should have been here last week! The fish were jumping in the boat.”
I had never gotten a bite, not a nibble in years, my entire adult life. So I charter this boat. I was one of the first guys on the set, nobody else is there. Nobody was with me in my boat except for my boat captain. I’ll call him a captain—he was a dude who ran the little motorboat. We went 20 miles out—there were no witnesses. It was just me. So when I came in, and we brought one fish in—everyone else was asleep. For days, I was telling everyone about my conquest. Everybody thought I was lying. Everybody thought I was kidding. To this day, I don’t think they believe me because there was no documentation. It was just me and the captain, like The Old Man And The Sea. God finally gave me the day I deserved with fish. But no one believed me, so… I have one. I’m sitting up in my upstairs room, and I’m looking at the sailfish that I had mounted from that trip right now, and I have a little photograph of me with like a 50-pound yellowfin, and it’s the only evidence I have.
AVC: It sounds like that kind of made up for the overall shoot, then.
DAG: It did. We did little trips. Whenever we had a few days off—by the way, they sent us a brochure of a really glamorous resort where we were supposed to stay, and it was like, oh my god, we each had casitas, those little house things. When we got there, the pool was green, the water treatment plant had broken down because of the—I think there was a hurricane or earthquake. Every morning, to go to set, we traveled by these little boats, and we would pass this beautiful, huge, Four Seasons-like hotel that we were supposed to stay in, but because of the earthquake or the storm, we were not able to, because as I told you, the water treatment plant broke. And we would go by there and then go to the set. It was tropical, 900-degrees... yeah, it was challenging, man. I lost several pounds the hard way.
AVC: Aside from being a multi-cam sitcom, does The Cool Kids share anything with The Carmichael Show?
DAG: This is very different from The Carmichael Show, but what I do enjoy about Cool Kids is my company of actors. I met Martin Mull when I was in high school with my girlfriend in Detroit, Michigan at the Pick-Fort Shelby Hotel. I sent him a note written on a napkin, and he came over and talked to us, and he was so cool. He was the first famous person I ever met in my life, and I was like, “Oh my god.” Years later, I was subbing for Greg Kinnear on—I think it was called Later or something on NBC—and Martin was my guest, and I told him that story, and his mouth fell open. I said, you know, we’ve met before. And he had no memory of it. I told him, and he laughed about it. So, after that, I became friends with him, and we worked together on Life With Bonnie and some other stuff. But to be in a cast with him and to share this time with him is really awesome. Leslie Jordan is the funniest person alive. I hadn’t met Vicki Lawrence before, but she’s great.
AVC: The show has drawn early comparisons to The Golden Girls in that it’s kind of like this twilight years comedy. There are four of you and there are four Golden Girls. Who’s who?
DAG: I would say, happily, that [my character Hank] is Bea Arthur-ish. You know, because Hank is the self-proclaimed leader. That’s how the series starts: The real leader of our little clique has died, and so [Hank] very forcibly take[s] over, because there’s a power vacuum. But it really quickly evaporates, because Vicki comes in and upsets our balance. So after that, Hank is just floundering.