Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Frankie Faison got his start in the theater, and he still returns to the stage whenever the opportunity presents itself, but he’s best known for his work in film and television, having carved out a formidable career over the past several decades as both a dependable character actor and leading man. Although Faison doesn’t find himself in the latter category as often as he perhaps should, he’s currently sitting pretty as part of the ensemble cast of The Village, which airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC.
Frankie Faison: The producer, writer, and director, they had already considered me before I even came in. They knew my work, and they thought that I would be a good match for Ron, so all I had to do was go in and do a good job, which I should be capable of doing, unless my whole entire résumé is a big lie. [Laughs.] So I didn’t feel any kind of pressure. I just felt like, “Hey, they want to see me, so I’ll just go in and do my thing.” And the role I felt very close to. It’s everything I look for in a character, and it was very much me. So I said, “I can do this, and I don’t have to work to do it. I just need to go in and do it.” So I went in and did the audition, and I think they were pleased with what I did because I felt a very strong comfort zone with Ron. He’s just a lot of who I am. So it was a win-win for everybody!
A.V. Club: How would you sum up Ron in a nutshell?
FF: He’s a guy who’s giving, he’s loving, he’s caring, and yet he has an interesting backstory, which you find out about as the episodes unwind. Nobody’s perfect. We all have something in our closet that’s sort of a little bit interesting to bring people in, just to say, “Oh, so that person is not the perfect human being I thought he was. But he’s still okay.” I can wait till his reveal to the audience. That’s something I hold very close to my heart. I can’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to wait and see. But it’s very personal in a lot of ways to a lot of things that I feel.
AVC: Mike Daniels has a good history with ensemble dramas. Hopefully that’s playing out here, too, as far as you’re concerned.
FF: Oh, absolutely. Mike is amazing. What a lovely human being. Some people you meet in this business and you feel so lucky. Because the business always gets a bad rap in a lot of ways. People think we’re this and we’re that. But the reason I’m here is because I love people, and I love people who love people and who care about people and issues, and Mike... I couldn’t have a better match than Mike Daniels. I am just so very proud to be a part of this ensemble that he’s spearheading.
AVC: It’s nice to see the pro-military aspect in the context of civilian life.
FF: Oh, yeah, and it’s so moving, the way that they handle it. And the story’s so complex. I don’t know how much of the show you’ve seen, but it’s really going to create a series of hardships and problems, but it’s also going to give suggestion of hope. Whenever I see anybody from the military or ex-military, it’s hard for us as civilians—especially for those of us who’ve never served—to really process it. We have people who go off and fight wars and die for us or come back maimed or with physical conditions or impairments, and we just sweep ’em under the carpet. It breaks my heart. And it’s so important that they’re doing a show like The Village and showing it with some dignity and with some depth, because it goes beyond just saying that this guy fought in the military. It shows the complexities of coming back from war, especially coming back with having lost a limb.
AVC: There’s a particular moment in the pilot with Nick comes in, he’s been kind of dismissive of people trying to thank him for his service, but when all the old guys salute him, he can’t dismiss it any more, and he seems to remember what it means.
FF: That’s a very moving scene, and it’s handled very well. Our writers, they’re very sensitive to those issues. It makes me proud to be a part of a show like that. And the show really does deal with just so many facets.
It deals with age, having a parent going into an old-age home, with single-parent issues from the side of the mother and the daughter, with the daughter repeating the same path that her mother took. It deals with immigration and separation, which is very much on our table today. You know, what are you gonna do with an immigrant who’s been in this country for so long, and they’ve raised a child here? Are you going to separate them from that child? What are you going to do about that? And it deals with illness as well. As you know, my character’s wife, Patricia, has cancer, and how do you process that and deal with it? And all these situations, they open the door to other situations that are a little bit more subtle but which are each part of the situation.
Someone said that we need to have a gay/lesbian community, which is very large and has a lot of issues to be discovered and talked about, and we haven’t really dealt with that yet, apart from the two gay guys who gave Nick the apartment. One of them lost a son over in the war. So they’re there, and I hope they can follow up on that story and explore that aspect of life in our society. It’s very important.
AVC: It looks like your first time in front of the camera was in a production of King Lear that aired on Great Performances.
