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John Beasley: Living his dream

April 22, 2016 6 comments

In the pantheon of Nebraska born and bred actors to have made it in Hollywood and/or on Broadway, and there have been more than you think, none have really ever kept much of a close relationship with this place other than Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor, Dorothy McGuire, Julie Wilson, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Marg Helgenberger. Some more recent players who have kept the home fires burning are Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Kevyn Morrow, Randy Goodwin, and Stephanie Kurtzuba. But only John Beasley has never really left Omaha. The others all picked up and went off to pursue their careers and thus their connections to Omaha became relegated to occasional visits. A notable exception is Randy Goodwin, who recently moved back to Omaha while continuing his career as a film/TV actor, producer, and director. Meanwhile, Beasley has maintained his residence here the entire run of his now 25-plus year career as a busy film, television, and regional theater actor. He operated his own theater in town for several years. He appears in indie Nebraska films. He’s now producing two movies with Nebraska connections. He’s doing what Alexander Payne has done by not only keeping Omaha his home but by doing work here. John has definitely contributed to the theater and cinema culture in the state. Though it’s the last season for The Soul Man, the popular TVLand sitcom he’s been a regular in from the start, he recently finished the pilot for a new CBS sitcom Real Good People and he’s part of a large ensemble cast in the coming Fox event series Shots Fired. Then there are the two feature films he’s producing – The Magician and East Texas Hot Links. John’s good friend and former teammate Marlin Briscoe of Omaha is the subject of The Magician. I’ve written a lot about John over 15 years and this is my latest piece to tell his engaging story. It will appear as the cover story in the May 2016 issue of the New Horizons, the free monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Should hit newstands and, if you get it delivered, your mailbox around April 29-May 2.

 

 

Beasley as Barton (LEO)

John as Barton Ballentine in The Soul Man

 

 

John Beasley: Living his dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the May 2016 issue of New Horizons

 

Following a dream

Omaha’s John Beasley (Rudy) came to film-television acting late in the game. After all, he was pushing 50 when he broke through. But he used that late start to hone his craft on stages in Omaha, the greater Midwest and the South.

Besides being a familiar face in front of the camera, John’s a producer on two feature film projects, including the story of football legend Marlin Briscoe. Before making history as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback, Briscoe starred at Omaha South and at then-Omaha University, where Beasley was a teammate in the mid-1960s.

The performing bug bit as a youth for Beasley. At Technical High School he won prizes for oral interpretation and acting. He didn’t pursue the profession awhile because he had a family to support.

“I’ve always been content and confident I could have made it as an actor years earlier. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take,” he says. “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.”

Growing up without a father, he made sure he was there for his kids .

“My father was never around. But he taught me a lot by not being around. He taught me to be the father I didn’t have.”

John’s sons, Tyrone and Michael Beasley, both actors, appreciate his being there.

“Our father taught us how to be men by showing love and always being present and always showing interest and making sacrifices for the family,” says Michael, whose wife Deena Beasley is also an actress.

 

Beasley closeup #1 (LEO)

 

 

A path of his own

John Beasley’s path to stardom is not so different than fellow Omahan Nick Nolte’s. They both used regional theater as their springboard. The difference is Nolte never acted on an Omaha stage and his screen work began in his early 30s. By contrast, Beasley did an Army hitch and then worked regular jobs through his mid-40s. His wife Judy was a medical secretary. He was a Union Pacific railroad clerk and custodian, a Vickers machine operator, a North Omaha jitney driver and a Philadelphia waterfront laborer. He always did theater on the side.

“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater. 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.”

His confidence was well-founded, Royal Shakespeare Company  members he trained with in Omaha encouraged his talent. At local theaters he broke casting barriers by winning roles not traditionally given actors of color. He then tested his wings outside Omaha, earning parts at regional theaters, Between his “life experience” and theater chops he preparec himself. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that,” he says. “The foundation was already set.”

Nothing was guaranteed though. Michael says his father didn’t let on what a risk he was taking.

“He never let us know when there was struggle. As an actor you never know when your next paycheck is coming in. He always sheltered us from that. A lot of friends and family thought he was crazy for going after his dream as an actor.”

Michael admires his persistence.

“My father would drive sometimes through blizzards and sleep in the car to auditions in Minneapolis and Chicago. He asked my mother to give him three weeks to try and live his dream. He booked a job within that time period. Now the rest is history. He is my modern day hero.”

Judy Beasley never really doubted her man. Besides, she didn’t wish to stand in the way of what she considers his “God-given talent.” She says, “I believed in him. We all have gifts and he obviously had that gift and when you have a gift you should use it.” She says when he did achieve fame “there were things to work through and we did.” She enjoys the red carpet events but she also likes their life away from the spotlight doing “home stuff.” She’s not surprised her two boys followed their father as actors since “he’s in them, he’s a part of them.”

She views what’s happened to her and John as “a blessing,” saying, “I thank the Lord all the time.”

2012 BET Awards - Arrivals

John and Judy on the red carpet at the BET Awards

 

 

Once he finally went for a full-time acting career, he was ready. “When I went out to act I wanted to be actor, I didn’t want to be a waiter, so waiting tables was not in the cards. I wanted to be a working actor and I’ve been a working actor all my career. I mean, that’s all you can hope for. Stars come and go – I’ve been working for a long time.”

He’s been a regular cast member on the TVLand series The Soul Man starring Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash from its 2012 start. He earlier had a recurring role on Everwood starring Treat Williams. He’s appeared in scores of TV dramas, including HBO’s highly praised Treme. His cinema work ranges from blockbusters (Sum of All Fears) to action pics (Walking Tall) to indie projects (It Snows All the Time).

While many others have come out of Nebraska to find acting success in Hollywood, Beasley stands alone for always keeping Omaha home.

“I live in Omaha, yet I just finished a five-season series in L,A, and I did four years on Everwood. I’ve worked on some really large films. I’ve done every CSI series.”

 

Beasely #1 by Eric Antoniou (LEO)

John as Troy Maxson in Huntington Theatre (Boston, MA)

production of August Wilson’s Fences

 

 

Taking from life, making his mark

When he made his initial splash in the early 1990s alongside Oprah Winfrey on Brewster Place and in the movie Rudy, he was past leading man age but right on time to be a wizened, gritty character player. He’s continued making his mark portraying authority figures – fathers, judges, ministers, detectives, military officers – and Everyman types.

He came to Hollywood with something no actor can buy – rich life experience. He’s packed a lot into his 72 years.

“Done a lot of things, man,” he says, adding that he draws on “every last bit of it” for his craft.

Should the fame ever go away or the acting offers stop, he’ll be fine.

“I know it’s going to be okay because I’ve lived that kind of life. I was a longshoreman in Philadelphia. I was a gypsy cabdriver in Omaha.”

Growing up in North Omaha he got to know black sports legends from the community – Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers. In Philadelphia he worked at a TV station that broadcast a show whose guest stars – Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Muhammad Ali among them – Beasley met. “It was very exciting for me.” Meeting Ali was a particular thrill.

“I had two encounters with Ali. The first was at that TV station, He was banned from boxing and claimed to have a license to fight in Mississippi. He came to do an interview. I went back stage and Ali came up to me and said, ‘I’ve seen your face someplace before, but I can’t place the cemetery.’ I didn’t say anything and he said, ‘You must not have heard me.’ I said, ‘I heard you and you’re not going to have to go to Mississippi to get a fight if you keep talking like that.’

“The next time I saw him was in a little gym down in North Philly. On     this black radio station he had goaded Joe Frazier into coming down to fight. By the time I got down there the place was packed. There was no way I was getting in. But then the news crew from my station arrived and one of the guys said, ‘Grab the sound equipment,’ and we went up to the second floor. Ali and Frazier were talking about taking the fight to a city park. Ali didn’t have anything to lose but Joe was the champ. Then Frazier’s manager, Yancey Durham, came in and told Joe to put on his clothes and go home. That was the end of it.”

Beasley got close enough to the fracas he could see Frazier genuinely disliked Ali and took The Greatest’s barbs personally. Beasley appreciated the high drama and did what he’s done since childhood –  file away the colorful characters and incidents for his art. Coming from a family of storytellers, it came naturally. With his facility for spinning yarns and assuming identities, he bluffed his way into TV and radio jobs and ingratiated himself wherever he went, including some tough spots along the way. All of it taught valuable survival skills.

“I’ve seen the rough side of life too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did. It’s always turned out. But you’ve got to stay the course and you’ve got to believe it will work out.”

Even in a sitcom like Soul Man, Beasley brings a gravitas rooted in real life. His Barton Ballentine is a retired preacher who checks his son, a former hit singer turned preacher, played by Cedric.

“What I do is I ground the show in reality because that’s the way I act. 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 August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the show I was doing at my theater when I got the call for this (part).”

 

Beasley closeup #2 (LEO)

 

 

In the moment

In the hands of less life-tested actors, many roles could be easily forgettable. Only Beasley makes them indelible. Think of his work as a preacher opposite Robert Duvall in The Apostle. Even in scenes with the masterful Duvall Beasley holds his own delivering a depth of character and truth seldom seen.

“I knew when I read the screenplay what he was looking for and I just knew I was the only one that could do it,” Beasley says. “My ability to create a believable character honestly is really the hallmark of what I do. I try to be as honest in my performance as possible as opposed to trying to be someone else. I look at how would I react to this same situation. I’ve always gone inside for my characters.”

Beasley felt a deep kinship with Duvall.

