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: Joe Morton has been a working actor since the ’60s, starting his career in the theater and scoring a Tony Award nomination for his work in the musical Raisin, adapted from the acclaimed 1973 play Raisin In The Sun. It didn’t take long for him to step in front of the camera, however, and he’s been a staple on television and in film ever since, including big-screen blockbusters like Terminator 2 and Speed, long-running series such as Eureka and Scandal, and appearances on more dramas and sitcoms than you can shake a stick at. Currently, Morton can be seen playing a man of the cloth in CBS’s God Friended Me.
Joe Morton: I found my way into the role through the usual path: Right after Scandal was over, pilot season began. I got a few scripts in the mail, and this was one of the ones that sort of piqued my interest because 1) it was diametrically opposed to what I was doing on Scandal, and 2) it’s a series which, in my mind, talks about helping other people and the fact that we are all connected.
The A.V. Club: How would you sum up the character of Arthur in a nutshell?
JM: He’s a man of the cloth. He’s a man who is still suffering from the loss of his wife some 20-odd years ago. He’s trying to reconcile how good or how bad a job he did in terms of raising his kids in the meantime.
AVC: As far as the series’ premise goes, you have an official Facebook page as well as a Twitter account, but are you big into social media yourself?
JM: If I am, it’s because of Scandal. [Laughs.] If you recall, all the members of the cast would sort of tweet live with the broadcasts, so that got me into Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. So I’m active on all three of those platforms.
AVC: Is it more of a chore for you, or have you found the fun in it?
JM: No, it’s not a chore. I mean, I enjoy it. It’s also a way for me to talk about other things, to talk about politics and sports—meaning tennis in my case—and to talk with other people. It’s interesting.
AVC: As the series has progressed, the series has done a nice job of exploring Arthur as a character.
JM: Well, yes, as with all of the characters, you see him develop. Obviously, the big conflict between Brandon Micheal Hall, who plays my son, and myself is that he’s an atheist and I’m a minister. So there’s that right away. Then there’s the fact that my daughter on the show is gay, and I think Arthur’s sort of made his way through that, but it’s again something that he has to deal with. And another aspect of Arthur is that he originally didn’t want to become a pastor. He wanted to become a jazz musician, a saxophone player. So you see that part of his life as well.
It’s interesting, the development of Arthur, because despite being the pastor of a very large church and being a good guy, is still a flawed individual. And I love that idea. We have a tendency to paint characters like this in these kinds of shows with very broad brushes, and this guy is developing in a way that has lots of layers, which I’m enjoying. So I think it’s coming along great. The numbers are strong. And people are talking about the show. We were shooting on the Upper East Side yesterday, and a bunch of people came flooding out of a local restaurant, both black and white families, saying how much they enjoyed the show. I think it’s one of those kinds of shows that people are glad to have around, given the kinds of tension that occupy the country these days.
AVC: It’s fair to say that there are a lot worse times to have a spiritually uplifting show.
JM: Yeah, I agree. This is probably the best time to do that.
AVC: We try to go as far back in an actor’s on-camera career as we can. You started your career in theater, but you started your TV work by doing one-off appearances, the first one of which looks to have been an episode of Bracken’s World.
JM: That was certainly among the first things, yes.
AVC: Your character’s name was Yule Bruford, if that rings a bell at all.
JM: It doesn’t ring a bell, but mostly what I remember about Bracken’s World was that it was a series about Hollywood. If you asked me what I did on that show, I couldn’t tell you. [Laughs.] It’s been so many years!
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
JM: I entered Hofstra University as a psychology major, and the first day of orientation, they took us around campus to show us what it was like. And they took us into the theater, where they put on a skit to show us what our first year in school would be like, and when the skit was over, I literally could not get up out of my seat. I kept thinking, “I’ve been playing guitar and singing for awhile, since high school, and I really love that. Maybe I could be an actor!” And I finally got up and walked out of the theater, walked into the registrar’s office, and changed all my majors from psychology to drama.
AVC: In addition to working in TV, you were also working in the theater. Your first Broadway show was The Two Gentlemen Of Verona.
JM: I did a lot of theater, and I did The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, but the first theater thing I did when I got out of school was a terrible, saccharine Off-Broadway play called A Month Of Sundays. I did a play called Christophe at the BAM Theater, then did Hair on Broadway, Two Gentlemen, and then eventually I did Raisin—which was a musical version of Raisin In The Sun—on Broadway, in which I played Walter Lee and was nominated for a Tony Award and won the Theater World Award that year.
