Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood? Yes, and a lot more than you might think. The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe. A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms. The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years. His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event. This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne. I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried. All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.
I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it. I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios. I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon. Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.
This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous. Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present. I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.
photo credits:TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER
Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon
Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.
Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.
Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.
His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.
“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.
As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.
“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”
Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.
He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.
An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.
Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.
“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”
In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.
The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.
The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.
Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.
“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.
“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.
According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”
Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”
Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).
Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.
“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.
“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”
Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.
Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.
Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.
“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”
Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.
“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”
Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.
“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”
Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”
But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.
“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”
Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.
“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”
Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.
“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”
Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.
“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”
A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses
Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .
“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”
Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.
“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.
“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”
Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.
“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”
Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.
“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.
“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”
Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.
“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”
“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”
Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.
“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.
Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.
“Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”
Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.
“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”
Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.
Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”
Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.
“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”
Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.
“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.
“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”
The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says, “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.
“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”
Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.
As indie filmmakers go, Dan Mirvish occupies an interesting space. His micro-budgeted features get far more attention than the vast majority of like projects because his films are so singular and he’s such a good promoter. Mirvish is artist, huckster, provocateur all in one. He and his new film Between Us are the subjects of the following piece I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com). The film is playing one night only, Aug. 1, at Film Streams in Omaha. Mirvish will speak after the screening. Omaha’s produced few filmmakers over time, most notably Joan Micklin Silver and Alexander Payne, and more recently Nik Fackler, and as my piece suggests Mirvish may be the most interesting among them for his sheer audacity in getting projects made and seen and talked about.
Dan Mirvish Strikes Again: Indie Filmmaker is Back with the New Feature ‘Between Us’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Oriignally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once dubbed a “cheerful subversive” by The New York Times, indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish uses his skills as a provocateur and promoter to get his obscure work noticed by the very mainstream whose noses he sometimes tweaks.
He’s in rare company as a Nebraska native feature filmmaker. There’s only a handful whose feature work has gotten anything like fairly wide distribution. Joan Micklin Silver is the matriarch. Alexander Payne, the big name. Nik Fackler, the promising newcomer. But the L.A.-based Mirvish may have the most interesting story. His new feature Between Us is a faithful adaptation of the off-Broadway play of the same name by Joe Hortua, who co-wrote the script with Mirvish.
The film stars Taye Diggs, Julia Stiles, David Harbour and Melissa George.
Principally shot in L.A. and New York City, Between Us features pick up shots of Omaha and rural Nebraska to cover the story’s partial Midwest setting. An opening montage shows off the local riverfront.
After playing two dozen festivals around the world the pic is in the midst of a limited theatrical release, including an August 1 Film Streams screening at 7 p.m. followed by a Q&A featuring Mirvish. The film has an Aug. 16-18 run at the World Theater in Kearney, Neb, and will likely make its way to Lincoln at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. It’s soon to be available via NetFlix, Amazon, et cetera,
Mirvish first attempted the project seven years ago. He was coming off his 2004 real estate musical comedy Open House, a super-charged homage and parody of Hollywood musicals. It got press when he openly campaigned to get the film nominated in the long dormant Best Original Musical category. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed its rules to block his brazen maneuver.
Outside interest in adapting Open House to the stage brought Mirvish to New York to meet with theatrical agents. Always searching for material, he asked to read play scripts and discovered Between Us, a dark satire about the shifting relations within and between two couples contending with marriage, life and career conflicts. Suppressed tensions and jealousies get expressed and fireworks ensue.
“I decided to do Between Us because it spoke to me emotionally. It was about married people with young children and it dealt with issues of artistic authenticity that I could relate to,” says Mirvish, who’s married with three young children. “A lot of people can see themselves through the eyes of those characters, I also thought for practical purposes it could work as a low budget movie if it had to be done on a low budget. It’s essentially four people in two rooms.”
He and Hortua did the adaptation, retaining almost everything from the original but adding new material that opened up the piece cinematically, including visualizing things only talked about in the play and using flashbacks to move time and space.
There seemed to be momentum behind the project but then stuff happened.
“We thought we were going to make the movie in 2008 for $2 or $3 million,” says Mirvish. “I got some great producers on board, we were getting these great actors reading the script and then the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008. No one was giving money to make movies. So we put the project on hold.
“Luckily for me a little project I was doing on the side, the Martin Eisenstadt fake pundit project, a series of shorts and CDs and Internet satire, ultimately evolved into a book deal from this very fancy publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.”
He and fellow filmmaker Eitan Gorlin concocted the elaborate Eisenstadt hoax that hoodwinked many major media outlets. The pair’s I Am Martin Eisenstadt novel did quite well critically, thus putting Mirvish in the unusual position of having duped the media and finding himself rewarded and celebrated for it .
“it got better reviews than any film I’ve ever done,” Mirvish says of the book.