“Nobody is as believable as Bobby Duvall,” he says. “Always in the moment. In fact, when we did it, he said, ‘Big John, don’t be afraid to say anything, don’t hesitate, you’re not going to throw me.’ In other words, if I improvised something he’d go with it in the moment. I think if you’re in the moment it’s always going to work for you.”

 

Movies The Apostle poster

Robert Duvall as The Apostle

 

 

Two decades later Duvall still enjoys recounting the answer he gave people who inquired about the then-unknown Beasley.

“They’d say, ‘Where’d you find that nonactor?’ I’d say. ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.’ He’s a good actor that guy.”

Actually, Beasley played other roles at the Goodman, just not Othello, but he did essay the Moor at Omaha’s Norton Theater.

Duvall is a big football fan who knows enough Husker gridiron lore to describe Johnny Rodgers as “one of the greatest college football players ever.” Duvall was excited to learn Beasley’s not only from the same hometown as the Heisman Trophy winner but knows him personally. Recalls Duvall, “When I said, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ Big John said ‘I don’t want to talk football, I want to talk theater.’ He’s a fine actor and a good guy. Give him my regards.”

Beasley’s work in The Apostle got singled out by The New York Times and other major publications. The performance helped make his reputation in Hollywood,

Then there’s the short but telling screen time he has as a Notre Dame football coach in Rudy. His character starts out wanting no part of Rudy but by the end he’s won over by the kid’s heart.

 

Marlin Briscoe was the first African American quarterback

Marlin Briscoe

 

 

 

The Magician

Rudy is one of two hit sports movies, along with The Mighty Ducks, he made. Now he’s producing a new sports film The Magician, going before the cameras this fall. The project is a personal one because he goes back a long way with its subject, Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe. The nickname arose from Briscoe’s knack at quarterback to improvise when things broke down. At the most dire times, he’d make a memorable pass or run and lead an improbable comeback.

“He’s ‘The Magician’ for a reason,” Beasley recalls. “When I played with him I saw him in difficult positions, where you thought it was over, and he’d be in a crowd on one side of the field and the next thing you knew he’d be on the other side as if by magic. And it carried over to his life. Just when it looks like he’s down and out he comes back.”

Between Briscoe’s junior and senior seasons he suffered a broken neck in a pickup basketball game that could have easily ended his playing days. Only he came back to earn All-America status. Over his career he set 22 school records. Earlier this year he was selected for induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. Many believe his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is only a matter of time because of the color barrier he broke in the NFL.

A South Omaha street’s named for him and a life-sized bronze statue of his likeness will be unveiled next fall at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His life is worthy of a movie, too, because it is equally historic, heart-breaking and inspirational.

Briscoe signed with the Denver Broncos in 1968 as an all-around athlete. Once he reported to camp the club wanted him to play defensive back though he intended to play quarterback and had a contractual agreement he be given a tryout. Reportedly, Briscoe out-shone his competition behind center, yet when the season began he was confined to the secondary and not even on the depth chart at quarterback. In a time rife with racial prejudice, bigotry and myths, many coaches and executives believed blacks did not possess the attributes to be signal-callers at the professional level.

Then, fate forced itself upon Denver as one by one its QBs got sidelined by injuries or poor play. Pressure from media and fans grew to give Briscoe a shot. Finally, six games into the season and Denver off to a 2-4 start in which he saw limited action but still helped the team pull out a win, he was given the reins. He ran with them to set club rookie records with 14 touchdown passes, 1,589 passing yards and 309 rushing yards in leading the Broncos to a 3-5 mark as the starter.

He expected to be in the mix for the job come 1969 but instead found himself shut out of the QB race. Then he found himself traded to the Buffalo Bills, where in order to make the team he had to learn a new position, wide receiver. He not only learned it well enough to make the squad but mastered it to become a starter and All-Pro. His next trade proved fortuitous when he landed with the Miami Dolphins and helped them win two straight Super Bowls.

He played for a couple more teams before retiring. Life after football began well but by the 1980s he fell deep into the spiral of a hard drug addiction that eventually cost him his family, his home, his money and nearly his life. Once he hit rock bottom he called on the same character traits that allowed him to get out of tight spots and to surmount hurdles on the playing field, only this time the stakes were much higher – regaining his sobriety and sanity.

Lyriq Bent (Book of Negroes) will play Briscoe on-screen. The script is by Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans). Beasley and two Omaha partners in his West Omaha Films, Terry Hanna and Dave Clark, are partnering with producer Doug Falconer (Forsaken) on the $20 million budgeted project. Some exteriors may shoot here but most of the film is expected to shoot in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

This labor of love has been in the works a decade. Beasley says he stuck with it because “Marlin Briscoe is a friend, first and foremost, and it’s a great story.” When Briscoe was still mired in addiction, Beasley never lost faith in him. “When he was on drugs for years people would say, ‘Did you see, Marlin?’ ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘but Marlin will be back.’ He lost everything but still he came back..”

Indeed, Briscoe’s greatest feat of magic became saving himself and finding new purpose in life serving youth. The movie is based on the book, The First Black Quarterback, he wrote with Bob Schaller.

 

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East Texas Hot Links

The other film Beasley’s helping produce, East Texas Hot Links, tells the story of black men going missing in the South. A bloody day of reckoning comes at the local hangout run by Charlesetta. Themes of community, loyalty, betrayal, revenge and racism run through this drama that builds tension until the violent purge. Eugene Lee adapted his own play and will direct. A-list actor Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing. Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment, whose president, Timothy Christian, is an Omaha native, is financing the project.

Beasley produced the play at his own theater.

“It’s quite a story. It’s a great ensemble piece,” he says. “It goes along as kind of the quiet before the storm and then everything breaks loose and eventually there’s a shootout. Eugene Lee had The Twilight Zone in mind when he wrote this.”

Thus far, Beasley adds, the cast includes Wendell Pierce (The Wire) and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction). Several other familiar names are being sought. He says his Soul Man co-star Niecy Nash “would be perfect as Charlesetta – she could really carry it.”

Once the cast is complete, the film is slated to shoot in Omaha and Los Angeles, either late this year or early next year.

Building a Nebraska film culture

The addition of Night Fox Entertainment and other production companies in Nebraska signals a growing local film scene. Beasley does what he can to encourage this momentum.

“I like to help out the young filmmakers in the area,” he says, though he adds, “Sometimes I do some things I regret doing. I’m kind of a soft touch. I should tell these people to go talk to my manager but they call me on my cellphone,”

He takes far less than scale for these projects because he knows what’s it’s like to be hungry.

“I know when I was coming along there weren’t many opportunities for film here and now that the film community has grown some and there are a lot of young people trying to do some things I’ll lend my talent as much as I can.”

There’s some self-interest at work, too.

“I do want to do films that i can include my actors in. That was probably the main reason to get into producing – to provide a vehicle for not only myself and my boys but also the actors I’ve developed here.”

 

Beasley in kitchen (LEO)

John, middle seated, from The Soul Man

 

 

Bread and butter

Beasley’s bread and butter projects come out of Hollywood. Soul Man provided steady work and further enhanced his screen image. It was a positive experience.

“Behind the scenes we always had a great set, a welcoming set. No tension. And that says a lot about Cedric and who he is because the player in the number one position kind of sets the tone, He was also the co-creator and an executive producer, so he had a lot of say.”

Beasley is a big admirer of Niecy Nash, who played Cedric’s wife and his daughter-in-law. He says the actress best known for her light comedic roles (Reno 911) turned heads with her serious work in the HBO series Getting On. He calls her performance “real, raw, believable – I’ve been saying people have got to see her, they don’t know the Niecy Nash I know, and now everybody’s discovering her.”

Seeing the show end is not easy. He says at the wrap following the final episode’s taping “tears started to fall because after five years on a series you become family. You know the people behind the camera, in front of the camera, That was kind of a difficult day for us.” He leaves with upbeat feelings. “They were always good to me and they always let me know I was an important part of what was happening.”

There were some bumps in the road.

“The first season the writers really understood who this character was and I got quite a bit of screen time. They always told me they loved writing for me because I always make it work. After the first season we lost a lot of writers because of budget cuts. The second season they brought in new show runners and I got less storyline. In the third, fourth and fifth sessions we had different show runners altogether and these guys really didn’t know who Barton was.

“Some things they wrote for me I didn’t particularly care for. But when we’d go through rehearsals Cedric would say, ‘Circle that,’ meaning let’s take that back to the writers. There was one episode where they had Barton being disrespectful to his daughter-in-law. I said, ‘I’m not going to say that line because he wouldn’t say that.’ The writers understood. They knew that I knew the character better than they did.”

Beasley stays true to his principles in whatever he does. “The thing I’ve told myself is that I will never do any character that doesn’t have dignity. Regardless of who you are, you have to love yourself, you have to have some kind of dignity. If a character doesn’t have dignity then I don’t usually get called for it because that’s not in my body of work.” If someone were to ever demand he portray something not right in his eyes, he says. “I can walk away. It’s not an ego thing with me.”

Having a series end a long run is nothing new for him. It happened with Everwood. Beasley prefers to look at things optimistically “The end of any project is the beginning of another thing.” In this case, it led to taping the CBS sit-com pilot Real Good People from the power team of Stephanie Weir (The Millers), James Burrows (Will & Grace) and Greg Garcia (Raising Hope). The series stars David Keith and Julie White as a Texas couple. Beasley plays a denizen at a cafe they frequent. “We shot in front of a live audience and it went really good. The producers really liked me a lot. It’s a funny show. They’ve put some money into this one. It will probably go in production in July and air in the fall.”

