John Beasley, Making His Stand
It has been my privilege to write about actor-director John Beasley and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop a number of times. This is the first and most extensive piece I have done on him. Most of the other articles have been about productions at his theater, usually August Wilson plays. Look for me to post future Beasley pieces. John has been an actor and storyteller from an early age, but he did not enter professional acting until well into middle-age. He was too busy making a living the ways he knew how and raising his family. He’s like many of those old Hollywood stars and directors who lived rich, full lives before ever stepping foot in Hollywood. It shows in his work on screen and on the stage. If his name is not familiar, his face is. You’ve likely seen him in a film or TV series or two. The theater he was just starting up when this article appeared in the Omaha Weekly has become something of an institution by now. That paper was not so lucky — it no longer exists. John is sure to give us many more fine performances.
This blog also features stories about a Beasley Theater production of August Wilson’s Jitney, with more Beasley related stories to follow.
John Beasley, Making His Stand
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
Noted film and television character actor John Beasley of Omaha brings a reality and gravity to his roles that is more than an expression of his considerable craft, but also a product of the rich life he lived before ever becoming a fixture on the big and small screen.
For years, the solidly-built Beasley studied acting while working at just about anything to support his family. He served a hitch in the Army. He swung a hook as a longshoreman on the Philadelphia waterfront. He bluffed his way into a producing job at a Philly TV station and, later, finagled his way into a news director’s slot at now defunct Omaha radio station, KOWH.
He tried the entrepreneurial thing when he and his brother opened a Philly cheese steak sandwich shop. After finding success in Omaha theater circles in the 1980s, he continued laboring as a clerk and janitor at Union Pacific Railroad and as a machine operator at the now closed Vickers hydraulic manufacturing plant. He viewed it all as a means to an end — an actor’s life. Even though he was 45 by the time he got his first paying acting gig, he did not look upon himself or his situation as a failure, but rather as a-work-in-progress.
“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater,” he said. “There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do. A lot of times I would do things just to prove to myself I could do them and then, after doing that, I would move on because it didn’t matter anymore.”
Now, only a decade removed from his days as a nameless, blue-collar shift worker, the 58-year-old is a bankable property. Between his role as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer blockbuster The Sum of All Fears and his recurring role as the narrator in the new WB series, Everwood, which debuts this fall, Beasley has done the improbable — nearing the “A” list of Hollywood supporting players while living in Omaha, where he was born and raised and has resided virtually his entire life. In addition to his film and TV work, he has established a non-profit foundation that looks to revive the old Center Stage Theater in south Omaha. The actor hopes the newly renamed John Beasley Theater at the Center Stage, located in the LaFern Williams Center, opens its inaugural season in the fall.
It is all quite a leap for a man who, not long ago, cleaned toilets while nurturing his fledgling acting career. Those unfamiliar with Beasley’s background may see his recent prominence as an overnight success story when it is actually the result of a long journey that has given him a reservoir of experiences to draw on for his work. Instead of regretting his relatively late entry into the big leagues of acting, he views his gradual rise up through the ranks as a plus.
“There’s that life experience I have,” he said. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that. The foundation was already set. I’ve always been content and confident that I could have made it as an actor years ago. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take. I mean, I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this (career) earlier I would have lost all of that. I have no regrets.”
While making a living always came first, Beasley built a solid base for his stagecraft. A life on stage was almost a birthright for Beasley, who grew up on the near northside immersed in the vivid stories told by his high-achieving family (His father was an electrician and his grandfather an entrepreneur who held interests in a movie theater, taxi stand and restaurant.).
“I’m from a family of storytellers. My uncle Pal (David Triplett) was a great storyteller. He’s a preacher and he would make up stories with characters out of the Bible. He had a character named Nicodemus McDooglesprout. He told stories about his dog Fritz. Kids came from blocks around to hear him. He’d put us in the stories, and if he put one of us in a bad light we’d start crying. As a little kid I always wanted to entertain…acting, singing songs. It’s just a passion. I really enjoy sharing my passion with other people. Sharing emotional moments. Making people cry. Making them laugh. Being able to emote is just a gift God has given me. I guess that’s just part of who I am.”
At Technical High School, the budding athlete came under the influence of drama and speech coach Kenneth Roy, winning awards for his oral interpretation of prose literature and performing in school plays. After three years in the service, he returned to Omaha and enrolled at then-Omaha University, where his focus was more on football (He was a two-way star as a freshman on a squad featuring future NFL great Marlin Briscoe.) than academics. Before dropping out of school, he participated in a couple stage projects there — Readers Theater and the play In White America.