Mirvish delights in giving the establishment fits. In 1993 he co-founded the Slamance Film Festival in response to Sundance ignoring smaller indie works. Then he made Omaha, the Movie, perhaps the first indigenous feature shot here by a local crew. He finagled getting VHS tapes of the hyper-kinetic farce into the hands of festival directors and reviewers.
Between Us principal cast Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George, David Harbour
Mirvish is nothing if not persistent and resilient. Several years ago he took a terrible fall from a ladder while remodeling his home. His leg snapped. Broken bones tore through the skin and he lost 40 percent of his blood. He was in the hospital six months, then in a wheelchair for six more and on crutches six months after that. He never stopped working and even fulfilled his Slamdance MC role while still in a wheelchair. The ever intrepid one later worked the experience of the fall and its aftermath into Between Us.
The USC film school grad was mentored by legendary director Robert Altman, whose grandson Dana Altman produced Omaha, the Movie and was an executive producer on Between Us,
After the success of his book Mirvish and native Omahan Sam Johnson, a veteran writer for episodic television, pitched Eistenstadt as a series.
Mirvish says, “We came close to a deal with Showtime. Ashton Kutcher was going to produce. Then a mid-level executive got fired and the whole thing collapsed, which sadly is fairly typical in Hollywood. It was two years of my life with that project.” That’s when Mirvish revived Between Us. He still liked the material and, he says, “it still had the advantage of lending itself to a low budget production.” He got friends, family, even crew, to invest and launched a modest Kickstarter campaign.
Before even most of the money was in hand, Mirvish set a start date.
“Having a start date is really a key thing, and this is something I learned from Robert Altman. If you actually set a start date you’re going to make the movie and you’re going to find a cast. It’s the train leaving the station theory. If the train’s leaving the station people want to be on that train.”
He says the production confirmed another theory he ascribes to that says “every element you have in a movie will at some point drop out – your cast, your camera, your financing, your distribution – but as long as they don’t all drop out the same day you’re going to be OK. And that’s exactly what happened in casting.” Only a few months before shooting he thought his cast would be Diggs, Kerry Washington, Michael C. Hall and America Ferrera. All but Diggs dropped out.
“Taye stuck with it, God bless him, and we built the cast up again.”
Mirvish and Hortua are pleased with the cast they ended up with, David Harbour actually did the play’s first reading and was in its first production.
But the biggest pressure was one that hung over the shoot the whole time.
“The bulk of our financing came from one investor whose check only cleared the third to the last day, which is not the ideal way to make a movie,” says Mirvish. “But you know there were enough people on the crew who were working for free up until that point who really had a passion for the project and the material. We were able to feed off that energy even if we couldn’t feed ourselves with much else.”
Just as he’s done many times before on features and shorts, he begged and borrowed equipment, got free crew, stole locations and did what he had to do. “You just have to have kind of blind faith in your own ingenuity and good luck that somehow it will all come together,” he says.
It’s a good bet that even should Mirvish, now working on a new script set entirely in Omaha, find commercial success he’ll always be a by-any-means necessary guerilla filmmaker at heart.
- Dan Mirvish: Hollywood Director Apologizes for Weiner Press Conference (huffingtonpost.com)
Michael Beasley Follows His Pops John Beasley as a TV-Film Actor, Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small and Big Screen Projects, including ‘Steel Magnolias’
Actor John Beasley is by now a fixture in television, film, and theater. What you may not know is that his son Michael Beasley is charting a career path that may soon surpass his father’s, at least on the small and big screens. I’ve been reporting and writing about the father for many years and now I see I’ll be doing the same with the son. There’s another son, Tyrone Beasley, who’s also an immensely talented actor. You can find my previous stories on John, his theater, and his family on this blog.
Michael Beasley Follows his Father John Beasley in Becomng a TV-Film Actor, The Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small Screen and Big Screen Projects
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Don’t look now but Michael Beasley is carving out a film-television career rivaling that of his powerhouse father John Beasley (Rudy, The Apostle).
The nearly 20 feature and made-for-TV pics he’s booked the last few years have him on the verge of being one of the industry’s next breakout character actors.
He’s doing it all too from his adopted home of Atlanta, Ga. and surrounding region, together known as Hollywood South for all the productions shooting there.
“It’s really happening here. A lot of work is moving down here,” he says. “I’ve just been blessed to be kind of the big fish in a small pond at the time when it’s starting to rise.
Papa John says, “He’s been doing quite well. I’m very proud of him.
Many of Beasley’s supporting roles have been in major Hollywood projects, including, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Contraband, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I Love You Phillip B. Morris and The Great Debaters.
Smaller scale projects have included Mississippi Damned, American Violet, American Reunion and Hero.