Beasley went up for a new Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) project he didn’t get but was offered the role of Mr. D in the upcoming Fox event series Shots Fired starring Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hunt, Stephen Moyer, Stephen James, Sanaa Lathan, Aisha Hinds and Trtstan Wilds. Taking its lead from racially charged police shootings that inspired Black Lives Matter, the series looks at the aftermath of such incidents in a Southern city. “I’m in demand right now,” says Beasley, whose son Michael was up for a part in the same series.

 

Beasley # 2 by Antoniou B & W (LEO)

John in the Huntington Theatre production of Fences

 

 

Theater

Aside from TV-film work, theater’s always on his mind. “My first love is theater,” he declares. His John Beasley Theater & Workshop found a niche doing the work of August Wilson (Fences). Beasley acted-directed there and brought in guest actors. He and his son Tyrone Beasley, who was artistic director, trained many first-time players.

“I’m thinking about doing another play in Omaha because I’ve got some players here I’ve developed that are pretty good actors and I’d just like to see them do something. I want to do August Wilson. I still think Omaha doesn’t know about August Wilson. I love his work because it’s a true reflection. I know these people.”

The late Wilson wrote a much-heralded 10-play cycle about African-American life that Denzel Washington is adapting for HBO. Beasley is a leading interpreter of Wilson, having appeared in several productions of the artist’s work at major theaters in Chicago and Atlanta as well as at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He landed his Equity card playing Troy Maxson in Fences at the New American Theatre in Rockford, Illinois. Years later he was to reprise the role in a Broadway-bound production before Denzel got cast.

Beasley thinks enough of the Wilson canon he mounted all 10 plays at his theater. He feels forever indebted to the artist. “I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career. He wrote some roles for middle-aged black men I can do the rest of my life.”

One thing Beasley’s not prepared to do is to have his own theater again, at least not right now.

“Running a theater myself was quite a burden. I didn’t have a strong board. They didn’t raise money and so I underwrote most of the things we did. I don’t want to go back to that. One production I can handle. I think I can find the sponsors for it and I think i can do it without it coming out of my pocket.”

Midwest values

He’s among a long line of locals who’ve gone on to screen and stage success. He feels the city’s strong theater scene helps propel some people. Besides, he says, “There’s a lot of talent here.”

He’s worked with some fellow Omaha talent on screen, including Gabrielle Union in Daddy’s Little Girls and Yolonda Ross in Treme. Closer to home, he worked with Camille Metoyer Moten on the short Tatoo and with TammyRa’ Jackson on the short Second Words.

He feels Nebraskans stand out in film-TV circles on the coasts because of their Midwest ethos.

“There’s a different value here. When you’re out in L.A., it’s a whole   different climate, it’s a whole different deal. I’m well-liked on the sets I work out there. I’m pretty laid-back too. I’m known for being a nice guy and very considerate and very compassionate.”

He’s comfortable in his skin and talent. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody.” He feels he’s improved with age. “My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence and I look more and more for the subtle things. I want you to maybe see what I’m thinking without beating you over the head.”

Michael Beasley

Jan 4, 2016; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles guard Malik Beasley (5) in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Donald L. Tucker Center. The North Carolina Tar Heels won 106-90. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Beasley

 

 

All in the family

He’s pleased his boys followed his lead. Tyrone is respected for his stage and screen work here. He’s on the artistic staff of the Rose Theater. Michael Beasley is a busy TV-film actor based in Atlanta. He was a fine athlete who played hoops in high school (Omaha Central), college (Texas Arlington) and professionally (overseas). His son Malik was a Blue Chip prep baller who this past season became a one-and-done phenom at Florida State and declared for the NBA draft. John has enjoyed his grandson’s coming-out party. During Malik’s banner FSU season he often posted about his on-court exploits.

“It’s been great. I went down to see him in Tallahassee for their last home game. I flew in the night before. He’d not been scoring much the previous few games and I said, ‘Tomorrow, I want you to show out,’ and he did show out – he scored 20 points for grandpa and his team beat Syracuse. It was a great comeback for him.”

Hoops runs in the bloodlines.

“I’m told my father was a really good basketball player,” John says.” I never knew that side of him.”

Acting is in the genes, too. Malik and his sister Micah grew up on sets their father and mother worked on. They visited some of grandpa’s sets as well. John Beasley says whether an NBA career works out for Malik or not, he has the skills to succeed in acting. “He’s very talented.” He says being around lights and cameras is why Malik is “so grounded – he’s been there before,” adding, “He knows what celebrity is and handles it very beautifully I must admit.”

Meanwhile, John Beasley’s actively seeking a project he and his sons can do together. “I’ll find something, even if we have to write it ourselves.”

All in all, he says, “I’ve just been blessed. It’s been quite a ride.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Michael Beasley follows his pops John Beasley as Film-TV Actor: Son’s on a roll with string of small and big screen projects, including “Steel Magnolias”

October 4, 2012 2 comments

Making his own way: Michael Beasley

John Beasley is by now a household name 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 and director. You can find my other stories on John, his now defunct theater and on his sons at the following link on my blog- https://leoadambiga.com/?s=beasley

Michael’s son Malik is also making waves these days as a stadnout freshman wing with Florida State. Back in the day Michael was quite the baller himself at Central, Texas-Arlington and overseas. For that matter, John was a good athlete, too. He was a teammate of Marlin Briscoe’s at Omaha U and he is developing a feature film, “The Magician,” about the legend. Look for my new story about John in spring 2016.

 

Michael Beasley follows his pops John Beasley as Film-TV Actor:

Son’s on a roll with string of small and big screen projects, including “Steel Magnolias”

©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.”

 

Michael+Beasley+Deena+Beasley+Premiere+HBO
Michael+Beasley+Deena+Beasley+Premiere+HBO

 

 

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).

 

 

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley

 

 

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.”

 

 

When a building isn’t just a building: LaFern Williams South YMCA facelift reinvigorates community

August 3, 2012 3 comments

All kinds of human services are delivered in buildings, including some nondescript, institutional edifices that can appear cold on the outside.  But of course it is what goes on on the inside that matters.  Take the South Omaha YMCA, for instance.  I cannot even find an image of it on the Web, which is just as well since it’s a dull, quasi-governmental-looking structure that hardly hints at the warm embrace that staff extend to visitors or at the fun activities and programs offered to members.  When a building truly engages a neighborhood and community the way this one does, it isn’t just a building anymore, it’s something much more personal.

 

When a building isn’t just a building: LaFern Willams South YMCA facelift reinvigorates community 

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

South Omaha’s renaissance unfolds on many fronts. From scores of new businesses to construction of a new community center, library and athletic stadium to the expansion of Metropolitan Community College’s south campus, the area’s booming again after a three-decade lull.

Facelifts also contribute to this turnaround. The most obvious makeover is to the 24th Street business district, whose once thriving streetscapes-storefronts dimmed but now overbrim with color and activity in a plaza-like marketplace.

More recently, a $1.25 million renovation to the LaFern Williams South YMCA at 30th and Q has infused new life into a community anchor that had seen better days.

The Y’s flip is not easily observed until you go inside, but it’s accounting for a surge of activity not seen there since the building’s heyday.

YMCA of Greater Omaha COO Linda Butkus said compared to a year ago the South branch has seen a 30 percent increase in member scans, a 25 percent increase in member revenue and 209 more individuals join as Y members.

“We’re seeing more use, we’re getting more memberships, were expanding beyond just kids to serving more families and adults as well,” she said, “and I think the renovations are the reasons for the increases.”

Three phases of capital improvements are complete. Interior upgrades encompass a redesigned lobby, a new gymnasium floor, enhanced lighting, fresh carpeting and paint, a refurbished fitness room, a large computer room, a new security system and a new chiller. Outside, a new parking overlay is done and a new roof in-progress. In line with the physical changes new programs have been implemented.

Butkus said, “We have more for individuals to do in the way of programming, we have more fitness equipment and the overall feel of the facility is much better. It was a dark and old interior. Now it’s very nice, it’s very bright. The amenities have been upgraded. It feels good to be there. It’s been a complete facelift. When you walk in you go, ‘Wow.’ That’s the feedback we’re getting.”

South branch executive director Brian Owens said the Y’s commitment has resulted in “a buy-in” from area residents. “It’s given people a sense of pride to say, ‘You’re investing in our community.’” He said members lost to other branches are returning now. To accommodate higher volume he’s expanded the hours of operation.

He said to stay in touch with the expectations of a diverse clientele “we’re being very intentional and diligent about launching our programs. We’re going out and asking our member base, ’What do you want in this building?’, instead of us telling them what they’re getting. That’s been pretty successful so far.”

Responding to the ever growing Latino population fitness classes infused with merengue and salsa are offered. ESL and Spanish language classes are possibilities.

“Our Latino base has grown tremendously,” he said. “That’s our demographic and we’re ecstatic that we do have that buzz in the Latino community.”

Smaller than some Ys and lacking a pool, the branch accentuates what it has that others Y don’t. Owens said, “We have a smorgasbord of cultures who frequent this branch” — Latinos, Sudanese, Native Americans, whites. “We have that unique opportunity to be able to cross cultures and to share with one another, and that’s a great scene.”

Brenda Kremlacek’s three boys attend the South Y, where, “they’ve met a variety of ages and nationalities, and that’s good,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of progress with the boys’ attitudes. They look forward going. They have a lot of good friends.”