FF: I had just come out of graduate school and became a spear carrier—that’s what they called them in the old days, and they probably call them the same thing now—in a production of King Lear with the great James Earl Jones. I was the captain to Edmund, and I’m the one who actually killed King Lear. And James Earl and I, we’ve had a great friendship from that day on. For me, it was a glorified spear carrier, but I did have a whole page dedicated to my character in a New York Times review, even though they never mentioned my name. I was, like, “No! Mention it was me! Me! Frankie Faison! Give me some play!” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! A whole page in the New York Times, and yet I can show it to people and no one would ever know it was me.” But it was a great honor to receive that, and to do the production. And, yes, that was the first time I was on camera. That takes me all the way back to the beginning.
AVC: It looks like it was right after that when you were James Earl Jones’s understudy in Of Mice And Men on Broadway. Was that as a result of working with him?
FF: It was a result of working with him and the director, the late, great Ed Sharin, who directed King Lear. He remembered my work and my performance, and when Of Mice And Men came to Broadway and they needed someone, he brought me in. And here again, that was a perfect match, because that’s a role that I feel very much connected to, and it was an easy one for me to do. Sometimes if a role is in you, if you feel it in you, the only thing you need to do is get all your other stuff out of the way so that the character can shine through.
AVC: When you started acting, did you always envision going in front of the camera, or had you even thought about anything beyond just wanting to be an actor?
FF: I just wanted to be an actor. And you kind of figure that eventually, if you’re a successful actor, you’ll be doing television and film. But for me it was always about theater. I’m a really devout theater actor. I studied and trained and trained and studied to become the best actor that I could be, and I’m always thinking of stage. To this day, I still love theater. It’s my number one place to work if I can. But when you have a family and children and expenses and all that, you have to make money, too, and theater just couldn’t afford me the kind of lifestyle that I really wanted. But I’m pretty much a theater person. You show me a good play, and I’m running off to do it. I love theater. It’s my heart and soul.
FF: That was a Jim Jarmusch film, one which almost got me expelled from the union I was in. I was a member of a union, and I wasn’t supposed to be doing non-union work, and it was supposed to be a non-union film. But Jim is a very wonderful film director, and he directed this film.
But then all of a sudden I’m seeing this film is being showcased in festivals, and then I get this letter from the union saying, “This is a non-union job, you’re a union person, we don’t appreciate that, and you may be penalized.” I’m, like, “Wait a minute: I didn’t even get paid!” I mean, maybe I got 50 bucks to do it, some incidental money. And now maybe I’m looking at a penalty fine of thousands of dollars? I’m, like, “Okay, welcome to show business, young man!” Be careful what you sign up for! But I loved that role. It gave me a great deal of experience, and the man in the lobby, well, that was another character that I just fell in love with. It just really hit me close to my heart. You never know about these things.
FF: In that one, I come off being probably the dumbest person in America, or in the world. One of the biggest gags is when there’s a maniac out there murdering and they’re trying to kill you, when you go into the room, the first place you’re going to look is behind the door. Well, we had a scene... I mean, time was running out a little bit, and I love Stephen King and the whole team, but this character—who was fantastic for me—was supposed to die. I get killed in this film.
So I go in, and they say, “Well, yeah, you open the door, and then he comes up behind you from behind the door, and he kills you.” I argued with them for hours. I said, “No! My fanbase will not accept that, and I will not accept that.” [Laughs.] I’m a very practical person. I’m not stupid! Who would not look behind a door when there’s a maniac on the loose? Am I right about that?
AVC: I agree 100%.
FF: That’s the first place you look, right? But they said, “No, no, we don’t have time, this is what’s gonna happen, and you’re gotta make it work.” So I had to summon up all of my creative resources to make it work. And you know, to this day, anybody who ever sees that film, they always say, “Man, you are dumb! I can’t believe you just let the guy come from behind the door and kill you.” And I say, “Wait a minute! It wasn’t my idea!” But I got stuck with that one. Other than that, though, it was a joyful ride with the marvelous Stephen King.
AVC: That’ll be your legacy: Your greatest acting job was acting as though you were dumb enough to do something that stupid.
FF: That’s it, man. Sometimes you’ve just got to do that. Sometimes you’ve just gotta say, “Hey, look, you’ve gotta die, so go on out there and get killed.”