Two of his biggest films, both helmed by name directors, have yet to be released. Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, is due out in November. The Bay, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Kristen Connolly, is slated for an early 2013 release. Then there’s Arthur Newman, Golf Pro .
He has the lead in a new indie film, Mystic Rising, still in post-production..
He’s also guest starred in episodic TV, most recently in USA Network’s Necessary Roughness. He has a recurring role in the Starz Channel’s series Magic City.
Sunday, October 7 is the world premiere of a much anticipated Lifetime movie he’s in, the all-black version of Steel Magnolias. The super cast includes Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. He plays Spud, the husband of Scott’s character Truvy. He and Scott have some scenes together. He’s also a presence in ensemble scenes. At 6-foot-5, he’s hard to miss.
“It was an amazing experience working with all these legends,” he says. “The energy on the set was awesome. I feel we made another classic.”
Trading lines with big names is nothing new for Beasley, who’s worked twice with both Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg and shared screen time with Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Colin Firth, Jennifer Garner, et cetera.
“Being able to work with these actors and hold my own with them has given me total confidence I can do it in any setting. I know i can because I’m putting in the work to do what it takes to be prepared for whatever the role is.”
Beasley, who came to acting after a pro basketball career overseas, looks at every set he’s on, whether a commercial (he’s done one with Shaquille O’Neal, TV show or feature, as “a learning experience.” He’s learned the truth behind the adage there’s no such thing as a small part. Every line, gesture, expression counts.
“It’s exciting to me to get on the set. It’s not like a, Oh-here-we-go-again type of thing. It’s basically a feeling of, ‘Hey, I’m getting paid to do this?’ I think every set is important because I’m learning and building relationships, and so every chance I can be on the set helps me hone my craft.”
Sometimes he talks shop, as he did with Michael Caine and Luis Guzman on Journey 2. Then there’s the fountain of experience he draws from his father, whose extensive film-TV credits are two decades long.
“I’ve always got my father to fall back on and ask, ‘What can I do?’ and with his wealth of knowledge he helps. I was able to see my father’s career and whatever he did, good or bad, and say, ‘I can do this and do it different.’”
Father-son have worked together a few times, mostly at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in South Omaha, where Michael’s brother, Tyrone, is artistic director.
Michael’s smart enough to know that when surrounded by serious, veteran talent it’s best to be a sponge.
“Yeah, it’s a blessing and I look at it as basically on-the-job training. As soon as I shoot my scenes I run to the monitor to see what these guys are doing. John Goodman is amazing. I mean, I knew his acting was amazing but when you see him do stuff in person, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s stuff you can’t really get in a classroom setting, I don’t think. These guys are actually doing it for real and it works for them.
“It’s seeing what their process is and how they pay attention to detail. They really bring a lot more to just the words on the page. Even working with my father it’s the same way. Unfortunately, I’m down here and he’s up in Omaha. We haven’t been on a set together as far as a movie (though that’s a goal of each).
Even when he’s not “working,” Beasley’s still working it.
“I’m always studying my craft. Even when I’m out in public I’m watching what people do and trying to take from that. I’ve always been like a student of the game.”
Steel Magnolias marked his second time acting with Woodard after American Violet, and his first with director Kenny Leon, who’s directed his father on stage in several August Wilson productions.
Leon says, “Michael’s a very talented young man, I guess it’s in the blood. He really delivered for me in the film. It’s a really honest portrayal. Everybody wants to know, ‘Who’s that guy? Where’d he come from?’” Leon says the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. “Both John and Michael are authentic. They both bring it from an organic place. They’re just being. There’s no tricks. They find a simplicity to the life of the people they portray. It’s honest, it’s real, and you can’t teach that.”
He sees big things ahead for the son. “Michael can do anything he wants.”
Every new relationship Beasley cultivates and every new credit he adds to his IMDB page only reinforces his reputation as the hardest working actor around. It’s been one project after another.
“That’s how it’s been. It’s been just like a major ride,” he says.
His goal’s to become a familiar face and name to TV-film viewers and an in-demand talent producers and directors seek out.
“I think I am on the radar. It only takes one movie for you to become famous.”
In no sense does he feel he’s arrived yet.
“Every year I’m like, OK, what can I do that I haven’t done to get me closer to my goal? Every day I try to figure out something I can do, even if I only have an hour to do it. I can read this book or I can workout to enhance my look or I can work on an accent. Whatever I need to I just find a way to do it.”
He hopes to inspire other others to follow their dreams.
“I want people to know it’s a matter of deciding, whatever your dream is, to just go after it and don’t be afraid of failure. That’s what I’m doing, I’m going after my dream, I’m not changing, and I’m going to get it.
“I just have this drive. Whatever it is I do I try to be the best at it. Otherwise, I’m wasting my time in my opinion.”