The absence of a swimming hurts but Owen said the branch compensates with “the largest gym in the (Omaha) association.” That gym sees heavy use for hoops, via basketball programs/leagues, and fitness/martial arts classes. He’s hoping when the nearby Kroc Center opens in 2009 his members will be able to access its pool.

He feels his Y’s proximity to the neighboring South Side Terrace Homes and “its 800-plus young people” is an advantage for attracting and retaining youth and family members. He’s keenly aware the facility’s long drawn many users from the Omaha Housing Authority’s South Terrace complex. The low-income housing project includes many at-risk youths who access the Y’s after-school and summer club programs and Kids Cafe, which provides free nutritious meals and snacks. An OHA liasion offices at the Y.

One of South Side’s own played a key role in pushing for the building, which was owned and operated by OHA from 1977 until 2007. The facility’s provided recreational, educational, community and social agency services and programs its entire life. It fulfilled the vision of LaFern Williams, a South Side tenant and community activist who “was very instrumental in convincing the powers-that-be” to construct a recreational/childcare facility for residents, said OHA executive director Stan Timm. Her dream of a safe haven for children was realized and the building became the LaFern Williams Center after her death.

The center also housed the award-winning Center Stage Theatre, whose alums include actor-directorJohn Beasley Owens said, “This facility was one of the most happening scenes in the ‘80s.” By the start of this decade the Center Stage was no more and the building showing its age and a decline in usage. A half-dozen years ago Beasley resurrected live theater there by forming the John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Even with the JBT’s success the center was not the beehive activity it was before. In 1999 the Y leased the ground floor to present an array of programs and activities. The name changed to South Omaha Community YMCA. Other tenants have included Educare, Head Start and South Omaha Weed & Seed.

When OHA could no longer afford the cost of maintaining the building, plans called for the center to be sold. An outcry led by South Side residents made the structure’s fate a public issue. That’s when the Y stepped in to buy and renovate it with the help of a $1 million challenge grant from the Peter Kiewit Foundation.

As an enticement for Beasley’s company to remain, the Y showed some love by installing new seats and carpeting in the auditorium housing his theater. Owens said having the theater there “is a unique opportunity and presence. Mr. Beasley’s a renowned artist and his productions are tremendous. We wanted to make the upgrades to let him know we respect him and appreciate what he provides.”

Additional plans for the auditorium call for the addition of a drop-down projector to accommodate Power Point II presentations, which Owens hopes will attract organizations to use the facility during the day for meetings and trainings.

As a nod to the legacy of the woman who made the center a reality, Y officials renamed it the LaFern Williams South YMCA. While Owens never met Williams he said, “we’re honored to carry Miss LaFern’s name and her mission to be a beacon or a cornerstone for this community. I’m proud to be that steward that fights for those whose arms get tired. I don’t take that lightly.”

He said the deep meaning the place has in the community is reflected by the fact it’s only been tagged once in the seven years he’s been there. “I think that has a lot to do with respect. That this is kind of off-limits. This is the hub. This facility has such a lineage and a history. A lot of young people’s parents, brothers, aunts, uncles participated here. It’s like we take care of our own.”

 

 

 

photo
Community garden on the South Omaha YMCA grounds, ©The Big Garden

 

John Beasley has it all going on with new TV series, feature film in development, plans for new theater and possible New York stage debut; Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s “The Soul Man”

June 3, 2012 8 comments

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, far right, with his castmates from The Soul Man 

 

 

John Beasley has it all going on with new TV series, feature film in development, plans for new theater and possible New York stage debut

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)

 

In his notable screen acting career John Beasley has done his share of television both as a one-off guest star (Detroit 1-8-7, Boston Legal, CSI: Miami, NCIS) and recurring player (Everwood, Treme).

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.

Cedric and Niecy

 

 

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.

Cedric and Beasley in a father-son moment

 

 

“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.”

My 20111 cover story about John Beasley  for Metro Magazine

 

 

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.

Nebraska Legislature once again wrestles with film tax incentives question: Alexander Payne and John Beasley press the case home

February 18, 2012 3 comments

George Clooney in Up in the Air (some airport scenes shot at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield terminal)

 

 

Here we go again.  Nebraska media reported in mid-January that homegrown film stalwarts Alexander Payne and John Beasley appeared before the state legislature cajoling elected officials to adopt tax incentives for the film industry.  Nebraska is one of only 10 states without any film tax credits, which helps explain why so few features of any size or consequence are shot here.  Outside of Payne’s first three features made here, you can count on one two hands the number of feature-length, medium budget films shot in Nebraska since the mid-1990s.  The state actually used to see more features, TV movies, and mini-series work before because Nebraska’s right-to-work status gave it an advantage, but that advantage has been lost in the high stakes incentives market.  It’s not the first time prominent Nebraskans in Film have tried impressing upon legislators the fact that Nebraska is losing a potential income stream to other states, including neighboring states.  Three years ago Payne made obstensibly the same appeal he made four weeks ago.  Then, as now, he used his planned film Nebraska as a leverage point in telling state senators, “Gee, wouldn’t it be a shame if I had to make a film called Nebraska in Oklahoma.”  Only now he’s saying he might have to take the production to Kansas.  It’s not just politics either.  He reportedly told senators, “I’m being pressured to shoot in Kansas instead of Nebraska and I’m hard-pressed to offer resistance. What do our counterparts in Kansas see that we don’t see?”  Even conservative Kansas, he noted, has adopted a 30 percent film tax credit program, whereas he added, “We have zilch.  That goes over like a lead balloon.  We Nebraskans now enjoy sensational cultural opportunities in opera, symphony, ballet, theater and art.  Film remains the missing element.  It’s crucial to have something in place here – even something modest – or filmmaking both from outside and home-grown has no chance in Nebraska.”

Beasley laid out a similar scenario, saying that the $12.5 million film he’s developing on Omaha native son Marlin Briscoe may also shoot in Kansas instead of Nebraska for the same reasons. “The investors in question,” he said, “want to see their money to go as far as it can go.”

More or less the same cast of characters who pushed for tax credits here in 2009-2010, namely Sens. Heath Mello and Abby Cornett, are the same ones at it again. The same lobbyin group active then, the Nebraska Film Association headed by Mark Hoeger, is active again.  This time Lincoln Sen. Colby Cash is helping lead the charge in the legislature and advocate voices like Payne’s and Beasley’s are being pressed into service.  Cornett’s introduced Legislative Bill 863 to put incentives in place.  She has legislature allies in Mello, Cash, and others.  Previous efforts have not really gotten very far, presumably because the Unicameral is a highly conservative body.  This time, there seems to be more support for the proposition, no doubt due in large measure to record budget shortfalls and a lagging state economy that’s forcing lawmakers to find creative new ways to generate revenues.  How much an impact  Payne’s and Broscoe’s power plays make is anyone’s guess, but it would be awfully embarassing if Nebraska snubbed its collective nose at favorite sons like these and they ending up taking their projects to Kansas.  Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to court Payne, Beasley, and filmmakers like them in the same way the state courts Google or some other Fortune 500 company to do business here?

I wrote the following story more than two years ago, when the tax incentives push last had this kind of star power buzz behind it.  Nothing happened then in the way of credits being adopted.  I assume something will happen this time.  My story by the way was published in truncated form, and here I present it for the first time in its entirety.  The piece tries to get at why this has been such a tough nut to crack in Nebraska and lays out a vision for how it might finally happen.  It appears now as if the groundwork laid down then may be finally paying off.

Nebraska Legislature once again wrestles with film tax incentives question:

Alexander Payne and John Beasley press the case home

©by Leo Adam Biga

A much shorter version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Over the years Nebraska lawmakers have steadfastly refused to entertain adopting incentives for the film industry, leaving the state among only a handful not offering them.

Nebraska film incentives proponents are mounting their argument in what may be the worst possible climate for garnering political traction on the issue. That’s because many look at incentives as giveaways, not exactly what a group of mostly conservative legislators want to enact amidst a lingering recession, a mammoth deficit and the likely chilling effect of Iowa’s mismanaged, now suspended film incentives program right next door.

Incentivising other industries in Nebraska, meanwhile, is fairly common. Since going into effect in 1988, LB 775, later retooled under the Nebraska Advantage Act, has been a business incentives engine for many industries in the state. Nebraska Department of Economic Development director Richard Baier said the state targets certain industries with incentives, including Information Technology, data centers, insurance, transportation-logistics and advanced manufacturing.

Historically, lawmakers’ resistance to film incentives has centered around why filmmakers should be given special tax credits for products that are risky investments. State funding for the arts is not new, but America has a tradition of private arts funding. The murky thing with film is that it is both a business and an art. The vast majority of projects of any size are purely commercial enterprises, including feature films, documentaries, made-for-TV movies, episodic TV series, reality shows, music videos, commercials and industrials.

Then there are the micro-budget films that are so small they add little to the economy, much less stand any real chance of getting seen.

Skeptics wonder if film incentives are a revenue neutral or net gain proposition or whether states stand to lose money. The mismanagement of Iowa’s overly broad film incentives program, whose lack of restraints and oversights saw up to 50 percent in tax credits awarded some projects and some producers purchasing luxury vehicles on the state’s dime, recently led Gov. Chet Culver to suspend the program pending investigations. The Iowa fiasco illustrates states can give out more than they get back. Earlier, Michigan and Louisiana confronted their own incentives program failures that forced reviews and reorganizations, but Iowa’s problems resonate more as they’re more recent and closer to home.

Some ask why states would even put themselves in the position of being taken advantage of by film sharks. Other simply ask why shouldn’t filmmakers and their investors pay their own way and bear all their own risks.

