If David Alan Grier’s agents had their way, we may never have met iconic “In Living Color” characters like Calhoun “I wrote a song about it” Tubbs or Antoine Merriweather, co-host of “Men On …” In fact, he never would have appeared on the Fox show at all.
“My agent didn’t want me to do it,” he told me on this week’s “Renaissance Man.” David, who earned an MFA from Yale, was a stage and movie actor. He wasn’t a comic. He was eyeing roles with a little more gravitas. But all that changed when his friend and “A Soldier’s Story” co-star Robert Townsend introduced him to his hilarious pals — a group of then-unknown siblings with the last name Wayans. They were about to make the pilot for the sketch show “In Living Color” and took a shine to David. In the Detroit native, Keenen Ivory Wayans saw raw, untapped talent. He told him: “Nobody knows how funny you are. I want you to do this show,” David recalled.
At the time, he was auditioning for a slew of other pilots, but he wasn’t landing anything. And his representatives warned him he wouldn’t make any money on it.
“Kim Wayans called me and … it was like an intervention, a pep talk, everything. She said, ‘This is the wrong decision. You are making a wrong turn in your life. You got to do this show.’ I finally said yes, and that changed everything. It really did.”
The groundbreaking and unapologetic sketch show became a showcase for elite talent: Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Damon Wayans and Fly Girl Jennifer Lopez became big stars at the box office. David’s zany style and intellect (hey, he went to the University of Michigan) made him a fan favorite and launched him into the comedy world.
When he started doing stand-up, the novice was schooled by a voice in the back of the room.
” ‘Living Color’ was really big and I played in this club in New Jersey. It was packed. When I came out, this dude all the way in the back … It was like he was yelling in my ear. ‘We don’t want nothing we can get for free.’ That cut through everything. It was total silence. That told me I have to come up with some new stuff. ‘We don’t want just these sketches that you do on TV. We want new stuff.’ “
Ever since, he’s been consistently giving us freshness, including his big puffy white beard, which he’s been sporting for about a year. The “Boomerang” actor is playing the father of his “In Living Color” co-star Jamie Foxx in the Netflix show “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me.”
And in September, he won a Tony for his role in “A Soldier’s Play.” He teared up about winning after four decades in the industry and as many nominations.
“I wanted to say that it didn’t feel like 40 years. It was so much fun. It wasn’t that I’ve been suffering for 40 years. It’s a crazy ride that went by like that. I’m glad I won it this time and not when I was 25, because I would’ve been a mess.”
It’s all come full circle. In 1982, he was in the off-Broadway production of “A Soldier’s Play” with two guys named Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson.
“There was no difference, no difference, in his personality … He was exactly the same back then as he is now,” David said of Jackson. “He controlled the dressing room.” The actors religiously watched “Family Feud” on a little black-and-white TV.
In 1984, the play was made into a feature film, which earned numerous Oscar nominations and helped turn Denzel into a one-named celebrity.
“Sam didn’t get in the movie. His part was kind of cut down … I’m like, ‘Poor Sam,’ ” David said.
Well, it worked out for all of them. Sam is doing just fine. And David, star of stage, cinema and stand-up, ain’t too shabby either. And if there is any doubt, he just needs to look at his cheering section, past and present.
While headlining Detroit’s Fox Theatre for the first time years ago, he found a surprise in his dressing room.
“Aretha Franklin had sent the biggest bouquet of roses. And let me just speak for a minute on Miss Aretha. She always reached out and reached back and reached down to give me love and just shower me … with encouragement. ‘I’ve been watching you’ … Whenever I did a play on Broadway, she would come and see me. She was just really sweet.”
Smokey Robinson is also in his fan club. “I was an adult and a kid,” he said of Smokey showing up to watch him perform on Broadway in “Porgy and Bess.”
Another Detroit native who admires him? That would be me. I’ve always been in awe of his range and talent. One minute he’s playing a stuttering inmate in “The Prison Cable Network” (his favorite “In Living Color” sketch). The next, he’s finding a place on his mantel for a Tony Award.
Before we even met or became friends, I was bragging that he was from my hometown. Here’s another tidbit. Sure, he looks and sounds like a professor, but he’s into motorcycles. So I asked him if he had a motorcycle gang, what would it be called? His response: “The Black Squirrels.” That’s appropriate. That animal is everywhere: on houses, in trees, running in your yard. They were even in the attic of my Greenwich townhouse at one point. Squirrels are undefeated. And that is the best way to describe my friend David Alan Grier.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.