- 1989′s Steel Magnolia Remake (celebamnesia.wordpress.com)
Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’
Gabrielle Union. She’s hard to ignore because of her beauty, intelligence, confidence, grit, and good heart. All those qualities and more are on display in a new PBS documentary event, Half the Sky, premiering Oct. 1 and 2 that features her as one of six celebrity advocates who travel to different corners of the world to explore women and girls overcoming oppression. Those traits are reportedly also on display in her title role performance in the new BET movie, Being Mary Jane, that’s set to premiere early next year before developing into a series. My cover story on Union below is the latest among three cover stories I’ve done on the actress over the years. You can find the previous stories on this blog as well. I expect I’ll file more Gabby stories in the future as well.
Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’
by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gabrielle Union has reached a point in her film and television career where she’s doing more meaningful projects. Not by accident either. The maturing actress known for her assertive persona and frank views has been ever more deliberate about her personal and professional choices.
“Probably since 2006 I’ve been concentrating on making sure I’m happy and doing things for the right reason and surrounding myself with good, positive people and eliminating the rest,” says the Omaha native with mega family and friends here. “I’ve got a peace of mind I’ve never had and I’m just really happy.”
It seems hard to believe but this glam goddess is 40 now. She’s still enough of a pop culture presence and sex symbol to grace the cover of the new EBONY magazine. She’s the perfect age, too, for the driven title character she plays in the new BET movie Being Mary Jane. The drama, slated to air in early 2013, is leveraged to become the network’s first original dramatic series.
The movie premiered at the recent Urbanworld Film Festival in Manhattan.
Her character Mary Jane Paul is a smart, popular Atlanta TV host striving to have it all in a male-dominated field while her biological clock ticks.
It might as well be describing Union’s real life as a single black female juggling career, family, living large and causes. Mary Jane’s another in a long line of her together black women roles. As she puts it, “I don’t mind creating positive images for women of color.” She says she and her two adult sisters, both successful in their own right, are confident, capable people today in large measure because of her mother, Theresa Glass Union, a former social worker and corporate manager.
Gabby’s no stranger herself to career and relationship issues. After her marriage to former NFL player Chris Howard ended in divorce she was a free agent. Then she met NBA icon Dwyane Wade, whose own marriage dissolved. Since finding each other on the rebound they’ve become a favorite power couple in celeb circles.
But it’s a project that didn’t require Union to do any acting that may make her most enduring impression. She’s one of six celebrity advocates in the new PBS transmedia documentary series Half the Sky. It premieres October 1 and 2. Union and Co. serve as witnesses and guides for this sprawling, multi-continent media event that examines the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The despairing realities revealed are offset by the courageous actions of individuals and organizations, so-called agents of change, working to improve conditions on the ground.
The title comes from the best selling book by noted New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn. The series explores how girls and women in poverty become trapped in family-society restraints that limit opportunities and enable abuse, servitude and discrimination. The film finds education the most powerful liberating force for freeing people from bondage.
Girls are often discouraged from completing their education and even if they do they must still confront serious obstacles. Some do. Many don’t.
Producers invited Union to participate along with fellow actresses Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde and America Ferrera. Each was assigned to travel to a separate developing nation (Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan) with Kristof. Their mission – to investigate what problems females face and report on proven remedies. Union and her peers acted as citizen journalists – their curiosity, empathy and questions complementing the professional reporter’s work.
Having a celebrity tag along is nothing new for Kristof.
“Nick has a history of engaging witnesses in his travels as a reporter,” says Half the Sky executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff. “He does his yearly Win-a-Trip where readers apply to go on an extensive journalist’s trip with him and he’s also traveled with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney (the actor intros the series). He has a very hard core following and what he’s often said about that is he wants to ‘bring fresh eyes.’”
In whatever corner of the world the celebrities, Kristof and filmmakers went they met females in distress as well as advocates working on their behalf. Chermayeff profiles select girls and women, whose stories become the prism through which we view the problems and solutions.
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam‘s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.
During her Delta stay she met John Wood, co-founder of Room to Read, an NGO providing books and support to millions of children worldwide. It got its start in Vietnam. Duyen and Nhi are both Room to Read scholars. She also met a pair of Vietnam nationals who work as program facilitators with the girls and their families.
Half the Sky promotional materials brand the project’s ambitious aim as “turning oppression into opportunity” through programs and efforts that “seek to engage, educate and motivate the world to action.”
Union says the experience opened her eyes to the “very skewed idea Americans have of Vietnam.” She says she went “open to hearing the stories from the war and the rebuilding that happened after the war.” She adds she was most surprised by how “for the most part the Vietnamese are very openly welcoming of Americans.”
Chermayeff, who made the HBO doc The Kindness of Strangers in Omaha, says some colleagues questioned using celebrities
“But we knew celebrities could do two things. They could be fresh eyes and they could also shine a light, bounce a little bit of their ability to draw in a different audience on these very important issues.”
