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 about.
The actor: A longtime actor best known for playing cops, judges, and put-upon dads, Reginald VelJohnson has been acting professionally for over 40 years. He’s popped up in everything from Ghostbusters to General Hospital, but he’s best known for two roles: First, his turn as Sgt. Al Powell in 1988’s Die Hard, a role that he reprised for 1990’s Die Hard 2 and celebrated on shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Second, as yet another cop—Officer Carl Winslow—on the TGIF sitcom Family Matters, which ran as part of ABC’s Friday night lineup for almost a decade starting in 1989.
More recently, VelJohnson has reprised yet another role: That of one-time Detective David “Dave” Sutton for the new Disney+ reboot of Turner & Hooch. VelJohnson first played the role opposite Tom Hanks and a slobbery dog in the 1989 film, and has come back—albeit as an elected official—for the television series. The A.V. Club talked to him about that role, as well as a number of others from his long and varied career
AVC: Let’s start with Turner & Hooch. You’re reprising a role that you played 30-odd years ago. What’s it like to come back?
Reginald VelJohnson: In the movie, I was a lot more able to move, but it was nice to play the same character but older. It was kind of interesting to play this character again after so many years. I enjoyed myself.
AVC: Did you ever think you’d you’d see that David Sutton again?
RV: Never. I never thought of the idea of it being a sitcom. You know, I don’t know how they wrote me in, but they did. And I’m the mayor of the city now.
It was a challenge, but it was a unique challenge that I enjoyed immensely. I love playing the character and I could get used to playing it for another five years. I’m good at doing that.
The transition from the movie into the TV series was also very interesting because I play the same character but I’ve become the mayor. I enjoyed playing an older guy at a point in his life that’s kind of difficult to play, but it was a lot of fun doing it and I appreciate them casting me in the role, and I hope that it’s a big hit.
AVC: Did you have to do your homework? Did you have to rewatch your original performance?
RV: I didn’t watch it because I wanted to make it new and fresh, because it was new and fresh for him because he’s now mayor and he had a lot of new things to deal with in his life and whatnot. And so I purposely didn’t watch the old film. I just performed it as new, and I guess it worked. I don’t know. We’ll see.
AVC: It’s such a different landscape now than it was when you started. Turner & Hooch is a streaming show, for instance, and so much of what you’ve done in the past was major motion pictures or, in the case of Family Matters, a network sitcom. How has streaming changed the landscape of what’s possible for actors in terms of work?
RV: Well. It’s different because I’m older, first of all. To portray the same character as I did when I was younger is a different thing. But it’s all enjoyable, I think. To do something that you did before and to have to do it again in a new way with a new cast was very interesting and very challenging.
It’s a unique thing to have to go into the world of 30 years ago and come back and do it again. It is a little weird, but I enjoy doing it. I really do.
AVC: People might not remember, but Family Matters was a spin-off of another show, Perfect Strangers. Can you talk about getting that call, and how you ended up in Family Matters?
RV: Well, Tom Miller, who was the producer of the show a long time ago, he happened to see me in the film Die Hard, and he said that he wanted to put me in the show. They were coming up with this TV series about a Black family and they thought I’d be perfect for it. And I went to audition, met Jo Marie [Payton], who played Harriette, and got cast in the role. I was about to have five kids and I’d never had a kid in my life. So I was the father of five children and the husband to a wife. It was very interesting. It became second nature to me.
AVC: I read a stat in The Wrap that said that Family Matters viewership was up 400 percent last year. Do you think that more people recognize you now?
RV: I think [people] still receive [the show] the way that they did originally. People come up to me all the time, whether I’m in the supermarket or I’m out in the street. They always come to me and tell me how much they loved Carl Winslow and how much they loved how he interacted with his family and whatnot. He was always such a good guy. He never made a mistake. And, you know, I really appreciate that because I’m just an actor. I do what I do, and to see that people appreciate me for what I do is a nice thing.
AVC: Over the course of its run, Family Matters went through some significant changes. First, there was the introduction of Urkel, who was meant to be a one-off role, but really took off. Second, around the time of the show’s ending, it switched networks from ABC to CBS. Third, your wife on the show, Jo Marie, left, and was replaced by Judyann Elder as Harriette. How did you look back at Family Matters when it ended, and how do you look at the arc of the show?