AVC: Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
FF: The only one would probably be the very first TV series I did on Fox, which was called True Colors. I just always felt that it came up short. It was a revolutionary show, way ahead of its time. Here again, I read this script and I read that character, and I said, “That’s in my wheelhouse. I can do that.” And I got the chance to do it. I actually went out to California to do it, because it was a bold show to do, challenging, dealing with interracial couples when there was a lot of racial unrest in our society. You’ve got this black man hugging and loving and being normal with a white woman and a white family on TV, and there was a lot of danger surrounding that. I mean, we had to have security on the set, just because it was a black man and a white woman on TV.
I thought that show had the potential to have the power of something like an All In The Family. We didn’t quite get there, because we sort of... [Hesitates.] I shouldn’t say “we.” I should say “they,” because it was always my intention to go forward with the most honest stories that we could have. I wanted it to be more risk-taking, where you just put all your marbles out there on the table. But it never got to that point. I was very disappointed, because at the time I was in an interracial marriage, and I knew a lot about interracial marriage. The director and the writers, they didn’t know that. But I’m saying, “I know about this stuff, and the stuff that you’re putting out there... Some of it is fun, and it’s entertaining and good, which is what you want it to be, but there’s a level of humor that you can go much deeper with. It could be cutting, it could be cutting-edge, just like an All In The Family.” But they wanted to do more of a stereotypical kind of thing, and if you do stereotypical stuff, sometimes it’s hard to get to cutting edge. That’s my biggest regret about that show: It didn’t get there.
The show was appreciated, it ran for two years, but I only did a year and a half because of artistic and creative differences. Now, at the end of that, I came running screaming back to New York, looking for some theater to do, because it was not a satisfying experience for me. But it was the first show to take me out to Hollywood and give me that exposure, and it was a learning and a growing experience, and I appreciate that. And I appreciate the great producer, Michael Whitehorn, who had the vision to come to New York and snatch me up and bring me out there. I really appreciate that. I just wish that we could’ve gone further with that, and deeper.
In fact, I’ve often thought about maybe revisiting it on my own and just writing a show that I thought up that would just really typify what it means to be in an interracial or mixed marriage or whatever. Because people have got this idea, but we’re all the same. The color of our skin cannot define the context of our character. So I’ve always wanted to do that. That show was so important to me, it was personal and everything, but I just never thought it got the credit or the push that it should’ve gotten. But it is what it is.
FF: I mean, that thing spiraled out of control. And the thing about that is, John Landis and his team had come to see a play I was doing on Broadway called Fences with James Earl Jones, playing his brother. The play got all kinds of awards. It was just an amazing experience. And they came and plucked James Earl Jones out to be king, and they plucked me out for a much smaller role, and then I got the larger role of the landlord. So that was a blessing, but...
At the same time, I get this thing, and when the film comes out, everybody’s talking ’bout, “Oh, Frankie, you are so funny, you’re a comedian,” blah blah blah. And I’m, like, “Wait a minute, I’ve invested 15 to 20 years in becoming the best serious classical actor you will ever meet.” And I just said, “No, that’s not really me. That’s just something I did.” I always pushed that to the side. And it took me years to understand the wisdom of the lesson there: This is show business, too, and you’ve got to be able to be entertaining and move people.
So it’s funny that something I said, “Look, I’m classical, that’s not me,” has turned out to be something that’s opened up so many wonderful doors for me. And now I embrace it. As you see, the legacy of that film and that character, it stands the test of time. People and their kids and their fathers and their grandparents watch that film, and they all come up to me, and they embrace the character of the landlord. They love the character of the landlord! And they quote it in high schools, elementary schools... There’s nothing like going into a school and seeing a 12-year-old saying, “Don’t be pulling that falling-down-the-stairs shhhh on me! You conscious!” [Laughs.] Or saying something like, “This apartment is real effed up!” And I’m, like, “Wait, wait, wait! No, no, no! You guys can’t do that!” But they’re screaming it down the hallway as I’m walking down the hall. But needless to say, I’m very proud of it and very happy to have had that experience.
AVC: Now, the big question is whether or not the landlord makes an appearance in the sequel they’re making.