AVC: Are there any of your theatrical production that you felt were underrated?
JM: Well, Raisin wasn’t underrated—I don’t know offhand how long it ran, but I know I was in the show for two and a half years and we won a Grammy for our cast recording—but I wish that other productions would spring up here and there around the world, because Raisin In The Sun is obviously a great play, and I think the musical did it justice. But that never happens.
JM: Well, that was interesting because when I got the job, all I could think of was all of those wonderful clothes that all the characters wore and how hip that show was. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be exciting!” I turned out to be one of those officers that talks people down, and I spent the entire show wearing a very boring brown uniform with a brown tie. [Laughs.] It was a little disappointing, but it was fun.
JM: You know, I was just talking to somebody the other day. I think I played a newspaper reporter who got involved in something and ended up being killed. I think I only did two episodes. The only thing I remember about the experience is that I believe there was a ghost in my apartment in New York that traveled with me to Baltimore, because when we got to my hotel in Baltimore, I locked the door and even put the chain on it, and it still sprung open. And I realized this ghost must’ve followed me. But then I read up on it, and apparently ghosts aren’t allowed to cross water more than once, so after I went back to New York, no more problems with the ghost!
JM: That was interesting, in that it was early on with that show. I think the producer had been a director on another show I’d done. I played a senator who was running for office, and what I remember most about that... Well, there are two things I remember. One is that I had my hair in kind of short little knots in those days, way earlier than most people, and I wanted to keep it that way for the character. And the network and I sort of argued about that for a very, very long time, and they said, “Anybody who wears their hair like that would not be taken seriously,” and my argument, “For white people, anybody who wears their hair like that would not be taken seriously.” So we went back and forth until finally I realized that 1) it wasn’t an argument that I was going to win, and 2) there were 99 other people on that set who were sort of waiting for us to do what we needed to do.
So I finally gave in and let them cut my hair, we shot it, and it was very successful. As a matter of fact, the next day, I remember walking around New York and being noticed by lots of people—and one of the people I got noticed by was Robert DeNiro! He and his wife were crossing the street, and my girlfriend and I were crossing the street in the opposite direction, we passed each other, and we sort of ended up staring at each other in sort of an odd way. I think she recognized me from the night before, said something to him, and a moment after that, he and I both looked at each other. [Laughs.] It was fun.
AVC: People have made mention of the fact that there were some parallels between your character’s path and Obama’s path.
JM: Yeah, somebody mentioned that last night, although it was having to do not so much with House as the character I played on A Different World, who was a political character. Someone said that maybe Obama saw that and was inspired.
AVC: Hey, you never know.
JM: [Laughs.] It’s true, you don’t!
JM: That was fun. Denzel [Washington] and I had known each other for a very long time but had never really worked with one another, so it was interesting in that way. I think the one thing I really remember is that I wanted to smoke a pipe, and I needed one of those satchels that you put your tobacco in, and there’s a little spring load so you can easily load your pipe, so I needed to find the prop master. And I ended up walking to the church where we were going to shoot the scene, and I turned to this gentleman who I thought was the prop master, who asked me, “How’s everything going?” I said, “Fine, but I need this pouch.” Well, it turned out that I was not talking to the prop master, I was talking to the director, Ridley Scott, who I’d never met before. [Laughs.]
AVC: But did you get the pouch you needed?
JM: Yes, I did!
JM: Ah! Well, not much to say about that one. That was a long time ago. I think may have been the very first film I ever got out of school. That was written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver, the same woman who’d done Hester Street. That cast was just riddled with all kinds of people who went on to do wonderful things. Lindsay Crouse was in that, Jeff Goldblum was in that, Stephen Collins... A whole bunch of people. The interesting thing for me in that one was that there wasn’t much written for the character, and when I went to talk to the director about that, she said she didn’t know how to write for black people, and I’d just have to do it myself.
AVC: Well, at least she was honest, right?
JM: She was that!
AVC: By the way, we did this feature with John Heard a few years back. I think we talked about this film at least briefly.
JM: John and I got to know each other on this film, and he and I got to know each other again because we did a play together Off-Broadway called G.R. Point. And then he attempted to get into the BAM company I was in—much later—and we both auditioned for the part of Oedipus. I didn’t really get to know John as well as I’d have liked to, but we did at least cross paths several times.