His formal theater training came a few years later when, after living and working in Philadelphia (where he heeded the itch to act again at the Germantown Theater), he came back home and resumed his studies at UNO. He has high praise for the training he received from the dramatic arts staff there, particularly one William Smith, a former UNO instructor whom he is still in contact with today. “Bill taught me how to be an actor. He taught me movement and voice and things I still rely on when I go tackle a role. He got me to the next level.”
It was at a UNO theater workshop conducted by members of the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company that Beasley further honed his skills and gained added affirmation of his talent.
“I wanted to learn more, and the people from the Royal Shakespeare Company took to me. A lady instructor really kind of singled me out. She was having us do poetry readings. Then it was my turn, and so I read my thing and she whispered in my ear, ‘John, black people have soul…I want you to read that again and I want you to read it from here,’ and she put her hand on my stomach. I read it, and the class was just in silence. When I finished, everybody applauded. Right there, I learned to get out of my head and to get into my gut. That was a big learning point for me.” Another instructor was David Suchet (who played the title role in the A&E series Poirot). Suchet also saw something in Beasley and worked with him. “David Suchet taught me what it is to be a professional at what I do. During the workshop he cast me in A Streetcar Named Desire in the role of Mitch, the love interest of Blanche. I was the only black in the cast.”
Beasley said the color-blind casting he found at UNO was an exception for that era of Omaha theater.
“The script didn’t have to say, ‘a black actor,’ for UNO to cast me in a role. David Suchet said, ‘I don’t see why a black couldn’t play anything.’
An emboldened Beasley began auditioning at area community theaters, breaking down some color barriers along the way. He was cast by director Charles Jones as Horatio in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of Hamlet. Then, he and black Omaha actress Margaret Bates began testing the waters together, auditioning for the leads in On Golden Pond — which they did not get — and Come Back Little Sheba — which they did get and for which they received local theater guild nominations for Best Actor (he lost) and Best Actress (she won) in a dramatic play.
He went on to win many traditionally white roles in Omaha-area theater productions, including Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Center Stage, Midge in I’m Not a Rappaport at the Chanticleer Theater in Council Bluffs and Big Julie in Guys and Dolls at the Firehouse Dinner Theater. Other venues were not so accommodating. “A lot of theaters and directors didn’t have the courage to do that,” he said. “Some directors felt if the script didn’t say ‘black,’ they weren’t going to look at you.” As far as opportunities for black actors in Omaha today, he said, “they’re not really great, and never have been to tell you the truth. I will say this for the theater community. If you show the talent, they will accept it and appreciate it, but they’re not going to go out looking for black actors.”
He believes many minority artists eliminate themselves from the running by not trying for non-ethnic specific parts when, in reality, directors may be open to casting minorities.
“A lot of times blacks won’t audition because they think, ‘Well, OK, there’s nothing for me,’ where, with me, I see the parts I want to do, like a Willie Loman or a Horatio, and I go after them.” Because racial stereotypes persist, Beasley makes it a point to infuse his characters with pride. It is something he learned from watching Sidney Poitier’s film performances. “Sidney Poitier brought dignity to everything he played. What that’s meant for me in my acting career is that I have never played a character that did not have dignity. That’s very important to me and I think that’s why I get the roles I do — because I bring a certain amount of dignity to a character.”
His goal for the Beasley Theater is to make it a showcase for minority drama. “I want to get up a production of Blood Knot (the Athol Fugard play about two brothers’ response to South African apartheid), and then do some August Wilson (the American playwright who chronicles black life) and then try to reach out to the large Hispanic community in south Omaha and see what it is they would like done. I don’t think of it as being just ‘a black theater.’ I want to involve the community. I want to do things not being done by other theaters in town, which is basically plays by and about minorities. August Wilson is arguably America’s greatest living playwright. His work is always well-received. But I still don’t see theaters around here taking on his plays. I think it’s essential, especially in Omaha where we really don’t have a minority media voice, to have this arena.”
Race aside, Beasley made a name for himself on various Omaha stages in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Still, it was not until 1990 he abandoned the 9-to-5 routine and pursued acting as his livelihood. It was a daring thing to do for a middle-aged man with a family and mortgage, but he made the leap anyway. He figured the time was right. His youngest son was in college. He and his wife Judy, a medical secretary at UNMC, had a comfortable life. It was now or never.
“I was very dissatisfied (with the Vickers job), so I quit. I convinced my wife to let me try making it as an actor. She’d been fighting me all along. She didn’t want any part of being married to an actor. I didn’t do it earlier becaue I didn’t want her to suffer being married to a struggling actor,” he said. “But I finally told her, ‘I’m going to Minneapolis, and if I don’t make it in three weeks I’ll be back and I’ll get a normal job.’ She said, ‘OK.’ So, I went out there and within two-and-a-half weeks I was turning down plays.”
