Ellis Williams is one of those character actors whose face is readily known around theater circles. Some theatergoers may not know his name, but they certainly know his work. He’s been plying his craft, he says, for about 35 years, turning in some award-winning performances. He has managed to carve out a multi-character-infused niche.
Most recently in LA theaters, he played Bobo in the Ebony Repertory Theatre and Kirk Douglas Theatre productions of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (the ensemble of the Ebony production won an LADCC award). He also portrayed Turnbo in the South Coast Repertory and Pasadena Playhouse productions of August Wilson’s Jitney.
This week Williams returns to the Pasadena Playhouse as Juror Six in Reginald Rose’s drama, Twelve Angry Men. It’s one of those classic dramas that is done time and again. Although it’s set in a New York City courtroom on a sweltering August evening in 1955, it can have a contemporary flavor — if, for example, the director decides to integrate the previously all-white composition of the play’s jury, which director Sheldon Epps has done in this production.
The play takes place in a deliberation room where 12 men are given the task of determining the verdict in a murder case in which a young man is accused of killing his father. What starts out as an open-and-shut case soon becomes far from it, as one juror begins to dissect the evidence — creating reasonable doubt.
Twelve Angry Men has a storied history. It was initially created as a 1954 teleplay for the Studio One anthology television series and aired as a CBS live production on September 20, 1954. The following year, Sherman Sergel adapted it as a stage play (Rose later wrote his own stage adaptations). In 1957 Rose rewrote it as a feature film, directed by Sidney Lumet. The film starred Henry Fonda and received three Academy Award nominations, including best picture. In 1997, Twelve Angry Men returned to the small screen in a new adaptation directed by William Friedkin. In 2007, a national tour of a Broadway revival played the Ahmanson Theatre.
“The first time I remember seeing Twelve Angry Men was when I was 11 or 12 years old,” says Williams during a recent interview on the second floor of the Pasadena Playhouse. “We had just gotten a TV. It was all these white men. It was Henry Fonda. It was compelling. I don’t remember seeing the kid who was accused of killing his father. It was so fascinating that these 12 white men were judging this kid for killing his father. Evidence said he did it, but there was reasonable doubt.
“I did jury duty once. It was a housing case. The fascinating thing is how both the defense and prosecution manipulates jurors. They find things that fit their appetite. When I first saw the film, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know about injustice. What I did learn is that when a person’s mind is made up about race, it won’t change.”
Williams remembers vividly some of the injustices he witnessed growing up in the South. “I would hear my grandmother be called girl and my father being called boy,” says Williams. “My grandmother and father were grown folks. They were people who were taking care of their families. Why were they being disrespected this way? This play is about being human. This play is about humanity. It’s an honor and pleasure to do this play.”
Williams, an immediately likable man who loves to laugh, says his character, Juror Six, is a lot like him. “He’s a house painter,” says Williams, who adds that he has also been known to do odd jobs. “He’s pretty close to my background. His father was a laborer. His mother was a laborer. He has a little girl and a wife. He is the human side. He’s the justice on top of the justice. When there is no order in the room, he steps in. He’s not a bully, but he’s a person that demands and commands respect from everybody. I personally don’t tolerate someone being disrespectful. There isn’t anything I don’t like about him. I think he’s fair. I think it’s interesting how we can all sing together, but we can’t talk together.”
Playing the dozens
Epps’ Pasadena Playhouse version of Twelve Angry Men is being produced with a black and white cast that includes Williams, Clinton Derricks Carroll, Jason George, Scott Lowell, Gregory North, Barry Pearl, Robert Picardo, Adam J. Smith, Jacques C. Smith, Bradford Tatum, Adolphus Ward and Jeff Williams.
Epps says he chose the six black and six white actors for a purpose, which was expressed in a press release about the show. “I hope that our production will incite conversations about racial issues, perception, and discrimination that are at the center of this work.”
Asked what other conversations need to be had, Epps replies: “I don’t know if there are conversations that haven’t been had, but there are certainly conversations that need to continue. I think particularly since the election of our current president, America would like sometimes to, dysfunctionally, pretend we don’t have racial issues anymore. That there are not racial tensions, that there are not prejudices. All of that — that’s a lie. There are still assumptions being made by people based on skin color, gender, sexual preference. Those prejudices all still exist. It is shocking that some of the dialogue from this play that was written in the mid-’50s sounds like some of the stuff I heard people say on Fox News last week. I mean verbatim.”
Epps admits he doesn’t have a “profound memory” of the first time he saw Twelve Angry Men with Henry Fonda — other than that he “liked it.”
“I did see the [2004-2005] Broadway production by the Roundabout Theatre in New York,” he remembers. “Initially I thought it was one of those musty American classics. But, I found it riveting, electric and contemporary. I found it theatrically alive and not at all a museum piece of theater, which a play 50 years old could be. It’s a play for great actors. I like to choose plays because there are big, juicy, fat roles for actors. These are roles that actors can get their teeth into. A good combination can get theatrical fireworks.”
Casting for a chamber composition
Epps say everyone in the cast brings something to the table. He likes the distinct approaches each actor brings to the material. “The play is like chamber music,” says Epps. “In a great chamber group you have 12 different instruments. Everyone is a soloist and plays their instrument over the course of a great piece of chamber music. You get the great sound of those sounds coming together. This play has 12 distinct characters played by 12 distinct actors. No one is like the other one. They are all challengingly, sometimes annoyingly distinct, but in a way that is exactly right for the play. This is hard playwriting. No one in this play sounds like anybody else. Each character’s voice is distinct.”