JM: What was interesting about that was Steve Vai, who played the guitar player from hell... literally! [Laughs.] He was worried because he had this wonderful reputation as a very nice guy, and he was very worried that playing the Devil’s guitar player would ruin his reputation. It did not, obviously, and he had a great time shooting the film. There’s a scene where we’re in hell, where we’re going to have the playoff with Ralph Macchio, and I was smoking cigarettes throughout the entire time, so by the time they got to my closeup, I was sick as a dog and turning all kinds of colors, because I wasn’t really a cigarette smoker. So we had to kind of vamp for awhile until I felt better.
AVC: So you actually got to bear witness to the guitar duel?
JM: I did, yes. I was supposed to be there to be the referee, so I was there the entire time.
AVC: Was it as awesome to witness in person as it was on film?
JM: It was! I mean, first of all, Ralph Macchio did a great job in terms of miming guitar. People really thought he was playing. And Steve Vai was terrific. And my role was fun. Oh, and Joe Seneca, he and I had done Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi [Is Dead] at the Pittsburgh Public Theater before that.
AVC: Crossroads is one of those films that might not have set the box office on fire at the time, but has become a cult classic over the years.
JM: Yeah, I think so. It was one of those films that kind of came and went, but the music was certainly wonderful. I don’t know that it caught any fire in terms of the box office. I had just come from doing The Brother From Another Planet, which also didn’t catch fire at the box office but much, much later became kind of a cult thing itself. Yeah, there are those films out there that are kind of wonderful in their own little way and for some reason just don’t catch the imagination of the audience.
AVC: Since you brought it up, I’m certainly part of the demographic that discovered Brother From Another Planet by renting the VHS.
JM: And I think that’s how most people discovered it. It got wonderful reviews when it first came out, it was—and still is—my favorite film that I’ve ever done. The challenge of playing a character who could not speak at all was wonderful. I got to do some mime work in that film. John Sayles is an amazing writer, and he was kind of a fledgling director at that time, and I think one of the reasons he gave me the job was because he’d seen me work as a classic actor and really needed an actor who could take care of his own emotional life within the film, so he didn’t have to keep spoon-feeding me this, that or the other thing. And we got on great. It was a wonderful, amazing experience that I’ll never forget.
AVC: How did you approach the role? Did you draw from silent-film comedians?
JM: That’s how it was pitched to me: that they were kind of looking for silent-film comedian types. But when I read the script, it didn’t hit me that way. It’s like having black hair, except instead of having black hair, he had no voice, which is to say that it’s just who he was. But that meant that all of my training as a theater actor to use my body and not just my face came into play.
I don’t know if you remember, but there’s a moment in the film where he finds some hieroglyphics on the wall which were obviously written by other inhabitants of his planet. He cuts himself when he starts to respond to the hieroglyphs. Well, the woman who was the production designer on the film, Nora Chavooshian, she had written all those hieroglyphs, and when I saw them, I said, “Please let me take that placard home so I can determine for myself what all those symbols mean.” She said, “Sure, terrific.” So she gave it to me, and I took it home, and then I brought it back the next day and told her what this symbol means and this symbol means and so on and so forth all the way down the line. She said, “That’s terrific, but... you’re holding the placard upside down.” [Laughs.] And John just sort of stood there and watched this whole thing unfold. He thought we were both insane.
But it was terrific doing that movie. We shot it in a month, all in New York, I think, except for one scene we shot in New Jersey. But I just thought it was an amazing film that talked about the fact that there were black people out there in the world who had talent but no channels by which they could incorporate their efforts. I just thought it was wonderful, and it still remains the kind of film that—even though it’s 35 years later—people will come up and say, “Oh, I love that movie!”
JM: I was doing a television series at the time and got the interview with James Cameron about Miles, and James asked me, “Why do you want to play this part? What’s important to you about this part?” And I said, “Well, it’s a joke that Richard Pryor tells.” And he said, “What’s that?” I said, “Richard Pryor said that the reason that Hollywood either kills black people off at the beginning of these kinds of films or they’re not in the film at all is because Hollywood doesn’t think that black people are going to be around in the future.” And that’s what got me the role. [Laughs.]
AVC: You had a pretty amazing death scene.
JM: That was a shock to me. I remember that right after the movie came out I was in California, walking down the Berkeley Promenade, and a whole group of young men came flying out of a restaurant because they recognized me, and they started talking about my death scene. I was flabbergasted. I felt like I was in one of those old movies where people actually do say things like, “Oh, I loved the way you died in that movie!” I thought, “This is tremendous!” I mean, it was great. But I was completely shocked by that particular reaction.