At a screening of the finished film she says skeptics acknowledged how effective the advocates are as “a bridge between the audience and the experience.”
“We knew we didn’t want the talent to distract from the stories or to be playing the role of an expert. They’re not experts. But we knew we were reaching out to women who were socially engaged, who had walked this walk and talked this talk before. They were working in this space. Gabrielle Union’s done extensive work with young women and girls on gender based violence in the States.”
Union’s heavily involved in supporting rape victims and raising money for cancer research. While a student at UCLA she was raped at the job she worked. From the time her film-TV career took off in the late 1990s she’s spoken candidly about what happened and she encourages victims to become survivors whose voices are heard. After close friend Kristen Martinez died of breast cancer Union devoted herself to spreading the word about the need for breast cancer screenings, which she does as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure ambassador.
When asked to carry her activism to Half the Sky she balked at first, only because she was coming off an especially busy period, but after seeing how it aligned with her own values and interests in empowering females, she signed on.
“I just couldn’t say no. i just wanted to be part of telling the story. It was incredibly humbling. I mean, I do a lot of work for women and girls on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Planned Parenthood, the UCLA Rape Crisis Center. I lobby state legislatures and the U.S. Senate and Congress to create funding for rape crisis centers. I’m on the President’s Committee to stop violence against women.
“I was happy to do be asked to take part in such a huge project as Half the Sky in bringing awareness to the issue of girls and women living in oppression.”
The much-anticipated series is the kind of prestige, serious endeavor that might gain her a whole new following. Most of her recent film work has been in black-themed soap operas featuring her niche as a sharp-tongued shrew with a heart-of-gold (Deliver Us From Eva, Think Like a Man, Tyler Perry’s Mr. Good Deeds) though those pictures do have wide crossover appeal.
While not apparent at first there’s a thruline from Half the Sky to Being Mary Jane to other work she’s doing because they’re all projects that matter to her.
Mary Jane is produced by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the hot writer-director team whose BET series The Game is a phenomenon. They’ve also collaborated on the network’s Girlfriends and the feature Sparkle.
Mary Jane Paul may be no stretch for Union, whose real life intelligence, strength and independence have sustained her in a rough business, but it represents one of the few times she’s gained the lead in a straight dramatic role. The Akils promise to give her more to work with than the bitchy divas she initially drew attention with or the stalwart, largely thankless wifely supporting parts she’s lately assumed.
She says she’s long wanted to work with the couple and recalls a conversation she once had with Mara Brock Akil about the types of roles and projects she desired. Ones with substance and relevance. She feels Mary Jane realizes those aspirations, saying it’s the best TV pilot script she’s read since Scandal, the ABC thriller series she wanted but didn’t land (Kerry Washington got the lead).
Besides the creative team behind it Union says what ultimately sold her on Mary Jane is its very real, true depiction of aspirational single black women just like herself and her friends. The dramatic situations, whether with family or romantic relationships or work dynamics, seem drawn from her and their own lives.
Not surprisingly, she often calls actor friends for feedback when weighing a possible career-changing role.
“Anytime I have a question about acting and should I do it, should I not do it, I call Sanaa Lathan (the star of Something Different).”
Mary Jane was such a natural fit Union didn’t necessarily need her friend’s counsel this time. She did on the underrated and undersign Cadillac Records (2008).
“I asked Sanna about it and she said, ‘Baby, if it doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t do it.’ And if you look at her choices she definitely lives by that and I’ve tried to incorporate more of that. Even auditioning for things where I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, there’s no way in hell I’ll get that,’ and most often I don’t but to even put myself in a position of trying and to stretch myself as an actor and to put myself out there as an actor and to take more risks feels pretty good.”
Union’s embraced her share of risks, too. In Neo Ned (2005) her character and a neo-Nazi played by Jeremy Renner fall hard for each other in the confines of a psych ward.
On the surface her Cadillac Records part as Geneva Wade, the girlfriend of Muddy Waters, may seem safe but she says it was a stretch because, “one, there was no glamour to it, and two, there was no humor.” Thus, it exposed her. “Yeah, it’s scary to not be able to have a lot of hair and makeup and to not look glamorous and to not always get the punchline, so it was a little nerve wracking for me.”
“And if you’re going to put people in victim or hero mode she was a bit of a victim of Muddy Waters,” says Union. “She took a lot of grief, she was the long-suffering partner but she stood by him and she supported him and she dealt with whatever came her way and she did it with quiet dignity and class.”
Union says, “It reminded me so much of my mother’s story and so many women of that generation or now who deal with that same thing, and I tried to portray it with as much respect as I could.”
The star’s parents divorced years ago.