FF: Well, that certainly is the question. I mean, there’s barely a day that I walk down the street now without someone saying, “Are you gonna be in the sequel?” I say, “I don’t know!” [Laughs.] Nobody’s contacted me. And if am, fine, and if I’m not, fine. It doesn’t matter. Because I did the original. And, hey, nothing beats the original, as far as I’m concerned.
FF: I always think of myself as a very giving and generous actor, and I’m just, like, “If I work with an actor once, then they should be bringing me back again and again.” And John Landis was one of those guys who did bring me back—there’ve been a couple of others—and that’s nice. The Stupids I loved because, here again, it’s a children’s story. I used to do a lot of stuff that my kids couldn’t watch, because they were adult films and stuff. Not adult adult, but... Well, you know what I mean.
But The Stupids is a book that I read to my kids, and they brought me in as this character whose name is Lloyd, and the Stupids thought he was The Lord. And anybody who’s ever had the misfortune or good fortune—whichever it was!—to have seen that film and they mention that, I get a rush. It tickles me in my heart. Because it was a stupid film. It’s called The Stupids, and it’s supposed to be stupid, and we certainly did hold true to that, without a doubt.
Cat People (1982)—“Detective Brant”
C.H.U.D. (1984)—“Sgt. Parker”
White Chicks (2004)—“Chief Elliott Gordon”
AVC: You did several films with John Heard over the years.
FF: Yeah, and not only did I do films with him, but I did theater with him as well. John was an amazing theater actor, and he was an amazing film actor. We had a very good, very special, very close friendship, and I miss him dearly to this day. He was actually from the same general area where I’m from: he was from Washington, I’m from Newport News, Virginia. John was one of those underrated and underappreciated—in a way, when you’re talking about awards and stuff—but whenever you saw him, you knew he was bringing his top game for any project he was doing. I always looked forward to seeing him or working with him. I loved the man very dearly.
AVC: He said that Paul Schrader was about to kick his butt for his, uh, proclivities during the filming of Cat People.
AVC: He liked to go out drinking.
FF: Oh, yeah, well, John did have a little bit of a drinking problem back then. But like I said, we’ve all got something, one thing or another, and we shot that down in New Orleans, so... Well, you know, we all have our wild oats that we have to sow. But Paul Schrader was a good man to work with, and I enjoyed that experience. It was a very wonderful time for me as well.
White Chicks was the last time I saw John. That was the best. That’s another one of those films that sits up there one notch below, if not on the same page, as Coming To America. The line that people always gravitate towards is when the boys/girls say, “You look like Denzel Washington,” and I give this smile, trying to break every muscle in my face to find a dimple to look cute. But John got to play the nasty guy in that, and he was extraordinary playing the mean father. He’d put on a little bit of weight over the years, and I always worried about that for him, healthwise. But he did an exceptional job in that film. He was very believable. And it’s hard to do that, because this was a campy comedy. We were pulling out all the plugs and letting everything go.
I like to do films that bring me into the eye of the next generation, the new people, and that was one of those. So I said, “Okay, I’ve cemented my status good with the younger generation now.” I always wanted to be connected to all ages as long as I’m here on this planet, because I think we can all learn from each other. So that was something special for me about White Chicks, without a doubt.
FF: Now, see, Sugar Bates... That was like a gift from heaven. First of all, Sugar Bates, here’s a character who both the producer and the writer wanted me to do. I didn’t even have to audition for that. I just spoke to the people on the phone—we did a Skype conversation—and they knew. And I knew! Sugar Bates... I mean, I am Sugar Bates. I know that guy like the back of my hand. He’s the kind of guy who’s fun and humorous, but he’s wise. And I’m that person, but a lot of my father is in that character, in particular. He had a sordid past and he had secrets, but to me he was the most lovable, sweet guy. He’s a lot years into his life, and he’s trying to make sense out of stuff to help others, the younger people that he encounters in the series.
For Banshee, I stepped outside of my genre zone, because I don’t like to do a lot of killing and fighting and shooting and running and chasing and all that stuff And Banshee is all about that stuff. But we had such an amazing team of stunt coordinators. And to me, outside of that stuff, the writing of Banshee is the thing that I hold the dearest in my heart. The story is so universal, it’s so diverse, it’s all-inclusive. You’ve got everything from Amish to Native Americans to Middle-Eastern Europeans, blacks, whites, women... The women were fantastic. To me, it was the most diverse show that I’ve ever been involved with.