AVC: Whose decision was it to have Dyson die in that particular manner?
JM: We’d tried a couple of different things that didn’t work, and then I told James that I had been in a car accident a couple of summers before that in which my lung collapsed. I said, “This guy’s just been shot in the chest, so I think this is how he would respond.” So I showed him the breathing, the way I had to breathe when my lung collapsed, and once I did that, we both kind of locked into it. It’s amazing when those kinds of things happen and have that kind of impact. You just never know how people are going to respond to this, that, or the other thing in a film. That was one of those moments. And I’m grateful for it!
JM: Gosh, that was a long time ago.
AVC: It’s been ages since I’ve seen it. Who were your scenes with?
JM: You know I think I was mostly on my own. I think I was talking into a watch, like it had some kind of radio in it. And I think I didn’t have very much to do in that film. I think the only thing that film got me was that I remember being on an airplane and flirting with this young woman who was sitting next to me, and it sort of helped that that movie was playing on the airplane and I could say, “Yeah, that’s me.” [Laughs.] Oh, and I do remember that Julie Andrews showed up on the set one evening to visit her husband [Blake Edwards]. That was pretty amazing.
JM: That was fun. Henry was one of those characters where the world was his oyster. He believed that anything and everything was possible, and given that we were living in this secret town filled with all geniuses, of which he was one, that kind of thing could be played. He was a character who had great ups and great downs.
I also got to direct on that show, and a lot of the artwork that was in the smart house were my photographs. And I also wrote a song which I performed for one of the episodes. It was one where Kim comes back as a robot, so I wrote a love song that I performed. It was one of those shows where, despite the fact that it was kind of a mid-level series, it was No. 1 on SyFy for a long time, and it offered me a lot of opportunity to do a lot of different things.
AVC: Like dancing to “She Blinded Me With Science”?
JM: [Laughs.] That was fun. And funny. The producers at first said, “You know, it’s just going to be a simple thing. We don’t want a big production.” Because I think the High School Musical thing was on TV at the same time, so they said, “We just want to do it simply.” Well, by the time we finished it, it was not simple at all. I think went in and re-recorded stuff three or four times. But we had a wonderful time dancing to it. And I directed that episode too!
AVC: Are you hoping to do more directing in the future?
JM: Yes, I’ll actually be directing an episode of God Friended Me in January!
AVC: Speaking of performing songs...
JM: Blues Brothers 2000 was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a film, and those musicians were terrific. When you wake up in the morning and the first person you talk to is Dr. John... [Laughs.] And Lou Rawls was in that, too. It was just amazing. As you said, I sang on that one, and the first song was with Sam Moore and James Brown! I mean, it was just one of those things where I was in heaven every single day just listening to other musicians and carrying on. It was wonderful.
AVC: I can’t say it was the greatest film, but I can’t imagine anyone working on it not having a blast.
JM: Yeah, you know, if you like that music, then you want to go see that film. There’s nothing terrific about the movie itself other than the fact that you’re going to get a chance to witness these wonderful musicians do what they do.
JM: Speed was one of those films that nobody had any great hopes for in the beginning. It was way under budget in terms of what they were willing to spend. Keanu [Reeves] was not yet a big star in terms of that kind of film, and Sandra Bullock most people didn’t even know then. Of course, people knew who Jeff Daniels and Dennis Hopper were, and some people knew who I was, but it was one of those movies that sort of came together. [Director] Jan de Bont did a wonderful job, and once they started testing it, they decided to start throwing a lot of money at it, because the test scores were very high, and people really, really loved the film. And we all had a great time doing it. It was a lot of fun.
AVC: You also popped up in Speed 2, albeit uncredited.
JM: Speed 2 was not a great film. [Laughs.] It was an opportunity for me to make some money. I didn’t even finish reading the script. They just wanted faces from the other film to be part of it, and I said, “Sure.” I was on it maybe for a couple of days, and that was about it.
AVC: Was the lack of credit their choice, to make it a surprise?
JM: Uh, no, that was my choice. [Laughs.]