Half the Sky took Union out of her comfort zone again. Minus a script. she wasn’t asked to be anyone but herself. No where to hide. Minus a wardrobe of styling outfits, she wore practical casuals for negotiating dikes and roadways and coping with rainy season downfalls and repressive tropical climes.
Chermayeff admires that Union threw herself into this immersion experience with poor working class families living on dikes in the delta.
“I love her, she’s a great girl.”
Dueyn’s family lives in a makeshift tent after their shack was flooded. Just to get to school is an epic journey for the girl, who must cross waterways in boats and then make a 17-mile trek by bike, each way. To appreciate how much effort all that takes Union retraced the route alongside the girl, including making the bike trip.
As Kristof shares in a voice-over, “Duyen is kind of a classic situation in rural areas where you have a girl who’s so bright and so capable but she’s a long way from any school…and that is far from unique in the developing world.”
Union explains in her own voice-over, “I think I realized just how long, how lonely her journey home is. Crap roads, crazy vegetation where anyone can hide. Anything could happen to her in 17 miles, and she’s just rolling by herself. I asked, ‘Does anyone ever bug you as you’re riding home?’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah… men have stopped me before.’”
Human predators prey on targets like Duyen. In certain parts of the world it can mean being sold or kidnapped into the sex trafficking underworld.
Sometimes the abuser’s right inside the family. Nhi is forced to sell lottery tickets by her father, whom, she reveals, beats her when she doesn’t sell her entire allotment.
“It’s probably a lot worse than even what she’s shared because she can’t control it,” Union tells the Room to Read facilitator. “With Nhi everything she’s feeling you can see. She’s trained by her father you don’t tell the neighbors what’s going on, you don’t tell your teachers, you don’t tell anyone what happens in this house but her emotions are betraying her.
“For a lot of children in disadvantaged situations and households education’s a safe haven. (School’s) a place where for the most part you can trust the people there and it’s a few hours every day where you are physically safe and good things are happening.”
“That’s a story that was very, very close to Gabby’s heart because Nhi was really working and struggling,” says Chermayeff.
As Union tells the facilitator, “When I was 19 and I left home I ended up getting raped…When you’re raped it’s the absence of control, so the one thing I could control was school and I just dove into my school work and I became an amazing student. So I can relate to Nhi being so driven in school and I just wish for girls who have to go through any kind of adversity that they have education as an outlet for healing.”
The actress says she came away from Vietnam inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.” She says Nhi’s situation so moved her that she and Dwyane Wade have set up a scholarship fund for Nhi to complete her studies.
Union’s helping Wade raise his two sons and a nephew. She has three new young siblings to dote on now, too, since her mom, who lives in Omaha, recently adopted three pre-school aged children. The children’s biological mother is a niece to Glass and a cousin to Union.
“It’s like we’re starting over,” Union says . “I’m coming back in big sister mode trying to mold a set of young people and provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we-are-our-brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down.”
For more on the documentary, visit http://www.halftheskymovement.org.
- Girls Gone Global (thedailybeast.com)
- Will You Join the Half the Sky Movement? (blog-aauw.org)
- Join Six Amazing Actresses for an Inspiring Television Event | Independent Lens | PBS – Trailer (point4counterpoint.wordpress.com)
LATEST UPDATE: Jane Fonda shares her thoughts about her weekend in Omaha on her blog site-
ANOTHER UPDATE: The Film Streams Feature Event presenting Jane Fonda in conversation with Alexander Payne reminded me of the 1981 Omaha Community Playhouse event, An Evening with Mister Fonda. The earlier event was a pull-out-all-the-stops tribute to Jane’s father, the late iconic actor Henry Fonda. His Hollywood press agent and close personal friend John Springer, a biographer of the Fondas, interviewed the actor on stage at the Playhouse. Much like the Jane Fonda event last night, which had Alexander Payne interview her, film clips were screened to break up the talk. Coincidentally, I was programming a film series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the early 1980s and so I made sure to schedule a Henry Fonda-Dorothy McGuire film festival that showed around the same time as the Playhouse tribute. Film Streams’ repertory series of Jane Fonda films continues. What goes around comes around, and so the circle is completed.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that one of my favorite parts of the Jane Fonda in Conversation with Alexander Payne event was the surprise appearance by Laura Dern. The actress has maintained a friendship with Payne since she starred in his first feature, Citizen Ruth, which was filmed in and around Omaha. Her loyalty to and affection for Payne was demonstrated when she was the guest star for the inaugural Film Streams Feature Event that featured her in conversation with the filmmaker. I got to interview her in advance of that event and an excerpt from my resulting story, When Laura Met Alex, can be found on this blog. It turns out she came to Omaha for the Fonda event because, not surprisingly, she’s an admirer of the older actress and in fact met her when her father Bruce Dern worked with Fonda on Coming Home. Dern described how that meeting and her opprotunity to closely observe her at work helped inspire her to pursue acting with the same unvarnished honesty as Fonda. Both of Dern’s actor parents, her father Bruce Derna and mother Diane Ladd, worked with Fonda and as fate would have it her father is about to star in Payne’s new film, Nebraska. How’s that for synchronicity?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Payne ends up working with Dern again and somehow finds a role for Fonda in one of his future projects.