Epps speaks well of his cast and their abilities. When he talks about Williams, he speaks with high praise. “He has a great spontaneity,” says Epps, who had often seen Williams work but had never directed him. “Ellis approaches the work spontaneously, instinctively and not intellectually. I don’t mean he’s not smart. It’s from an instinctive place. It gives him great power and great humor. He’s very funny. He defuses the loaded situation with humor to make everyone laugh. He has a great gift for that. He often makes us laugh in the room. I find his combination of charactered humor and internal violence to be really interesting. He’s very funny, but very scary.”
Williams also thinks highly of Epps. “Sheldon is a gentle spirit,” says Williams, a married (Pamela Allen Williams) father of three (Demetrius, Wynter and Jessica). “He makes it all worthwhile…He’s a genius. He reminds me of Israel Hicks [the famed director and Ebony Repertory Theatre artistic director who died in 2010]. You have to create an atmosphere to welcome in creativity. He has a great sense of humor. He allows you to exist as the actor. He doesn’t tell you how to do it…He has the pulse on the heartbeat of actors and the theater. He has put together a phenomenal cast…I like this crew.”
Over the years, Williams has worked with many actors, some of whom have become lifelong friends. To them, he’s known by his nickname, Skeeter.
“Skeeter” has been friends with actor Basil Wallace for more than 25 years. They met while working on a show in New York. “We were both trying to become actors at the time,” says Wallace, who has worked on five shows with Williams including Two Trains Running at True Colors Theater in Atlanta earlier this year. “I think we’ve both done fairly well. People don’t realize the kind of stuff that Skeeter does…He’s so good that I watch what he does and I steal from him. I will steal from him in a heartbeat. I know several of his friends who say they have done the same thing.”
While Wallace thinks Williams is a good actor, he’s more impressed by him as a man. “He exemplifies the word, friend,” says Wallace, who is originally from Jamaica. “He goes out of his way to help. He always lends an ear even if he’s not doing well. The definition of friend would be Ellis.”
Actor Peter J. Fernandez went to Boston University (School for the Arts) with Williams. Their friendship goes back 42 years. “We met in class,” says Fernandez, who lives in Harlem and teaches acting at the New School in New York. “I was nerdy and he was a social magnet. Somehow we bonded…He was the best man at my wedding and I was the best man at his wedding. I’m both uncle and godfather to his kids. We talk regularly. No matter how good or bad things get, he’s the first person I think to call.”
Fernandez is in awe of Williams’ acting. “He’s one of those people who can do two things,” says Fernandez, who will soon play Roy Wilkins opposite Brian Cranston in the Broadway production of All The Way. “He can be gruff but has the tenderness of a child. He can scare you and charm you at the same time. He’s always had that power.”
“Ellis is a jewel and an underrated actor who is stacking up awards all over LA,” says actor Earl Billings, best known for his AFLAC commercials. “He is also a friend who I am always rooting for.”
Williams says Twelve Angry Men is one of the hardest shows he’s ever done. “The play demands that you listen,” he says. “It’s a line here and a line there. Sometimes you go pages in between your lines.”
One would think that a veteran actor like Williams would be comfortable on the stage. Not so. “Every time I get a show I have that uncertainty,” he says. “Am I going to be able to do my lines? I’ve been doing this over 30 years. I’ll never be comfortable on stage. If I do, it’ll be time to walk away. Once a play gets going, I’m never comfortable. We act to make it look real and make it look comfortable. I eventually get to a point of acceptance. Acting is reacting. If you don’t feel nervous about what you’re doing, you’re not doing it right.”
Williams has apparently been doing it right. He is the winner of an Ovation Award in 1994 for best featured actor in a play for Distant Fires and an NAACP Image Award nominee for Blade to the Heat.
His favorite role? Boy Willie in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. He has worked on numerous stages across the country including Ebony Repertory Theatre, True Colors Theatre, Alliance Theatre, Theatre Company of Boston, Mark Taper Forum, the Kennedy Center, New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater and the famed Negro Ensemble Company.
He has appeared on Broadway in Once on This Island, The Pirates of Penzance, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Solomon’s Child, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and in a national tour of Driving Miss Daisy. He has done films and television (The Hughleys, The Practice, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, The Jamie Foxx Show).
Not bad for a guy who grew up in Brunswick, Georgia and initially wanted to be an electrician, but changed his destiny after he had what he calls a “Buckwheat moment.” After plugging something into a socket, he received enough volts to send shock waves through his hair, leaving it standing on end like the character Buckwheat from The Little Rascals.
“That was it for me,” says Williams. The world of theater owes a debt of gratitude to his “Buckwheat moment.” Without it, Williams might not have set foot on a stage.
At 62, he says he’s grateful not only for his long, successful career, but for all that he’s come to know. “I know what I know at 62,” says Williams, who used to go by Ellis E. Williams as a way to pay homage to his father, Eugene. “I can’t tell you about 63 or 64 until I get there.
“I didn’t get into acting or theater for the money. It’s not about the money. I love it. I thank God he has given me a gift. After 35 years of acting, I’m grateful. I’m still working on it. It’s a journey. I’m still not good at it.”
Twelve Angry Men, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino, Pasadena, CA 91101. Opens Sunday, Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Through Dec. 1. Tickets: $38-125. www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.626-356-7529.