JM: You know, that’s one of those characters, one of those stories, and one of those films that was just another wonderful experience, working with Gary Sinese and John Malkovich. I think the only real big scene I had was with John, toward the end of the film, and we actually shot it close to the end of the shooting schedule. Two things that I remember about that. One is, if you remember, there’s a horseshoe scene, where we’re throwing horseshoes, and a lot of my work was on cover sets, which meant that if it rained—because a lot of the stuff we were doing was outside—then we would do my scene at the end, inside Crooks’ room. That never came to be, because I didn’t shoot until the end, but that gave me a lot of time to throw horseshoes, so by the time we had the horseshoe-throwing scene... I think it was Jon Tenney who said, “I’ll give 50 bucks to the first person who gets a ringer.” I threw my first horseshoe, and I got a ringer. He was pissed. [Laughs.]
AVC: When we spoke to Sherilyn Fenn for this feature, she said she was “so proud to be a part of that,” and she said that John Malkovich was “amazing.”
JM: It really was amazing. John and I had a great time shooting that scene towards the end, and it was one of those beautiful movies that I hope people watch. As a matter of fact, my girlfriend’s nieces watched it in school. So it’s around, and people are still viewing it, so that’s good.
JM: I thought Proof was a beautifully written show, certainly a beautifully shot show. I thought that Jennifer [Beals] was wonderful in the piece. I thought it was interesting that it didn’t last that long, and I think because maybe it didn’t have enough of one thing or another, or maybe the country just wasn’t willing to think about that idea of what happens after we die. Whereas God Friended Me is more about what happens while you’re alive. It talks about the connection between human beings and the possibility of helping one another. So I suppose it’s a more active show, in a way.
AVC: At the time, Jennifer told us that one thing she particularly loved about Proof was that it conveyed that when you start contemplating death, it doesn’t have to be a morbid exercise.
JM: Yes, I think that was true. And that’s even how it was shot. The whole idea was that there’s maybe something really wonderful on the other side, but for some reason it didn’t click with audiences.
JM: That’s another one that was a long time ago!
AVC: But the show was already heading toward being iconic at the time. What was it like to get a shot at doing an episode of the show?
JM: Well, I was a very young actor at the time, so to be on M*A*S*H was very exciting. I met Alan Alda and Mike Farrell, and it was just great. It was a lovely thing to be asked to do. I didn’t have anything particularly special to do in the show, but just being on the show was wonderful!
AVC: You were on several episodes of Tribeca, but you also directed an episode.
JM: Yes, and it was a great idea for a show, one where Tribeca was actually one of the characters. Shooting in New York was a tremendous thing. It’s still the same for shooting God Friended Me. Shooting in New York is just a beautiful thing. So I really enjoyed it. I think with Tribeca, it was one of those situations where we got great reviews, but unfortunately part of those reviews was that people thought we were on the wrong network, which didn’t help us. But people seemed to like the show for the little time we were on. I think we only did six episodes.
As for directing, we were still using film back then, so it was wonderful. To go into editing meant you were actually editing film, not tape, which was tremendous. I loved that.
JM: Tap was a lot of fun. Working with Gregory [Hines] was tremendous, because Gregory and I were friends. We got ourselves in a little bit of trouble, because I remember trying to do this one scene, and we were supposed to be angry with each other, but we just never had that relationship with each other, so we kept laughing. We had to work hard to get that done. I also got to scat in that movie while Gregory was contemplating robbing the diamonds upstairs. So it was fun. I think it was also one of the few bad guys I’ve played in my career.
AVC: Did you have any scenes with Sammy Davis Jr.?
JM: I didn’t. But I did get a chance to talk to him, and when my time on the film was over, I got to say goodbye. So I spent a little bit of time with him, which was huge for me. My dad was in the Army, so whenever we came back to the States from wherever we were, my grandmother would always take me to the Apollo, and that’s where I always saw Sammy Davis Jr. So to meet him and be around him was a thrill.
JM: Oh, my gosh! I loved working on that film. Jesus, that was so long ago. Kris Kristofferson [and I] became friends in that film, and we’re still friends to this day. Alan Rudolph, who directed the film, he and I tried to work together a couple of times after that, but for whatever reason it just never happened. Alan actually gave me the idea for a film that I’m trying to get on about a character named Eugene Jacques Bullard, whose claim to fame was to be the first black combat aviator, who never flew for the United States. He only flew for France. A great story. Alan came into my hotel room one afternoon and dropped this newspaper article on my table and said, “You should do this.” At the time, I think he meant I should do it as an actor. I’ve now been trying to write it and get on as a writer.
AVC: When we talked to Keith Carradine about the film, one of the things that came up was the fact that it was a rare film that featured Divine in a non-drag role.
