I would be surprised to find someone from around my age who watched television growing up that doesn’t immediately recognize this face. James Avery was one of the all-time great television dads playing Uncle Phil on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for six seasons (1990 – 1996). You might not know that he was also the original voice of Shredder on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, establishing that character’s tone for every iteration to come afterward.
It’s not strange to see Black athletes transition into acting when their sports career wraps up. Back when Woody Strode played for the National Football League, he was one of the first Black players, and his move to becoming an award-winning actor was something unprecedented. Strode was born in Los Angeles, his parents both descended from Indigenous Americans and African slaves. While attending UCLA, Strode became a world-class decathlete and majored in history & education. Strode had posed nude for an art exhibition shown at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The inclusion of Black athletes in the art show led to the Nazis shutting down the whole thing.
Born John Weatherspoon in Detroit in 1942, you likely recognize his face. If you grew up in the 1990s, he was a regular on The Wayans Brothers Show. Additionally, he was a familiar character actor making guest spots on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, and hosts of other shows. Within the Black community, he was a well-known comedian and experienced one of those explosions of success later in life. After making the television circuit with one-off appearances in the 1970s and 80s, Witherspoon was cast in Kid N’ Play’s House Party as an irate neighbor. He was so well-received in this performance that it became Witherspoon’s regular film persona, the cantankerous dad/uncle. After that breakout role, it was Friday as Craig’s dad that truly solidified him as a regular in Black comedy. When his regular role on The Wayans Brothers Show was over, he didn’t have to worry about work as younger Black comedians would get him hired on their programs. Witherspoon appeared in The Tracy Morgan Show and popped up in guest spots all over the place. His third act came in the form of collaborating with Aaron McGruder on The Boondocks. Witherspoon voiced Grandpa for 55 episodes of this brilliant Adult Swim series and went on to play a role in 31 episodes of McGruder’s live-action Black Jesus satire. Sadly, in October of 2019, John Witherspoon passed away at the age of 77. He was never a leading man, but his role as a solid and reliable comedic character actor solidified his place as a great talent.