There’s also a suggestion that a film incubator be created that coalesces film artists, crafts people, technicians and investors in a collaborative space that also provides training classes or workshops, all in the spirit of nurturing film activity.

The real debate centers around whether or not film production would generate enough economic development to justify the state offering a stimulus package. Even a leader in the pro-incentives movement here, Mark Hoeger, puts it this way: “The question is, is this a business Nebraska wants to attract here, and that’s not a simple answer.” Hoeger, a veteran Omaha filmmaker and co-president of Oberon Entertainment, heads the Nebraska Film Association. A nonprofit advocacy group formed earlier this year, the NFA includes representatives from segments with the most to gain from incentives — area producers, directors, Teamsters, et cetera.

Legislative Bill 863Under Hoeger, the NFA’s retained former Nebraska Department of Economic Development deputy officer Stu Miller to research the incentives issue. A well circulated report by Miller suggests a film tax credit formula of 20 percent will return a dollar eight cents on every dollar the state spends on incentives. He used the budgeted expenditures on Hoeger’s film, Full Ride, in devising his figures.

Proponents like Hoeger say that incentives would grow — from within and from without — the state’s nascent, somewhat scatter shot film community as it’s currently comprised into a sustainable industry.

Trouble is, no one really knows how many Nebraska residents work in film. There are some small production companies for whom filmmaking is their stock-in-trade. They range from one-person operations to minimal staffs. Rather than features, however, they produce TV commercials, industrials and documentaries. With the exception of those businesses and the documentary film units at Nebraska Educational Television and UNO Television, almost everyone that works in film in Nebraska does it as part-time, independent contractors. On film projects these freelancers fill such roles as grips, gaffers, makeup artists, costumers, set dressers, assistant directors and production assistants.

Then there are small firms that offer as an adjunct of their business film services, including casting agencies and sound recording studios.

As far as how many gainfully employed folks there are now and how many there might be, said Baier, “that’s not a number I can give you a feel for. That’s been part of our discussion with the film industry — and this is where it gets very complicated.” He said with a Pay Pal operation, for example, “you’re able to measure and quantify all of those things. In the film industry it’s much looser and much more difficult to get your arms around actual numbers.”

State Sen. Abbie Cornett, a film incentives advocate, chairs the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. She said “the film industry’s like any other industry that we incentivise in the state of Nebraska and that’s what we have to start looking at it as, as an industry, not as a one time event. We incentivised Yahoo to come here. It’s incentives, it’s giving a business reasons to locate here.” She concedes it will take “a long educational process” to cultivate the needed support for a film incentives measure to pass.

Baier said that what makes film incentives a tough sell here is that film is in fact unlike any other industry. When it comes to gauging hard economic impact, a brick and mortar call center is one thing, he said, and the traveling circus that blows into town with a film is another.

A call center has x number of employees earning salaries and wages. Those workers pay income tax and buy homes and everything else. The business pays property tax, purchases supplies, maybe invests in expansion and perhaps becomes a good corporate neighbor who gives charitably to community organizations.

The impact a film has when it comes to injecting new capital or creating jobs is debatable. That’s because there’s a wide spectrum of filmmaking in terms of budget, length of shooting schedule, cast-crew size, et cetera. Film budgets run the gamut from millions to thousands, production schedules vary from a few days to several weeks, cast-crew members number from a dozen to several dozen.

Only a portion of any budget is spent in any given locale. Payouts to on-screen talent, principal crew or department heads and to producers/directors/writers may or may not trickle to the local economy depending on where these individuals reside. Cast-crew size and the percentage of residents and nonresidents varies greatly and is a huge factor in determining how much lodging, eating, purchasing taxable dollars a film generates in-state. Even when shot principally or entirely in Nebraska, post-production aspects may be done elsewhere.

Said Baier, “The challenge with in-state crews is that many of them already have other kinds of film activities working with ad agencies and such, and so are you really creating new jobs or are you simply giving them more activity? Those are the kinds of things you would have to balance in that debate. If you’ve got somebody already doing it, should you give him an incentive to do one more project a year? That really lessens the economic benefit because from an economics perspective those folks already live here, they’re already working here, they’re already paying taxes here, all you’re doing is simply putting some icing on top of the cake.”

All these considerations go into the incentives deliberation.

“There would have to be a lot of thought into how do we measure the long-term economic impact of the film industry to our state,” said Baier. “Are we creating jobs? Are we keeping people here? Are we raising the salaries? Are we creating capital investment and wealth in our state? We have to evaluate to make sure that we are providing an appropriate level of incentives to stimulate behavior without having a race to the bottom in terms of incentive policy from a state perspective. I would argue some of this has happened in other states, where the thinking became, Well, state x is doing this so we have to do what they’re doing, plus more, and that cycle continues until there’s no economic benefit to the state.

“And so as you look at these incentives programs there’s a real delicate balance between how do you impact behavior without giving away the store? We do that ongoing with all of our incentives and we’re very careful about how we administer our programs in Nebraska to make sure they are performance-based, which basically means we’ve gotta have jobs creation, significant capital investment, and if and only then if you do those things do you get any kind of incentive.”

Indeed, the state does recapture incentives from companies that do not meet performance goals. Those companies either forfeit or refund any incentives not earned. Some states with film inventives only cut checks to filmmakers once the project is complete and it’s been verified that the stipulated goals have been met.

The latest Nebraska legislator among a tiny but vocal contingent to take up the incentives bandwagon is District 5 representative, Sen. Heath Mello, who introduced LB 282 earlier this year with a proposed tax credit of up to 25 percent tied to Nebraska film crew hires. The bill, which didn’t reach the legislature’s floor for debate, also proposed a fiscal note or financial guarantee that is a major sticking point for opponents.

Mello, along with colleagues Cornett and Tom White, argue that incentives will equate to jobs and careers in a burgeoning industry.

Doubters express what might be termed a parochial attitude that says, Hey, this is Nebraska, who do we think we are to try and get Hollywood to come? The truth is, as incentives supporters point out, for years now states just like Nebraska, notably Iowa, have attracted scores of film projects, large and small, studio and indie, while Nebraska’s settled for the crumbs.

Cornett said, “If we do anything here we’re looking at something that would just make Nebraska competitive to draw some films here, we’re not trying to open our flood gates and say Hollwood come to Nebraska. But if you’re making a film set in Nebraska we’d sure like it to be filmed here.”

There is the occasional mid-major film by native sons: Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt); Andrew Robinson (April Showers); Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still). But their made-in-Nebraska works might be considered exceptions as these filmmakers have a special motivation to shoot here, incentives or not. There’s no question though that these artists’ indigenous projects do add to the area film culture, infrastructure and industry. Just as the Omaha Film Festival, the Nebraska Independent Film Project, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, Film Streams and the University of Nebraska School of Theatre, Film and Television do.

Some proponents of incentives point to Omaha’s nationally prominent indie music scene as a model for the kind of industry-generating, image enhancement benefits a vibrant film scene might foster. They don’t mention that the major catalyst behind Omaha’s music indie phenomena, Saddle Creek Records, has energized things through entirely private means, without any props from tax credits.

Mark Hoeger

 

 

So why should film be treated differently than music? Proponents cite that film production costs generally far outstrip those for music and the number of artists and technicians attached to films generally exceed those on music projects. But what we’re really talking about is a feel-good, cool-quotient cultural amenity.

“Film is sexy,” said Hoeger. “Film is the kind of thing that is about glamour and excitement and all those intangible benefits that are greater than the direct economic benefits, and you know that’s not nothing. When you look at why Iowa’s justified doing what they have they saw one of their biggest challenges, as Nebraska’s is, is an aged population and trouble retaining young labor, especially talented, creative young labor.”

He said filmmaking would be another draw to keep people here and to attract new people here in the same way the Qwest Center, the new downtown ballpark, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardens and the Henry Doorly Zoo do. It’s just that films are ephemeral things. They come, they go, the gypsies that work on them move on.

The idea of offering incentives to generate film production is nothing new. The allure of a film made in your own backyard has long been a powerful enticement. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of this vanity element to cut sweetheart deals with local-state government agencies, businesses and others eager to bask in the Hollywood limelight.

Several trends led filmmakers to ask for and get preferential treatment from state governments. Feature film production became increasingly untethered from its Hollywood base in the 1980s, in large part due to skyrocketing production costs. Filmmakers motivated to keep costs down headed to places like Canada, North Carolina and Texas, where film infrastructures took root. Once states realized the production pie was up for grabs, they began scrambling to offer more incentives. Bidding wars ensued. Together with these trends, independent cinema became the new model in the 1990s, leading to films being made wherever artists and investors could package financing and get the most bang for their buck.

The tech revolutions of cable and satellite television, VCRs, DVDs, personal computers cell phones, iPods, along with the phenomena of film festivals, social networking sites and services like Netflix, created new platforms for film/video viewing that expanded the demand for movies. A parallel revolution in home camcorders and digital editing put the tools of cinema production within the grasp of anyone, leading to an explosion in filmmaking. The age of garage films is upon us.

Even with all that, making the case for film incentives in Nebraska won’t be easy when elected officials must make hard social program cuts that affect people’s lives. On top of the budget woes, there’s the specter of Iowa’s film incentives scandal. The pro-incentives coalition acknowledges the Iowa situation hurts their chances to convince reluctant Nebraska lawmakers. Cornett called what happened in Iowa “a debacle” and “ridiculous.” “It’s going to negatively impact anything we do,” she said. “That’s something we’ll be battling.”