As expected, Jane Fonda came and captured the hearts of those attending the Film Streams Feature Event IV last night (July 22) at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. Understandably, it was not only an emotional evening for her but an emotion-packed weekend, much of which she spent touring old family haunts, including the Omaha Communithy Playhouse that her late father, she, and her brother Peter all acted in. Spoken and unspoken, her father’s legacy looms large over her and she must particularly feel his presence when she’s back where so much Fonda lore is present. Omaha is where her iconic father Henry Fonda was raised, learned his social consciousnesses, and began acting. One of the new things I learned from the conversation she engaged in with Alexander Payne live on the Holland stage is that she did some of her growing up here as well. I knew that her father’s sister Harriet lived in the Dundee neighborhood where he grew up and that he came back to visit her and I knew that Peter had attended Brownell-Talbot School and the University of Omaha here but I always assumed Jane had little contact herself with the extended family in their communal hometown. But it turns out she visted more than occasionally during her youth, even spending chunks of the summer in town during breaks from the elite boarding schools she attended. She even says it was in Omaha where she came of age as an adolescent in the 1950s, which became her own personal Amercian Graffiti stomping grounds for cruising in cars up and down the main drag, Dodge Street, for taking-in drive-in movies, and for participating in sock-hops, and all the rest. She told Payne and us that her aunt Harriett arranged for girls her age from the neighborhood to meet her and made she she was invited to parties and such. She also indicated that Warren Buffett and family, who also called Dundee home, have been friends with the Fondas over the years.
I didn’t get to interview her or meet her as I had hoped, but I’m happy that Film Streams has reenaged her with Omaha and Nebraska after her being away a long time. She was apparently last here in the late ’90s with her then-husband Ted Turner, who has ranching interests in the state. Before that, she accompanied On Golden Pond to its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum Theatre. She’s pledged to continue her relationship with this place and with Payne, who serves on the Film Streams board and is the one responsible for bringing her back into the fold so to speak. Now it’s time the same be done with Peter Fonda. And the same with other Nebraskans in Film, including Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Gail Levin, Lynn Stalmaster, Monty Ross, et cetera. For too long Nebraska has ignored its film heritage. It should be celebrated and I’m glad to say that Payne and Film Streams are motivated to do that.
- Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne to Talk Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’
Film-television-stage actor John Beasley is someone I’ve been writing about for the better part of a decade or more, and I expect I’ll be writing about him some more as time goes by. You may not know the name but you should definitely recognize his face and voice from films like Rudy and The Apostle and from dozens of episodic television guest star bits. His already high profile is about to be enhanced because of his recurring role in the new Cedric the Entertainer sit-com, The Soul Man, for TVLand. The show premieres June 20. The following story, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), has him talking about this project with the kind of enthusiasm that whets one’s appetite for the show. It’s one of several irons in the fire he has at an age – almost 70 – when many actors are slowing down. In addition to the series he has a feature film in development that he’s producing, a new theater he plans opening in North Omaha, and the possibility of making his New York stage debut in a new Athol Fugard play. On this blog you’ll find several stories I’ve written over the years about the actor and his current theater in Omaha, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop.
John Beasley has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
But in the new TVLand series The Soul Man (formerly Have Faith) he has his biggest featured role to date, and in a comedy no less starring Cedric the Entertainer. The original show from the producers of Hot in Cleveland and Grimm premieres June 20 at 9 p.m.
“I’m third on the cast list and I’m getting a lot of work on the series, so I’m definitely happy about that,” Beasley says. “It’s a quality show. It’s very funny. The writing is really very good. We have the writers from Hot in Cleveland, one of the hottest shows on cable. Phoef Sutton is the show runner. He won two Emmys with Cheers. Plus, Cedric has got a really good sense of comedic timing. What he brings to the table is tremendous.
“And then Stan Lathan, the director, has worked on a lot of the great four-camera shows, as far back as the Red Foxx show Sanford and Son. A very good director.
“So we’re in very good hands.”
This native son, who’s continued making Omaha home as a busy film-TV character actor, has his career in high gear pushing 70. Besides the show there’s his long-in-development Marlin Briscoe feature film, plans for a North Omaha theater and the possibility of making his New York theater debut.