JM: Yeah, and I think that was one of the last things Divine did before he died. It’s funny, another thing about that film, I sent Alan a picture of what I wanted to look like. I wanted my hair slicked back, and I had these three funny things coming off my forehead in terms of the hair, and I had these wild glasses. For a while, I was the oddest looking character in the film, but Alan liked that look so much that, after everybody else was cast, I became the most normal looking person in the film. Which was kind of bizarre.
AVC: Yeah, Keith observed that it was interesting how you couldn’t really pin down a time or place where the film took place.
JM: And I think that was on purpose. It was meant to be kind of a mashup of all kinds of different things, and the look was meant to be timeless and yet somehow antique at the same time.
AVC: You worked with John Sayles again on Lone Star, another film that’s developed a cult following over the years.
JM: Yeah, and I think that’s because John’s films are all social commentary. Lone Star is about crossing borders. All kinds of borders. It ends up, as you know, with a pair of lovers who are, in fact, brother and sister but didn’t know they were brother and sister until it was way too late. It’s a really, really interesting film, and it’s also when John sort of took a leap in terms of the look of the film, moving from one time period to the other by just moving the camera. It was great. I loved doing that movie.
JM: Rowan will always remain one of my most famous characters. Rowan was a gift from Shonda Rhimes, to be given a character that is given monologues. I mean, a page and a half of monologues on a television series is extraordinary, and the kinds of things he was given to say were extraordinary. It’s a gift that I will always be indebted to Shonda for.
AVC: You were not on the series from day one, but when you first appeared, was it always intended to be a regular role, or was it initially intended as a guest spot?
JM: I don’t know what she intended when we first... I mean, she brought me on, and the only thing I knew from the very beginning was that the reveal would be that I was going to be Olivia’s dad. I knew that from the outset, and I was the only one who knew that. It was kind of the secret that I carried around for those first six episodes that I did. When I came back for season three, I was still a recurring character, but suddenly the idea of who this guy was had clearly grown in Shonda’s mind, and I was just willing to fly along with her.
AVC: Is there any moment during the course Rowan Pope’s run that qualifies as the craziest?
JM: There were lots of things that he did that were outrageous. I think I just took him so seriously. For me, it really was about his relationship with his daughter and his relationship with the country. That’s how I viewed him. Even if those two things were in conflict with one another, those were the two things that were most important to him, and he would do anything to make sure that they were safe and that they survived.
Smallville (2001-2002)—“Dr. Steven Hamilton”
Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) / Justice League (2017)—“Silas Stone”
AVC: You’re one of the rare actors who’s had the opportunity to be part of DC’s small-screen universe and cinematic universe.
JM: Doing Smallville years ago was fun. That was a thing that kind of fell in my lap, and it was just a lot of fun to do, to be part of a comic book that we all had read in some way when we were kids. And then to later on be part of Batman v. Superman and Justice League... Again, it’s kind of a wild thing. And while I was doing Justice League, I was doing a play called Turn Me Loose, about Dick Gregory, so I was literally going from something very, very real and very political and down to earth to something fantastical. It was a wonderful experience.
AVC: With Justice League, were you part of the re-shoot group, or did you not have to deal with that?
JM: I had some small things that I had to re-shoot, yes. Nothing major. I think he just had to sew some things together. But I just had a great time doing all of that. I guess I’ve been lucky that way, to do Terminator 2 and now Batman v. Superman and Justice League. Knock wood, I’ve just been lucky in that respect.
AVC: Has there been any talk of what the future holds for you in that universe?
JM: I believe they’ve been talking about doing a Cyborg film in 2020. So we’ll have our fingers crossed and hope that that turns out to be true.
JM: The two reasons I wanted to do that play were 1) Tom Hanks, and 2) Dan Sullivan, who I’d never worked with before. He’s an extraordinary director. I had a great time doing that play. In some ways, it has to do with kind of what’s going on with the country, in terms of holding onto certain types of values. Steve Rankin, who was our fight instructor, was tremendous. And Tom was amazing. I don’t know if you heard the story, but at one point we had a medical emergency in the audience, and as it was being taken care of and the play was on hold, we were just kind of waiting around, and no one was onstage until it was taken care of. But Tom decided to get up onstage and sort of improvise with the audience for about 20 minutes, which was hysterical.