After taking the vibrant Minneapolis theater scene by storm, performing at the Mixed Blood Theater, he found success at major Equity theaters in Chicago (the Goodman) and Atlanta (the Alliance). Besides playing great roles in classic works, including Othello, he has shared the stage with notables Roscoe Lee Browne, Eric La Salle and Don Cheadle. As he made his presence known on the regional theater circuit, he helped pay the bills acting in commercials and corporate films.
He was so intent on making it he often undertook grueling road trips that found him driving from Omaha to Chicago to Minneapolis and back home again in a single 24-hour span. In the process, he became a much-in-demand interpreter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s (Troy Maxson in Fences, Mr. West in Two Trains Running, Turnbo in Jitney) characters. Beasley adores the work of Wilson, whom he’s met, and even selected Wilson’s Fences, a story about a bitter father and his estranged son, as the play he reopened the Center Stage Theater with last summer. Beasley both starred-in and directed the production.
“I love August Wilson. Basically, he deals with every decade of the 20th century… with blacks migrating from the south to Pittsburgh (where Wilson is from) and what they faced once they got there. His characters talk about what happened back down south and touch on some of the reasons they came north. It’s always their stories. The plays deal with the era of urban renewal, when a lot of black businesses and neighborhoods were being boarded-up and blight set in and how, once redevelopment came in, blacks were being forced out. You can see the same pattern here in Omaha.
John Beasley as Troy Maxson in Fences
“He’s really telling the black American story, but the thing about August’s work is it’s not just the black experience, it’s the human experience, and that’s why I love August. When I’ve done Fences I’ve had white men and women come up to me after the play with tears in their eyes and say, ‘That was my father.’ I mean, to me, Troy Maxson (the protagonist) is Willie Loman. Both of them are tragic figures who had a dream that was dashed. Troy could never let go of the fact he never got a chance to play major league baseball. That but for the color of his skin he could have been greater than any of them.”
While TV and film commitments limit the stage work he does these days, Beasley said he would still stop drop everything if a juicy part in a Wilson play opened up. For him. Wilson’s work is not only inspirational but instructive.
“August talks about relationships which, when I’m teaching acting workshops, is all I talk about. How we relate to each other. How we deal with each other from the heart. How we overcome obstacles. Because that’s what you have to bring to the table as an actor — that inner feeling. If you know what it feels like inside, then it’s going to come out.” Feelings tapped by a play sometimes cannot be contained within the boundaries of the stage. “I remember doing Willie Loman and how after each performance I’d just break down and cry because, emotionally, it’s such a draining experience. I found myself doing that every night. The same with Troy Maxson — I’d just have to breakdown. I had to get that release.”
He next made waves in episodic TV, including a 1990 role in Oprah Winfrey’s short-lived but much-talked-about series Brewster Place. Soon thereafter he landed his first feature film roles and became a regular TV guest star. He hasn’t stopped working in film and TV since.
He became a known commodity among moviegoers with small but convincing portrayals in the hits The Mighty Ducks and Rudy. He first caught the attention of critics with his strong supporting performance as a retired Southern preacher in Oscar-winner Robert Duvall’s 1998 critically-acclaimed film The Apostle.
He has appeared in other high-profile Hollywood pics (Losing Isaiah, The General’s Daughter) along with indie films (Journeyman). His TV appearances have included spots on Millennium, The Pretender, C.S.I. and Judging Amy and the TNT movie Freedom Song. He has worked with everyone from Duvall and Poitier (on a cable movie remake of To Sir With Love) to John Travolta, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman and Della Reese.
His standing in the industry is such that he turned down a coveted lead role opposite Angela Bassett in John Sayles’ new film Gold Coast for a smaller but bigger-paying turn in The Sum of All Fears. While he rues having given up a lead, something he’s worked hard for, he feels the buzz around Sum, combined with his work on the well-reviewed Everwood, starring Treat Williams, have put him in line for more choice roles. He feels well-served to date by his keen eye for material. “I’ve been very picky about the things I’ve done on stage and I think that’s carried over into films.” He has also been promised a chance to direct episodes of Everwood and hopes to do more directing down the road.
With his career in high gear now, he is weighing buying a house in L.A. for those Tinseltown trips he makes every year. He insists, however, his lifestyle has not changed much from when he was just another middle-class Everyman. “I was never that interested in money, per se. My life has been full without money for a long time and now that I’m earning a little money, I’m not impressed with it still.”
He stays hungry and humble remembering where he came from and how far he has gone to reach his destination. His advice to aspiring actors: “Don’t be afraid to try and to leave your comfort zone.” He offers himself up as proof of how, with enough preparation and poise, an Omaha actor really can conquer Hollywood.
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- Bloggers cover the Black Playwrights Convening (timeoutny.com)
- Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Crowns: Black Women and Their Hats (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)