Beasley, who raised a family and worked at everything from gypsy cab driver to longshoreman, before pursuing acting, plays another in a long line of authority figures as retired minister Barton Ballentine. After years leading the flock at his St. Louis church he’s stepped aside for the return of his prodigal son, Rev. Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine (Cedric). Boyce is a former R&B star turned Las Vegas entertainer who, heeding the call to preach, has quit show biz to minister to his father’s church. He returns to the fold with his wife Lolli (Niecy Nash) and daughter Lyric (Jazz Raycole), who’ve reluctantly left the glitter for a humble lifestyle.
As Barton, Beasley’s an “old school” man of God who disapproved of his son’s former high life and racy lyrics and now holding Boyce’s inflated ego in check with fatherly prodding and criticism.
Speaking to The Reader by phone from L.A. where he’s in production on the series through mid-summer at Studio City, Beasley says Cedric’s character “can never live up to his father’s expectations – the father is always going to put him down no matter what he does, but he’s got a hustler brother who’s even worse.” Beasley adds, “In the pilot episode the parishioners are filing out after church, telling Boyce, ‘Great service, nice sermon,’ and then I come up to him and say, ‘I would have given it a C-minus. The bit near the end was decent but I would have approached it more from the Old Testament. But that’s just me. God’s way is the right way.’ That’s my character and that’s his relationship with his son.”
Praised by other actors for his ability to play the truth, Beasley says, “What I bring to the table is I kind of ground the show in reality. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don’t play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact one of the characters he’s patterned after is Old Joe from Gem of the Ocean.
“I was doing Gem of the Ocean at the theater (his John Beasley Theater in Omaha) when I got the call for this. Generally Tyrone (his son) and I will put my audition on tape and send it out to L.A. A lot of times it will take us five-six takes to get really what I want but with this character it was like one take and we both agreed that was it. We did another one for safety and sent it out, and the next day I got the call…”
A chemistry reading in L.A. sealed the deal.
For Beasley, who’s worked with Oprah Winfrey (Brewster Place), James Cromwell (Sum of All Fears), Kathy Bates (Harry’s Law) and Robert Duvall (The Apostle), working with Cedric marks another milestone.
“We play off each other so well. The chemistry between us is really good. I’m seeing it in the writing. I’m getting a lot of stuff written for me. Cedric has a lot to do with the show and he’ll say, ‘John’s character needs this,’ or ‘We should give him this,’ so he’s really very giving and a great person to work with. As is Niecy Nash.
“We’ve only got five members in the cast and it just feels like family. I don’t think theres a weak link.”
Season one guest stars include Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Kim Coles, Tamar and Trina Braxton, Phelo and Sherri Shepherd.
Beasley’s adjusted well to the four-camera, live audience, sit-com format.
“Having a good theater background has prepared me for this because the camera is almost like a proscenium -–you gotta play to the cameras, you’ve got to know where you’re camera is so that you can open up to it. But you also have the feedback from the audience. For instance, in the first episode we did I appeared and Cedric and I just stopped and looked at each other because of the situation and the audience went on and on, so we had to wait for the audience to finish. That kind of thing happens.
“Sometimes Cedric or somebody forgets their lines or he ad-libs and the audience is with you all the way. It’s a lot of fun. It’s really like doing stage and I’m having a great time with it.”
Beasley’s invigorated, too, by how the writers keep tweaking things.
“The writers continue to write right up until taping and if something doesn’t work then they huddle up and they come back with something else and by the time we finish with it it’s working.”
It’s his fondest desire Soul Man gets picked up for a second season but Beasley has something more pressing on his mind now and, ironically, the show may prove an obstacle. On March 23 at the University of North Carolina Beasley and Everwood star Treat Williams did a staged reading of famed South African playwright Athol Fugard‘s new drama, The Train Driver. Fugard was there and Beasley says the writer made it clear he wants them for the play’s August 14-Sept. 23 run at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, part of the fabled Signature Theatre, in New York.
Trouble is, Soul Man doesn’t wrap till July 29. “I told the play’s producers, ‘Listen, nobody can do this better than I can. I want to do this. And so whatever we can do to work it out let’s do that.’ That’s where we left it,” says Beasley.
Whether it happens or not, he’s convinced Soul Man is a career-changer.
“I really feel this is going to be a difference-maker just as The Apostle was because people aren’t used to seeing me do comedy, so it’ll give them a different look at me as a performer and that’s really all I can ask.”
“It’s been quite a journey” to come from Omaha and find the success he has and still be able to reside here. And the best may yet be ahead.
- Cedric the Entertainer Stars In The New TV Land Sitcom ‘The Soul Man’ Premieres June 2012 (video) (harlemworldmag.com)
- Cedric The Entertainer Talks New Sitcom, “The Soul Man” With Super Snake (1015jamz.cbslocal.com)
- TV Land Summer Line-Up Includes Original Programming, Shirley MacLaine Special and Launch of ‘That ’70s Show’ (tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com)
- Niecy Nash sees the light (mnn.com)