AVC: He did something similar in Richmond when I attended the premiere of HBO’s John Adams miniseries. At one point, the power went out, and he grabbed the microphone and ran to the front of the theater and said, “People of Richmond! You’ve survived for over 200 years. You can survive a few minutes in the dark!”
JM: [Laughs.] There you go. He’s that kind of guy. He’s great. A very generous guy, a wonderful actor. We had a good time together. We really did.
JM: That was interesting. When I went in to audition for the piece, [director Leonard Nimoy] wanted me to play a character I really wasn’t interested in, and I wanted to play the lawyer. And he said something to the effect of, “Well, we have to be careful about how we have our black people in this movie,” which I took great offense to. So I said, “Well, let me just come back.” And I came back and sort of gave this long explanation about why I should play this character. And he said, “You’re talking to me like a lawyer,” and I said, “Well, that’s why I’m here: I want to play this lawyer!” And he and I became good friends as a result of it. I liked Leonard a lot. I thought he was a wonderful director. I don’t think he got the credit that he deserved with that film. I thought it was quite good.
JM: That’s become a cult classic film as well. It was Matty Rich’s second film. I think we, the actors who were part of that film, thought that the film would be in trouble because we were just having way too much fun doing it. We had a great time being with one another and doing those scenes. It just was one of those gifts where you’ve got a group of actors together who were having just a wonderful time playing off these characters, the idea that one set of characters is from the political side of the ’60s and the other set of characters were well-to-do characters and played in the Inkwell.
The other side of for me, also, was that I’d never been to the Inkwell, so after we did the film, I went up to the vineyards to see what the actual Inkwell looked like. In the movie, it looked like this wonderful, vast beach. In real life, it’s a very small part of Martha’s Vineyard. The town that surrounds it is quite beautiful, but it was just interesting that it looked nothing like what we shot. [Laughs.]
But you had a group of wonderful actors all getting a chance to work with one another, which was not always the case, especially not in those days. In a lot of the films that were coming out in those days, black characters were criminals of one sort of another, and here you had this collection of these two sets of families that I thought was just a tremendous image to put up there on the screen.
AVC: In the late ’70s, you did a PBS series called Watch Your Mouth, which is pretty under the radar these days.
JM: Actually, people do stop me, especially people who are closer to me in age, and tell me that they loved that series. The idea of the series was to teach black and Hispanic high school students the use of what was called in those days Expanded American English, but with the idea that the kinds of language that a lot of those kids were using on the street... That’s when spoken word was beginning to happen, and a lot of the poetry that these kids were doing was actually adding to the American people’s lexicon, in terms of vocabulary. But because we live in a diverse world and because we were trying to help these kids move on with their lives.
You know, if you’re trying to get a job and you go in and say, “I be the cat for the job,” you may not get that job. [Laughs.] You can use that kind of language among your friends, and that’s fine, but there’s another kind of language that would be more helpful to you in certain circumstances. And that was the idea of the show, and I thought it was enormously successful in doing that. We had some wonderful actors, directors, and writers who were educating young people. It was tremendous.
AVC: Do you have a favorite project over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
JM: I’d have to really think about that. I suppose Brother From Another Planet—when we first did it, it was not the cult film that it ended up being. I think a lot of black people at first thought that it was just another black exploitation film until it hit the airwaves, in terms of cable television. That’s when it became a cult film. Ultimately, it got what it deserved, but at first people didn’t know what to make of it. So I don’t know. I think I’ve been fortunate enough—knock wood—that a lot of the things I’ve been placed to do have turned out fairly well. Maybe the only character who didn’t get his due was in Equal Justice. It was taken off the air after two seasons. I thought it was quite a good show. I thought Thomas Carter did an amazing job putting that thing together.
AVC: I don’t know if New York News is legitimately underrated. but it’s certainly one of those shows that could be seen as prescient now.
JM: Yeah, it was interesting! I played the editor of that newspaper, and I’ll never forget this: There was a scene where we are investigating some underworld kind of mob characters, and I get captured. And I’m in this large room, and the police are supposed to come in and rescue me. And I think all the director told the actors playing the cops was, “The bad guys are in this room, go in and save our hero.” But they didn’t quite know who the hero was, so they arrested me, because I was the only black person in the room, which I thought was kind of funny.
JM: Oh, boy! That was great. Laurence Fishburne and I had known each other for a while, and when that movie came long, we all thought how important it was to understand the history of those men and of penicillin and the rest of it. My character was kind of a culmination of lots of different characters who were part of that horrible set of decades where these men were not treated properly and allowed to die. And it pointed out once again how black people were treated in this country for this long. I thought it was a very important movie to be done. and I was glad to see that lots of people got to see it.