Hoeger and other incentives supporters believe Nebraska can learn from where Iowa and other states went wrong. One thing he and Cornett recommends is a deliberate program that ramps up slowly and carefully.

“If you’re just going to say, Here, come take whatever you want, we don’t care, then you’ll just be a sucker,” said Hoeger. “But if there’s a real strategy that says, Here’s what we’re trying to achieve and here’s what we’re willing to pay to get it, then I think it would be a smart move. Proper oversights are really important but I don’t think they’re the whole question either, although they’re an essential.

“The hope is and we shouldn’t proceed unless it’s more than a hope that you can show that we wrote a check for 20 percent  but we’re going to get back 25 percent, so you’re left with a net positive rather than a net negative out of this process. But if you can’t come up with a system that nets a return and achieves you’re objectives, then you walk away.”

He said any incentives would need to be tied to specific benchmarks, such as a minimum percentage of local crew used.

Iowa left the administration of an ever expanding and loophole-filled multi-million dollar incentives program in the hands of one overwhelmed film office employee. Nebraska Department of Economic Development director Richard Baier said Nebraska already has in place “a dedicated system” to administer incentives programs and this would be the logical mechanism to oversee film incentives.

“The Department of Revenue administers the actual auditing of our tax incentives programs for the State of Nebraska, which is great because that sort of puts a wall between what I would consider the sales team and the audit team,” he said. “Nebraska’s been very diligent and judicious about building a process in place to ensure compliance.”

Hoeger favors making any incentives program as transparent as possible, including a model like New Mexico’s that publishes on-line each film’s itemized budget.

Even though the Nebraska Film Office, which falls under Baier’s purview, would likely be only a liaison in the incentives process, it’s possible the office could be expanded. Presently, Lori Richards fills the film officer role on a contractural basis.

The Iowa program’s suspension has put several film projects in jeopardy or limbo, leading some producers to pull up stakes to shoot elsewhere. Nebraskans are prominently behind two of the affected projects. Writer-director-producer Steve Lustgarten’s feature My Own Blood was set to start shooting in Council Bluffs this fall when the plug was pulled on the Iowa program, forcing him to postpone the project, at least until the dust settles.

Alexander Payne is producing a film that was ready to roll when things blew up. Said Payne, “I’m involved in producing a film right now called Cedar Rapids, and where do you think that should be shooting? But its shooting in Michigan. We were all set to go in Des Moines and the incentives fell through, so we immediately high tailed it up to Michigan. There was something like a two or three million dollar difference” with Michigan incentives versus no incentives. The comedy starring Ed Helms (The Office) and John C. Reilly is directed by Miguel Arteta and is the first production of Payne’s company, Ad Hominem, which is also producing Payne’s adaptation of The Descendants, which begins shooting in February in Hawaii.

“As for my project,” said Lustgarten, “I’ll lose 100% of the funding without the Iowa deal. Will I sue? Wouldn’t want to tip my hand, though the Iowa attorney general says the state does have legal liability in regard to the contracts, so they’ll clearly be in breach.”

Incentives appear to be a Pandora’s Box that can’t be closed. They’re part of the film landscape now and all the wishful thinking or head-buried-in-the-sand grumbling will neither bring more films to Nebraska nor make incentives go away

Recently, Payne’s lent his clout to the NFA’s efforts. His public endorsement’s long been sought by advocates. This is the first time the writer-director of Sideways has participated. Where past film incentives efforts were reactionary, ad hoc blips, there’s now an ongoing apparatus to keep pressing home the message. All this made the filmmaker comfortable to put his name and his viewpoint out there.

“I think now they have a more concerted effort with a group and money behind it,” Payne said, referring to the NFA. Its president, Mark Hoeger, said the current pro-incentives camp is “by far” the most organized he’s seen it — “to the point that we’ve retained professional lobbyists to help us with getting organized and taking us through the (legislative) process.”

Rich Lombardi is one of two lobbyists with Lincoln-based American Communications Group Inc. working with the NFA on what he calls “an uphill battle” in trying to persuade a majority of Nebraska legislators that film incentives are a good thing for the state. A longtime Nebraska legislature lobbyist, Lombardi said the question of film incentives “has been up and down the flag pole” before in the Unicameral and gotten nowhere. But he agrees with Hoeger that its supporters “never had this level of organization” in the past, adding they never “had a guy of Payne’s stature become like the unofficial cheerleader” for the cause.

On Oct. 12 Payne offered his perspective in meetings with Gov. Dave Heineman and other state lawmakers and policymakers. He also did a meet-and-greet with the film community at the elegant home of Thompson Rogers, a local film investor.

Admittedly “a show pony” in this effort, Payne neither exaggerates nor underestimates the value of his input. His pitch to the gov was short and sweet.

“I’m not a numbers guy, I’m not a film financier, I’m not a state economic development officer. I’m an artist,” said Payne. “So, Mark Hoeger was there to make part of the nuts and bolts case and lobbyist Rich Lombardi was also there to buttress the case and make points of his own, and I was there just to basically say two things:  ‘I make films in Nebraska, my next film after my Hawaii film is called Nebraska and I’m already getting pressured not to shoot it in Nebraska because there are no incentives here, and I would hate to have to retitle that film Iowa or Missouri or Kansas.”

Predictably, Nebraska incentives backers got a cool reception from Heineman, a fiscal conservative facing a huge state budget deficit in a tough economic climate.

“The governor has a lot on his plate and did not seem very interested at this point in pursuing it because it involves a certain degree of out of pocket expenses with the promise of some returned revenue in the future,” said Payne. “He just now can’t seem to justify anything out of pocket. But I’m confident and hopeful that he’ll start to understand more and not just the economic but the cultural benefits of doing such a thing.”

Payne said his argument for incentives is the same whoever he’s talking to.

“Look, I’m just there to say, I don’t know all the numbers but we have on our hands in Omaha, Neb. a blossoming cultural capital. It’s a world class city in miniature and fomenting film culture through such an act would be a super cool thing to do. I mean, the governor tends to look at just the numbers, which is his prerogative, but there are a whole host of cultural benefits to be had by doing such a thing. Sideways continues to unfurl millions of dollars into Santa Barbara county tourism. Granted that’s a very, very special case, but the economic benefits were not quantifiable at the time and they’ve been kind of infinite since then.”

Others use as examples Northern Exposure, Dances with Wolves, Field of Dreams and The Bridges of Madison County as shooting sites whose iconic locations have become popular tourist sites in states not generally thought of as meccas.

Hoeger said film “is the forum in which the world finds out who you are.” The inestimatable value of a state’s name or landmarks being featured in a film is something Stu Miller is trying to attach an advertising dollar equivalent to. Cornett calls it “a ripple effect.”

It should be noted Payne also got pressure not to shoot in Nebraska on his first three features but each time he managed to get his way. The state’s lack of financial incentives didn’t prevent those projects from being made here but he said a more competitive environment to attract the film industry has changed all the rules, and that’s another reason for him now speaking out.

“Yeah, it was different then, there weren’t that many (incentives programs). One of the only reasons I got to shoot Citizen Ruth here back in ‘95 was that it was a right to work state. That was the goal back then, there weren’t as many states with tax incentives back then, so back then you would think about Texas and North Carolina, they were states with some crew base where also you could shoot nonunion. Then it changed in the last eight years or so with these incentive programs that caught on.”

Hoeger conceded even without incentives Nebraska still “has some advantages and they’re some significant ones. For example, permits is a huge thing and Nebraska, permit-wise, scores highly. It’s very easy to get permission to shoot almost anywhere except Memorial Stadium. Even working with the highway patrol to close stretches of road or shooting in public places, you get a lot of cooperation.”

But, Hoeger added, “you can get a lot of that in places like Oklahoma and Iowa and get incentives, too, so if Nebraska wants to be in this game then it needs to do something, and if it doesn’t, if we cant put together a package that makes sense, then who cares, we just won’t have films get made here.” He said his own company, Oberon, is close to securing financing on two features, neither of which will be made here, in part because of a lack of incentives.

The fact is, films do continue to get made here. It’s just a question of how much is enough to stimulate something like a sustainable industry. Hoeger said where Payne “was able to get his Nebraska projects through on the labor part of it,” via largely nonunion shoots that kept the price down,” the trouble is now that, for better or worse, the incentives world has gotten so much more competitive that those advantages alone can’t get you over the hump.”

That’s not to say Payne still won’t or can’t make Nebraska here sans incentives. If he held out to shoot here, chances are someone with his standing — he’s an Oscar-winner, a critical darling and, most compellingly, a proven moneymaker — would get his way. He’s one of only a few filmmakers to enjoy final cut privileges.

It’s also important to note that in addition to or in lieu of tax credits, filmmakers use other ways to hold down costs, including getting talent to work for scale, eliminating perks and devising ultra tight shooting schedules. Also, producers routinely negotiate deals, such as reduced group rates at motels for cast-crew and volume discounts on transportation-equipment rental, supply purchases, catering services and other budget items.

But these are relatively nickel and dime considerations in comparison with the large savings, rebates, exemptions, even equity stakes, that filmmakers seek and get from taxpayer-fed, government-run incentives programs.

“There’s a lot of ways to bring the film industry here besides giving money and those I’m particularly researching,” said Cornett.

If and when Nebraska decides to enter the film incentives world, observers say you can expect a moderate, play-it-safe program that focuses on homegrown projects.