RV: Well, because Jo Marie left the show, I had to perform with a new Harriette, and that was always very strange to me. I did what I had to do in terms of the time and the characters and whatnot, but it was very different for me. I had been performing with Jo for like eight years and then for the new Harriette to come in… she brought her own thing to the role. I had to adjust and get used to that, and it was strange for the first few episodes of the show, but I got used to it.
I enjoyed working with Jo Marie and Judyann. They brought different things to the role, and I appreciated that. And I was a good husband, I guess. I don’t know. It was different, but I enjoyed every moment of it. I’ll never forget Family Matters.
AVC: How did you end up in Die Hard? Was it just an audition?
RV: Well, I arrived at the audition in New York. I remember it well. I shouldn’t say his name, but it was between me and Wesley Snipes, and I remember when he went to audition, I listened at the door to what he was doing. And then, after he came out, I went in and did my tape. I told Bruce [Willis] on the tape, I said, “Well, Bruce, you may not cast me in this role, but if you cast me, I’ll do a damn good job.” And then I got a call from Bruce and he said, “You got the role.”
It was quite an experience. It was my first major film role, and I thank everybody involved in it because they made my job so much easier. That was the role of my life, and I’ll never have another one like it. It was cool.
AVC: It’s interesting, but as our sister site The Root has pointed out, Sgt. Powell gets a rep as a rather jovial guy, but he has a rather checkered backstory, in that he shot a kid while in the line of duty. How well do you think that story has aged?
RV: I think [Powell] was traumatized by that his whole life.
There was a scene in Family Matters where Carl had to confront somebody and got upset about it. It kind of brought things to the forefront. I really appreciated doing that.
I’m sure that goes on a lot with real cops, happening to shoot somebody they didn’t want to shoot, you know, doing things like that. I kind of relate to it. It was an interesting task to perform, because who wants to shoot a person and still live on? That must be a horrible thing.
It’s very difficult to be a police officer. When I was doing Die Hard, they took me out on patrol with them, and sometimes that I’d see what they go through. I have a great deal of respect for police officers because of what they go through. You can’t imagine what they go through every day of their lives, putting their lives on the line for you. It’s an amazing thing. And I really, really honor them. I really do. I hope that’s conveyed every time a cop comes up to me in public and says that they appreciated me.
I remember I was in a traffic situation and a cop stopped me and said, “Can I see your license, please?” I showed him my license, and he said “You’re the guy from Die Hard. I’ll tell you what. You send me a picture, and I won’t give you a ticket.” I sent that picture right away because I didn’t want the ticket.
I would never want to be a cop, but I’m glad I portrayed one because their job is very hard.
AVC: Why do you think you’re so often cast as a police officer?
RV: You know, it’s a question I ask myself a lot. I don’t know. When I was auditioning for parts and whatnot, I never thought about being a police officer. But, hey, if the shoe fits, I’ll wear it.
I try to portray each police officer in a different way than one I’ve played before. It seems to work. But I enjoy the fact that they see me as a cop. That’s fine with me. I’ll show you a cop as long as you want me to.
AVC: It’s interesting how different how different actors get slotted into different roles, whether it’s judges or Santas or police officers.
RV: Maybe it’s my face or my attitude toward life. But there are a lot of cops out there that are much better than me, and if I do them the honor of portraying them in a positive way, that’s enough for me. What I see them go through must be hard in life. It’s got to be.
AVC: Because of Die Hard, you’ve been able to branch off into some other projects, like the Die Hard video game and, interestingly enough, into playing a part in the bachelor party of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Jake Peralta, who is probably the world’s No. 1 Die Hard fan. What was the latter experience like?
AVC: I tell you, I had so much fun playing the character of Reginald VelJohnson. I didn’t realize how many people appreciate what I do. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I had all the guys come up to me saying how much they appreciated my work, and that was really special. I’m flattered. I really am, and humbled by it. I thank them all.
I enjoyed doing Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It was a good show and all the actors on there really helped me along. That’s all I can say.
AVC: You have been Santa or Santa-adjacent in a number of projects, from 227 to an episode of Bones. Do you have any guess as to why that is?
RV: I don’t know. I guess my chubby kind of demeanor. I don’t know what it is, but, you know, I’ll play it.