AVC: You’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of these ripped-from-the-headlines films. You were part of the Challenger movie, too.
JM: Right! An interesting film from a couple of different points of view. I think [Dr. Ronald McNair] was among the first black men, if not the first, to go up into space. So again, an important film in terms of what the dynamic amongst those people was. And, of course, the unfortunately thing with the O-ring led to their death. But an important film in terms of who those people were and what their interactions were with one another. It was also fun to do. I mean, they took us and we did a bit of training, so at one point some of them did the underwater training, and I think some of us got a chance to go up in the airplane and experience zero gravity. There was a docking thing that we could fool around with, where you actually sat in a chair that floated above the ground, and you learned how to dock. We were taken to the bar that all the astronauts are brought to when they come back from space. The actual bar. And when we wrapped, we had our wrap party in that bar just amongst ourselves. It was quite an experience.
AVC: I was actually out of school because of a teacher workday when the Challenger exploded, so that’s always a subject that gets me.
JM: And it’s tragic because it really was just someone’s horrible mistake, not taking enough time. In some ways, I suppose, it’s like the Titanic: Had they taken a little more time to put that ship together, it might’ve survived the iceberg. And the same thing is true with Challenger: had they taken a little bit more time to see what the problem was, that event might never have happened.
JM: Grady was an interesting experience. It’s the only... Well, it’s not the only one, but it’s one of the few experiences I’ve had doing sitcoms. It was also interesting in terms of the time, in that when we did the pilot for Grady, the character that I played was a college professor who was teaching history. By the time we actually got down to shooting the series, they’d changed it, because the audience at that time thought it was unbelievable for a black man to be a professor at a college. So they changed it to a high school phys ed teacher, which just in itself I thought was an interesting statement on how mainstream America viewed black people on television.
What was worse was that the writers, as it turns out, were simply regurgitating scripts that they’d already written for other family-oriented sitcoms. I mean, literally, word for word. I was surfing the channels one day and came across... I don’t remember what the series was, but it was one with lots of kids in it, and I witnessed a script that we had just finished shooting. Word for word.
Then what happened after that... Now, this was supposed to be a spin-off of Sanford And Son, and that had its own complications, which I’ll go into next. But the way to do that would’ve been to put us right after Sanford And Son, which the network did not do because another big-name actor wanted that spot and said that if he didn’t get that spot, he would never work for that network again. So they put us in a graveyard spot and, of course, we died after six episodes.
Now, for me, that was very happy news, because I was completely unhappy working on that show. I just thought it was a lie from beginning to end, and it was unfortunate circumstances. But it was a lesson. Another lesson was that we asked why they didn’t have black writers come on the show, and they said there were no black people who knew how to write for television. It was that period of time where the kinds of things that needed to be done were not being done. So I was glad for the experience... and I was very glad when it was over!
AVC: How was Whitman Mayo to work with?
JM: Whitman was terrific. The reason Whitman had gotten that job in the first place was because, if you remember, Redd Foxx was going through that thing where he wouldn’t show up for work because there were no windows in his dressing room. [Laughs.] So Whitman had basically taken over Sanford And Son while Redd was out. And when Redd came back, it was Whitman’s managers who said, “Now that he’s helped you out, you should help him out by giving him his own series.” And the network did not want to do that in the first place, but his managers kept arm-twisting and they finally gave him a series, and what I described to you a minute ago was what happened. So there was never any real true support for the series.
By the way, not only did I get a chance to work with Whitman—which was terrific, because Whitman had a band that he managed, so I worked with them for awhile—but I got to work with Carole Cole, who was Nat King Cole’s niece.
AVC: Did you ever actually get to work with Redd Foxx? I know he did one episode of the show.
JM: He came in for the pilot, I believe. And he only came in because there was some conversation in there, a line where we’re talking about Redd’s character, and I asked to be able to say something to the effect of, “Oh, that’s right, that’s Grady’s ace-boon-coon.” And the network went crazy and said, “No, no, you can’t say that!” And I said, “No, I can say that. You can’t say that.” [Laughs.] And then they actually went to Redd and said, “What does this mean?” And Redd told them, as I had told them, that it just means his best friend, and there was some talk back and forth, and... I mean, that series was a mess from the time it started to the time it ended!