And people who I never expected would like that kind of thing—because there’s a lot of killing and a lot of blood and all that stuff—these pristine little ladies come up and say, “Oh, I love Banshee! I can’t wait to see the next episode!” And I’m, like, “What?! You like Banshee?” Because I think it’s the story and the characters, they’re so well-drawn, and the cast, it’s an international cast, and everybody’s so wonderful. It’s right in there with one of my top experiences, for sure.
FF: I’ve been so fortunate to work with Wong Kar-wai, the great Japanese cinematographer and director. That film was so beautiful. I got that role, and I went back and looked at his films and saw how beautifully he shoots. His English, it’s not his first language, you know, so the communication was something. But he communicates beautifully in his way. It was one of the toughest shoots I’ve ever been on, because we were doing 15-, 16-hour days consistently, jumping from scene to scene to scene. It wasn’t a tremendous success, but for me, just to work with someone like that... Like I said, I’m a collaborator, I love to work and meet with new people and share my gift and have them share theirs. My Blueberry Nights was all of those things and more.
Manhunter (1986)—“Lt. Fisk”
The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) / Hannibal (2001) / Red Dragon (2002)—“Barney”
AVC: You have the distinction of appearing as a detective in Manhunter, the first adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, after which you played a different character—Barney—in The Silence Of The Lambs, and then reprised the role two more times.
FF: Doing Manhunter, that was the first, and it was an honor to do that. Michael Mann directed that one, and he’s a thorough and very good director. And it prepared me, so that when I went to audition for The Silence Of The Lambs, I remember the conversation that I had with Jonathan Demme. He was looking at my résumé, and I forget what was at the top, but I said, “That’s my favorite thing, but if I get this part, then you’re gonna go to the top. So you’ve got to give me this part.” And I also told him, “Look, I did Manhunter, you’ve gotta put me in Silence Of The Lambs. I’m a natural to do this. It’s a carry-over.” And Jonathan, he was just so engaging and delightful and thorough, and I ended up landing that role, which led to me doing Hannibal and then to the remake of Manhunter, which was called Red Dragon. So it led me to being a piece of history as the only actor who’s been in all four of those films. Not even the great Anthony Hopkins has been in all four. [Laughs.] I think I was a crossword puzzle answer in the New York Times. What more can you ask for?
AVC: It must’ve been entertaining to continue returning to the role and seeing Anthony Hopkins on the set again.
FF: Absolutely. We had a nice little friendship that grew from being associates in the business. He promised me that he had a script written that he was going to direct, and he had a role for me, but I never heard from him about that. So if he’s out there reading this, Anthony Hopkins, you owe me one, and I’m still waiting! But he’s a good man. I enjoyed the work with him.
FF: Okay, well, the thing about Freejack is this: That film was already made, and they needed to have some sort of crossover thing that they were missing from when Emilio Estevez’s character comes out of the swamp and moves on to the next part of the film. So I did that whole scene after the film had been completed and screened. They called me in, and they said, “We have this scene that we’d like you to do,” and it became a very notable scene for me to do, because I have to tell him about how I cook up river rats.
It was like doing my own little individual film within a film, because I’m sitting there in... Well, I forget where we where, but it was right on the bank of some river, and it was just myself and Emilio and the crew. It was fun. You never know what something’s going to bring to you in this business or how it’s going to come to you. But that was one of my favorite scenes that I have on film. Just between what I was talking about and the way it was shot, I was very happy with that.
FF: Well, without a doubt, the great Spike Lee’s always been important to me. He went to NYU, I went to NYU, I was a few years ahead of him, and when he cast me in this, he said, “You don’t remember, but I told you I was gonna work with you one day, and I always wanted to, so here it is.” And he offered me the role of Coconut Sid. And that’s one that sort of snuck up on us, too, because... I mean, it was a good film, it was a good work of art and all that, and a stellar cast. Just a great cast, without a doubt. And that character and the bond that I had with the three guys on the corner: the great Paul Benjamin, who’s still with us and who I’d always wanted to work with since I saw him do Across 110th Street, and the late Robin Harris, who was a newbie, a youngster I didn’t know.