Journeyman actor John Beasley discusses life in film-television-theater and striving for in-the-moment believability

February 1, 2012 4 comments

I have spun a lot of words about actor John Beasley and I expect I will be spinning many more as time goes by.  He’s one of those actors whose face if not his name you recognize from his numerous television and film roles.  He’s a steady presence on screen but he’s made an equally indelible impression on stage.  The following short profile for Metro Magazine mentions two projects close to his heart that have had new developments since going to press.  A new Cedric the Entertainer sitcom entitled Have Faith has been picked up by TV Land and Beasley, who appeared in the pilot, has a co-starring role as Cedric’s father.  The series begins airing in June.  A feature film about the NFL’s first black quarterback, Marlin Briscoe, is one that Beasley has been trying to get off the ground for some years.  It’s now inched closer to getting made with a name Hollwyood producer recently signing on to the project.  In the coming weeks or months look for a story I’m preparing on one of John’s sons, Michael Beasley, whose film-TV acting career is breaking big in 2012.

 

 

Journeyman actor John Beasley discusses life in film-television-theater and striving for in-the-moment believability

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the January 2012 issue of Metro Magazine

 

Journeyman John Beasley has made a nice living for himself as a supporting character actor in film-television-theater, and he’s done it all without ever having to move from his hometown of Omaha. He admits being an in-demand actor without ever having to relocate is nothing short of “amazing,” adding, “I’ve just been blessed.”

Making his mark

After making his mark in regional theater, he became part of an acting brotherhood so identified with the canon of playwright August Wilson its members are dubbed Wilsonian Warriors. “Oh, yeah, I’m definitely that,” he says.

Beasley, who got to know the late Wilson, has made his John Beasley Theater & Workshop a showcase for Wilson’s exploration of the American black experience. A production of Radio Golf last fall completed the theater’s staging of the entire 10-play cycle Wilson set in his native Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

“I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career,” says Beasley. “I credit August with getting me into Chicago theater and into that circle, because it is a nice fraternity.”

Theater led Beasley to his first screen roles: opposite Oprah Winfrey in TV’s, Brewster’s Place; co-starring with Olympia Dukakis and Amy Madigan in the TV movie Lucky Day; supporting characters in a string of sports movies, most notably Rudy.

A big break came when Robert Duvall cast him in the prestigious art film, The Apostle. That “life changer” project led to more film parts (The General’s Daughter, The Sum of All Fears) and TV guest roles (CSI, Judging Amy). Then came his recurring role in Everwood.

He’s gone on to appear in dramas, comedies, horror films, even a western. He’s played ministers, detectives, coaches, fathers, grandfathers and heavies. He’s often played older than his years, and now that his age has caught up with those senior parts he figures he should be busy all the time.

 

 

 

 

 

Foundations and directions

His journey of late has ranged from acclaimed performances in August Wilson’s 20th Century cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2008 to raising the roof at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2009 to TV guest starring gigs, in 2011 alone, in the highly praised Treme and in Harry’s Law, CSI: Miami and Detroit 1-8-7.

Now comes the pilot for a new TVLand series starring Cedric the Entertainer that Beasley terms “a great opportunity.” Beasley plays a retired preacher whose once wayward son, played by Cedric, has left a secular music career behind to minister at his father’s church. The son can never quite please his old man.

The untitled new show marks Beasley’s first foray into sit-coms. “It was a pretty interesting process. We rehearsed for about five days and then shot before a live audience. About 300 people,” he says. “The writers and producers were there and the network was there. We did several passes over some scenes and intermixed those together with prerecorded scenes. If we shot a take and they didn’t get the response or the laughs they wanted the writers would go back, huddle up and bring new lines, and we’d do it again.”

There was also location shooting at a church.

He says during a break TVLand president Larry W. Jones sought him out to compliment his comedic work. Beasley feels everything’s in place for a hit. “It’s a very funny show. The writing’s good. The cast is pretty solid. The acting is believable, not over the top. It turned out to be a really great experience. The audience loved the show. The producers are really excited about it.”

If anything’s made Beasley a go-to working actor it’s his rigor.

“I had some really good teachers who taught me to always go inside for my characters. I always try to be in the moment. Being in the moment — that’s when you find things. I’m always trying to get my actors to be believable and play in the moment, and when I catch them acting, I’ll tell them, ‘Get rid of the acting,’ and they know what that means.”

Along the way Beasley’s “worked with some of the best people in the business” and found he can not not only hang with them but bring something uniquely his.

He lived a full life before ever pursuing acting full-time — as athlete, gypsy cabbie, longshoreman, family man. “I’ve seen the rough side of life, too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did, it always turned out, but you’ve got to stay the course…” He says his life experience works to his advantage as an actor: “All of it, every last bit of it.”

“Believability is what I’ve always searched for. People say, ‘You gotta be bigger on stage.’ I don’t buy that, and so far I’ve proven myself right because when I did Fences at the Huntington director Kenny Lyon saw what I was doing as something really brilliant and had the rest of the cast follow me — pick up the part of the song I knew. I just have a feeling for the rhythm. I know where the notes should be, I know where this song should be sung, I know where the pitch is.

“I worked with the great Lloyd Richards, in Two Trains Running at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The company had just come off Broadway. Even guys like Roscoe Lee Brown Lloyd still had to give direction. One day Roscoe asked me, ‘How does it feel to be the only one Lloyd doesn’t give directions to?’ Because I do my homework.”

 

 

 

 

Ripened with age

He feels if anything he’s improved with age.

“My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence on stage and I look more and more for the subtle, little things that make my characters more human, more interesting. It’s the same thing on camera. For me the excitement of doing a piece is finding things that maybe the writer wrote in-between the lines.”

Ultimately, he says, the theater is his foundation. “It’s still where I sharpen my craft.”

His own theater recently weathered hard times to launch its 12th season. He’s planning a new North Omaha theater. In March he joins Everwood star Treat Williams for a staged reading of a new Athol Fugard play at the University of North Carolina. And he still has faith his long-in-development Marlin Briscoe feature film project will happen.

Completely comfortable in his own skin, Beasley doesn’t wear success like a trophy. He prefers jeans and older model cars. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody,” he says. His bucket list includes acting on Broadway. Whether he does or not, he says, “it’s been a really interesting journey.”

Follow the JBT at http://www.johnbeasleytheater.org.

Vincent Alston’s indie film debut, “For Love of Amy,” is black and white and love all over

November 29, 2011 14 comments

The Omaha indie filmmaking scene is not very active, especially when it comes to features.  One of the few homemade feature projects to get made here and nationally distributed is For Love of Amy, a sentimental pic written and produced by its lead actor, Vincent Alston.  While not a memorable work, the film’s storytelling is effective and the project is notable for simply defying the odds and being realized on screen and actually netting soome screenings and now a DVD release.  My story below was written a couple years ago as the film’s production wound down.  Alston attracted name talents in Ted Lange and John Beasley to direct the film and to essay a supporting role, respectively. The picture did attract enough notice to earn Alston the Mid-Atlantic Black Film Festival award for most outstanding first film and I wouldn’t be surprised if Alston is heard from again.

Sometime soon I will be posting a short story I wrote about another filmmaker with Omaha ties, Patrick Coyle, who has made a serious splash with the indie features he’s written and directed.  The biggest impact Nebraska filmmakers have made in recent years are by Alexander Payne, whose first three features were made in Omaha and whose next film, Nebraska, will be made in the mostly rural environs of the state’s central-western panhandle region, and Nik Fackler, whose Lovely, Still is finally finding large audiences via cable and DVD.  This blog is full of stories about these and other filmmakers with Nebraska ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Gail Levin, and Charles Fairbanks.

Vincent Alston

 

 

Vincent Alston’s indie film debut, “For Love of Amy,” is black and white and love all over

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

On a recent Saturday morning at the University of Nebraska Medical Center director Ted Lange and crew worked efficiently to get their shots for the indie film For Love of Amy. Lensing in Omaha and environs since mid-June, the crew needed few takes. A satisfied Lange would say, “Print it…Movin’ on” and the troops rigged things for the next set-up. Far removed from his Love Boat days, the savvy Lange, bedecked in ball cap, blue jeans and athletic shoes, wore a T-shirt adorned with Laurence Dunbar, the subject of a one-man show he conceived and performs.

Screenwriter-producer-star Vincent Alston of Omaha was a quiet, intense presence on set, where he wore a deep blue suit as Michael. Alston seemed wide-eyed about the whole process, understandable given this is his first film and his ass is on the line three ways. He watched things closely and after takes often drew Lange aside to confer about what approach was best.

The concept behind the film will make you go either, “Ewww” or “Awww.” Michael (Alston) is black and his best friend Ryan is white. The dying Ryan extracts Michael’s promise to be there for Ryan’s 9-year-old daughter, Amy. Ryan dies and his widow suffers a breakdown. In steps Michael. Then a revelation about the child’s birth mother throws your expectations askew.

It reads like a treacly, weepie Lifetime message pic. All the racial, sentimental gravitas could be thoughtful or deadly, depending on how it’s handled.

Audiences must judge if Alston and Lange lift the material above the sweetly banal. Alston has the acting chops to make Michael, the single black man who takes Amy into his life a believable figure. Alston’s impressed on the John Beasley Theater stage and as Malcolm X in the one-act play The Meeting. Still, his debut script arguably reads like many well-intentioned social-humanist dramas you’ve seen.

Lange, who played Isaac on the network television chestnut, Love Boat, is a veteran TV and theater director and the author of 21 plays. The San Francisco resident has directed and starred in a film version of Othello. Scenes from his new play George Washington’s Boy were read at the recent Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). In 2005 he came to Omaha to direct his own play, Four Queens and One Trump, at the JBT. So he has the creds, as he said, to “make this thing work.”