I started playing Santa Claus a long time ago. The first time I played it, it was kind of interesting. It’s how they cast a role, but to see me in a positive light like that, I appreciate it. I would love to play a bad guy once or twice, but however they see me is how I’ll play it. That’s fine with me as long as they enjoy my work. I’m appreciative of playing Santa Claus, playing a cop, playing anything. I’m an actor first, and I’ll play anything they choose me to play.
AVC: Then let me ask this: You were in a Funny Or Die short with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, and their comedy is a very specific style of comedy. What did you play in that and what instruction did you get?
RV: I don’t know how I figured it out. It’s something that they wanted me to play and I played it, I did it. I forget about everything else and just absorb myself into the role of whatever they want me to do, and that’s what I do. That’s how I did it. That’s how I always do it, and hopefully people will respond in a positive way.
Acting is a difficult thing if you don’t know what you’re doing. People have all sorts of ideas about how you come off and what you do and everything that you do if you’re an actor. Whatever [the director is] talking about, that’s what I try to do. I don’t try to overplay or underplay it. I just do what they say to do, and hopefully will come off.
I just played a fireman on Station 19 and, you know, it’s all the same thing. You do what you do, you do the best you can do, you keep on going, and that’s it. That’s what I try to do. Everything I play, I try to do the best thing that I can do, and that’s all I can do.
AVC: You were in a deleted scene from Avengers: Endgame, and I’d love to know what we didn’t get to see.
RV: Yes, I enjoyed that. The Russo brothers were fantastic to work with. I played a fire chief in the movie and my scene involved the Incredible Hulk. I enjoyed working with them so much, and I would love to do more of the Avengers movies, but I don’t know—if that was the Endgame, I don’t know if that’s in the cards. But I enjoyed playing a different type of role and working with people who have a commitment to this thing called the entertainment business.
AVC: Can you tell me more about the scene? You were a fire chief, and you were dealing with the Hulk? In what context?
RV: Well, the scene was with the Incredible Hulk, and he’s saving a bunch of people who were stuck on this TV thing, and I come in there and do the whole fireman thing and whatnot.
You know, I always wanted to be in a in a superhero movie, and the Russo brothers were really nice to work with because they allowed me to do what I wanted to do. I don’t know if it’s a small role, but it was an integral part of the movie and I enjoyed it and I hope to do some more stuff. I love doing the superhero stuff.
AVC: Speaking of superheroes, you’re also a voice on Invincible.
RV: Oh, yeah. I didn’t realize when I did it, but there’s a lot of good people in that thing. I played the principal of a school that is called the Reginald VelJohnson High School, which is so cool.
I’d like to do more voiceovers. I’m just getting into it. I have another cartoon called Laser Wolf that I did. Voiceover stuff is very unique and very, very interesting. You go in there, you do your lines, and it’s all in one thing. That’s how it was with Invincible.
I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear that it’s doing well and that people are enjoying my character. So I’m happy about that, even though I haven’t watched it yet. I just do what I do and keep on going. That’s what I do.
AVC: Is it true that that was was between you and Ernie Hudson for Ghostbusters, and he got the role?
RV: Yes, and then Ivan Reitman said, “I will put you in the movie anyway” and gave me a little small role.
I enjoyed auditioning for the film. I enjoyed auditioning against Ernie Hudson. He was really cool, but I thought I was going to get the role. I didn’t get it, though, which was okay. It’s a fantastic movie.
I have a tendency to to attach myself to movies that turn out to be very big hits. I don’t know what that’s all about. I’m blessed to have been involved in [Ghostbusters], but that was my first film. I was in New York, living in the basement of my mother’s house. I shot that film and watched as it became the phenomenon that it is now. I was really thankful to have been a part of it.
AVC: Have there been other projects that have gotten away?
RV: You know, I am really very happy to have been involved in the projects that I have been involved in. Family Matters, of course, was the top, and then Die Hard. If I’m just remembered for those two things, I’m happy because the experience of them was really wonderful.
I’m older now and I sit back and I look and I go, “I did that? Oh yeah, I did that.” That’s fine. It’s a pleasure to know that the things that I’ve done have lasted so long. I did Die Hard like 30 years ago. People are still talking about it like it came out yesterday. So I’m thankful for that.
I always wanted to be an actor when I was a kid and, to end up where I am today, I’m so thankful. Even if I never do anything else in life, I’m thankful for the things that I’ve done up until now.