The thing about Robin is that he was a stand-up comedian, and a lot of his stuff in the film is sort of off the top of his head, whereas Paul and myself, we’re veteran actors, classically trained, blah blah blah. [Laughs.] And I didn’t understand this guy Robin Harris. Every time he’d come up to us, he’d tell us a joke. And it’d be the same joke. He’d be doing it over and over and over again. I used to see Robin coming down the street, and I’d say, “I got to go hide, ’cause I done laughed at that joke 15 times. I can’t hear it no more! I can’t do it!” And I didn’t understand that that’s what comedians do to get their timing down and all that stuff. It wasn’t until I went and saw Robin live in L.A. at a club and he did that joke and had his timing down so perfect that he had the timing in the palm of his hand. I said, “Oh, okay, that’s what that’s all about.” So you live and learn. You learn from every experience. But it was wearing me out. It was just, like, “Robin, please don’t tell me that joke again! Please! I’ll give you my first born! I can’t do it!” But he would not be deterred. He was a great man, and he was taken away from us far too soon, and I really miss him.
FF: Prey comes under the radar, man. People don’t know about that. It was... [Hesitates.] I mean, it was a great series unto itself, because it dealt with another species. You know, you can’t have two dominant species at the same time. It wasn’t, like, a superhero show or all that kind of stuff. It was a very subtle thing. They were a little bit stronger than man and a little bit smarter. And I think the subtlety made it amazing, at least for its time. I’m sorry it didn’t get a chance to have a longer run, but we ran for one season, and it gave me a chance to really dabble into the science-fiction element of stuff in a way that was noteworthy. But like I say, the subtlety of it was amazing. These were real people with real everyday situations, and you wouldn’t be able to identify one of the new species from the old, except that they were trying to get rid of us. I enjoyed Prey immensely. It was a fun show for me to do. I loved it.
AVC: It’s interesting in retrospect because it featured Debra Messing in a dramatic role, which—at least in the immediate wake of Will & Grace—was something that was a little hard to imagine.
FF: Yeah, it was amazing, because I remember joking with Debra all the time. She’d be doing the show, and she’d say, “You know, Frankie, I’m really funny. I’m not a serious actor. I’m funny!” And I said, “Okay, Debra. Whatever you say, Debra. I’m down there with you. It’s cool with me.” And then later I came by to see her doing Will & Grace, and she was hysterical. Everybody always wants to be something else, and she wanted to do that serious thing and do the comedy as well. It’s like when I did Coming To America: “No, I’m not a comedian! I’m not a funny guy! This is not me!” Like I told you, it took awhile for me to really accept that handle. And that’s how it was with Debra.
FF: Luke Cage came very quickly right after I’d done four years of daredevil stuff in Banshee, and I was exhausted. I was, like, “Man, I don’t know if I’m up for another action/thriller drama kind of thing.” The work was very intense. But luckily for me, I died after the second episode. Most of the time, actors want to live on till the end of a series. But in that one, I didn’t mind going out. And they sent me out in such a blaze of glory, and they kept me alive throughout the whole season because they kept talking about Pop and his barber shop and being a father figure and mentor to Luke Cage.
So it was a good association, and it was good to have a black superhero, and to be a part of that genre and introduce him to fans. Not only your black fans, of course, but in particular, this show addresses the black community up in Harlem. I wanted the black fans to be able to see someone up there who they could identify with and be proud of, and I’ve always tried to wear that handle. So it was a great show to do, and I’m very proud of it.
FF: Yeah, The Cookout. [Long pause, then laughter.] I don’t know what to say about The Cookout. Um... It’s not really my genre, that broad-strokes comedy, but it was fun to do it because you just get to be crazy and zany and everything goes in that film. And it has a little cult following. Whenever someone says, “Oh, I saw you in this show and I loved it, it’s called The Cookout,” in my head I always go [Grimaces.] “Ohhhhhh...” And then I say, “Yeah, that was me. I did The Cookout.” Because if you’re ashamed of the work you do, then don’t do it. If you can’t stand tall and say, “Yeah, that’s part of my résumé, too,” then don’t do the work. So I have to lay claim to The Cookout, too. Absolutely.