How Alston, a Jersey native, got to this point is a story itself. He worked in corrections back east and when he moved here in the ‘90s. His entree to acting came when, “on a whim,” he took a class. Bitten by the bug, he found his niche in naturalism. He made his living in computers while pursuing his theater passion. He now has his own company, VLA Productions, that creates video-Internet visuals and produces stage works, notably Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting, a work Alston’s now identified with. The piece depicts a hypothetical meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.. He staged and starred in a production of it at the GPTC.

Alston’s been writing a few years now, drawing on experiences from his own life. He and his wife Pamela actually care for children not of origin and not of the same race by serving as foster parents. “We’ve had all kinds — Native American, white, biracial, the whole gamut,” he said. Currently they care for two Sudanese youths. Alston and his wife also have a son and daughter of their own.

His Beasley Theater contacts led him to give his script to Lange, who responded to it. “I love the different worlds that are really present side by side in it,” Lange said. “The fact that Michael is black and his best friend is white. The fact that Michael is raising his best friend’s kid. The twist that comes in there at the end about the child’s mother. It does have some nice little turns in it.”

Lange said he also liked the challenge of finding ways to avoid any cliches bound up in the story and in the characters.

“That where your art comes in,” Lange said. “There’s a couple little things we had to tweak. That’s collaboration. That’s Vince saying, ‘Now, Ted, I need this to happen,’ and me saying, ‘Oh, we can do that with just a little bit of this.’ It’s like I told Vince, ‘I’m going to make some suggestions to you. If I can’t tell you why, you go tell me to fuck myself. Don’t do it. But if I tell you something and you ask me why and I give you an answer, you gotta at least give me honest consideration, and that’s how we’ve been working. It’s good.”

Lange said the cast is good enough to avoid playing one-note characters. “We’ve got wonderful actors that can deliver the goods. I’m really excited by the fact we’ve got people who can help me tell the story and can play against the words — start out in one direction and then evolve into this other direction,” he said.

Besides Alston, there’s strong local talent in the cast, including veteran film-TV-theater actor John Beasley in the scene-stealing role of Tate, Tyrone Beasley as X and Lindsay Seim as Kat. Lange was blown away by Omaha actress, Melissa Epps, whom he cast in the role of Claire, ostensibly the heavy of the piece.

Some punch was lost with the late drop out of stage-screen actress Mikole White (She Hate Me), whose role as Jas, Michael’s girlfriend, is being filled by New York actress Joyce Sylvester (Crackin’ Green). The fact that established talent signed on indicates Alston’s script works on the page. The fact there’s a racially mixed cast and crew and the story depicts African American professionals living outside strictly “black Omaha” makes the project fairly unique in local filmmaking circles.

Despite the black-white dynamic that frames the story, Alston insists — and his script bears him out — the film is not about race. Instead, he likes to say it’s a story about “doing the right thing when you don’t know what right is.”

As Lange said, “Ultimately, you know what the right thing to do is, whether it’s profitable or satisfying or all those other things. But sometimes it takes a lot of guts to really do what’s right, and not let your ego, your pride get in the way, and to me that’s what this movie is. Does Michael have the guts to do what’s right?”

Alston got the idea for the story after a party in which a little white girl he didn’t know came up to him and spoke to him “like I was her best friend in the world,” he said. “It was intriguing this child could have this conversation with me and it got me thinking, Could we have that same conversation 10 years hence? Or would society’s prejudices have so impinged on her psyche that those inevitable walls that go up among people who are different prevent it? That was the genesis for it.”

The only racial tension in the film comes in the form of Amy’s maternal grandmother, Claire, who opposes Michael, and from X, a black friend of Michael’s who reminds him of certain realities in America; namely, that a single black man raising a white girl may not fly.

The scene shot at UNMC takes place in a hospital waiting room, where Claire, her husband Frank and their granddaughter Amy keep vigil over Ryan, who’s asked to see Michael. Michael arrives just as Claire expresses her dislike of him to Frank — “I’d sure like to know what in hell makes him so damn special. He’s not even family. I’ve got half a mind to…”. Upon seeing Michael, it’s clear Amy loves her “uncle.” Epps well underplays the antagonistic role of Claire and Grace Bydalek is thankfully unaffected as Amy. Race becomes subtext as much as pretext for the action.

Alston, who’s experienced first hand the politics of race as both a victim of profiling and as a cog in the racially skewed penal system, doesn’t so much concern himself with black-white as human considerations.

“My philosophy is I want to do entertainment that draws on the best in people, not the worst, that challenges people to be better…I think Michael in the film is challenged to be a better person,” he said. “At the end of the day he realizes this isn’t about affirming himself, it’s about a little girl and what’s best for her.”

Alston found himself challenged to heed his better self while a guard at the New Jersey State Home for Boys at Jamesburg (NJ) and working maximum security at the adult Douglas County Correctional Center (Neb.). He didn’t like what the job did to him. “It will jade you,” he said. “Dealing with the worst all day, every day…to see human beings reduced to animals, particularly seeing people who look like me reduced to that, and not even care anymore, and to be proud of it — I had to get out of there. I hit a point where really the bottom dropped out of my life.”

Luckily he had someone looking out for his best interests at Jamesburg.

“My boss and my mentor was a Muslim and he just taught me so many life lessons. He told me, ‘Vince, don’t stay here, this isn’t for you. There’s something greater out there — you just gotta go get it.’

Alston quit. On the advice of a friend who lived in Omaha, he moved here. In need of a job, Alston worked as a guard at the county correctional facility, but when he saw the same thing happening to him again he quit after only a few months. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “It was like, ‘I can’t stay here.’” That decision turned his life around. Within short order he took computer classes at Metro that steered him onto a new career path and he met his future wife.

After transferring to the University of Nebraska at Omaha he took an acting class as an elective and found a whole new passion. “I fell in love with it. It was like a light went on. You hear how people have epiphanies? That was me,” he said. “I remember I did my first monologue and there was a sort of hush in the room. I was leaving and this kid said, ‘People are talking about you.’ I just loved it from then on — that I could get a response from people. It’s interesting because I’m basically an extremely shy person, but you find that stage and I guess it gives you a place to be safe to express yourself.”

His journey to self-realization is not so different than that of Michael’s in the film. “Life is about becoming what you need to become,” Alston said. In Alston’s case, an artist. He found a mentor in UNO theater professor Doug Paterson, with whom he began staging performances of The Meeting. He found another mentor in John Beasley, but not before testing the waters at other theaters.

“Here’s what I found about theater here,” Alston said. “There’s a lot of it, but rarely do they do anything that speaks to my sensibilities. The other thing is, there’s this prevailing belief theater should be bigger than life. The Beasley Theater is the only place I’ve found where I can do the kind of in-the-moment, natural, real emotional response to theater. If you get up there and fake anything, that’s not going to wash with John (Beasley). You’re listening for real, you’re responding emotionally for real. So that’s been a breath of fresh air.”

It didn’t hurt that someone Alston admires so much encouraged him. “John was the first person of his caliber to tell me I could make it as an actor,” Alston said.

Beasley said Alston, who appeared in the JBT production of Jitney, came to him fairly seasoned but unused to laying it all on the line.

“His style is pretty laid back. He’s a protege of Doug (Paterson). Doug’s style and my style differ, though I have respect for what he does,” Beasley said. “Under Ted Lange I’ve seen Vince go inside a little bit more and dig a little deeper to mine some of that gold to bring the character out.”

Beasley’s proud to count Alston as a protege as well. “I’m happy to see he was able to start from nowhere and get this project launched. It’s quite an accomplishment to get your first film made,” Beasley said. “I don’t know what will happen with this film, but I think he’s on his way.”

Alston had been after Beasley for Tate, a wise old janitor at the school Michael teaches at, but the actor held out. It was Lange who got Beasley to give the part another read. “Ted said, ‘Look, Vince has put a lot of work into this character,’ so I took another look at it,” Beasley said. “I’m extremely happy to be a part of this project. I think it’s a good thing for Omaha. I did the movie because Vince asked me and I respect him. I felt I could do no less. I knew it meant a lot to him.”

“The fact that John is doing a role is just huge for us,” Alston confirmed.

Other JBT stalwarts on the For Love of Amy team are: Ty Beasley, who in addition to playing X serves as first assistant director; Amy Laaker as line producer; and Mark O’Leary as location manager.

“It really would have been impossible to do this project without them,” Alston said. “They’ve been with it from day one. You gotta have people committed to seeing the thing through to the end.”

Alston’s four-year odyssey to get the project made has been filled with the usual ups and downs. “In the process you’re running around like mad trying to chase down money,” he said. “You’re always trying to get in front of the next guy. Every day you’re networking with people…presenting business plans, making phone calls.” Once, the film was two weeks from cameras rolling when the financing fell through. “It just throws you for a loop when it happens,” he said. “As frustrating as it was for me, it was more frustrating to tell the cast and crew.”

At his lowest points Alston said he rallies himself with something the great educator Mary McLeod Bethune once said: “’I refused to be discouraged, for neither God nor man could use a discouraged soul.’ That is so heavy,” Alston said.

Whether the film ever sees the light of day is anyone’s guess. Alston hopes it makes the festival circuit and sells theatrically or to television. He’d like to make enough off it to tell more stories on screen. If it does well enough, he muses, maybe “I won’t have to chase the money so hard the next time.”

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