FF: When I went up for The Wire, I actually went up for a different role. I went up for the lieutenant whose chops I keep busting. I read, I gave a good audition, and all of a sudden I hear from the casting people, and they say, “They don’t want you for the role you auditioned for.” And my heart sank. I said, “Oh, well, I guess I didn’t get that.” And they said, “They want you to play this Deputy Commissioner Burrell.” And I hadn’t even remembered seeing him in the reading of the script, because I’m so focused on the role that I’m playing. And it turned out to be that the casting was perfect, because the young guy that’s playing Daniels was well-suited for that, and I was well-suited for Burrell.
And Burrell... I love that guy. But when the series came out, people were all talking about what a horrible person I am. My trademark is affable, lovely, funny, delightful guys. And they’re saying I’m this horrible guy? And I was getting emotional. I would go home, and my wife would say, “Look, it’s just a character in a story. Don’t take it so personally.” I said, “I do take it personally!” Because, you know, we’re always smarter than the characters that we play, because we’re three-dimensional and the character is one-dimensional. But at the end of the day, when all was said and done, I loved Ervin Burrell. I think that he was a great character for me to play, I enjoyed playing him, and The Wire stands the test of time as well. It was also shot in Baltimore, so I could just take the train down there and work and be done and come home. It was nothing but positive stuff behind that. And people still say it’s one of the best shows ever on TV, so I feel honored to have been a part of that, without a doubt.
AVC: Were you disappointed at the time that it didn’t get much in the way of Emmy love, or were you just resigned to buckling down and continuing to do the good work you were doing?
FF: I’ll be honest with you. Awards are awards. I don’t give much homage to awards, per se. We didn’t need to get Emmys. I’d rather not get Emmys, never get nominated for an Emmy, and have people remember The Wire the way they remember it now, because The Wire became much more popular after it ran its course than it was when it was running its course. To me, that was important.
I’m a workaholic, I’m very much a collaborator and a team person, and I knew that we had done something special. I didn’t need anyone handing any kind of award out for me to know and realize that. So I’m not that big on awards. I’m big on personal love that the public shows to the work. If someone comes up to me and says, “I enjoyed you as this character, I enjoyed you in this film or TV show or theater thing,” it means the world to me, and there’s no award in the world that can surpass that feeling.
FF: Wow. I mean, that was my first major film, and to do it with the late, great legendary James Cagney—among other people, but especially with him—I couldn’t believe my lucky stars. And to film it in London, England, at Shepperton Studios? It was like I’d struck gold. I’d loved the book, and the story is a phenomenal one about a black man demanding respect and trying to uphold the dignity that is his birthright. It was just an honor to do that, like I had just landed into the most amazing situations, and to have that on my résumé, I am just so proud. And plus, like I say, I got to see England for two and a half months, to just be there and explore it and the history that’s involved. That was special.
AVC: Not only was it early in your career, but one of your other gang members was Samuel L. Jackson.
FF: Yep, Sam was one of my partners. And Milos Forman was one of the msot intelligent, sweet, and kind directors, so to have him that early in my film career, it was amazing. And like you said, you look at the cast of that film, there are a bunch of heavyweights from beginning to middle to end. And I recommend anyone seeing it just to get a slice of that history, because it’s very important.
AVC: You mentioned Cagney right off the bat. Did you get a chance to meet him?
FF: We did! One day the fellas and I... This stands out in my memory as one of my favorite phrases, and I use it myself all the time. We bumped into him in line in the lunchroom, and we said, “Hello, Mr. Cagney, what a great honor,” and so on. So he says to us, “How are you boys?” We said, “We’re great. We’re doing very well.” And he looked up with a little twinkle in his eye, and he said, “Yeah, well, keep it that way!” I mean, it was just so James Cagney! I said, “Wow, this is great!”
And then Cagney also imparted to us the fact that when he was a young actor—because this was the last film that he did, and he was really up there in age—he said, “You young guys, you youngsters, you go out there now and you’re running and chasing. I used to do that. But now I’m of the age where I just sit back in the office and say, ‘Go get ’em, boys!’” And now, with the long-enough amount of time I’ve been in this industry, I really appreciate that... and whenever I come across youngsters, now I say the same thing: “Go get ’em, boys!”