Mel Johnson Jr.Though a familiar television presence through such series as The Practice, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - in which the actor played the Cardassian Broca in the program's final two episodes - Mel Johnson Jr. is primarily a stage actor, with more than 30 years of professional credits on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theatres and touring productions across America; most recently, he portrayed Hoke Colburn in an acclaimed presentation for Hartford TheatreWorks of Driving Miss Daisy (which the New York Times called "a splendid 20th-anniversary revival").

On Broadway, Johnson has worked with the likes of Kevin Kline and Madeline Kahn (in On the Twentieth Century); Gregory Hines (Eubie!); Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli, and Jason Alexander (The Rink, by the legendary composing team of John Kander & Fred Ebb); and Bob Fosse (Big Deal); and he spent several months as Mufasa in Julie Taymor's The Lion King. He is also a veteran of a personal favorite television series - David Lynch's eccentric sitcom On the Air, a behind-the-scenes spoof of live TV that ran for three whole episodes in 1992 - and here, Johnson reflects on a few notable career highs.

 

On his beginnings in musical theatre

My first professional work, when I got out of school, was in children's theatre. But then it was just major regional theatre, like the Actors Theatre of Louisville - just going around and doing plays. But then, being a native New Yorker, I took a step back and said, 'Well, what are black actors doing in New York City? Singing and dancing.'

Now I could always sing, but I never took it as a means of, you know, bringing home the bacon. So I auditioned for my first off-Broadway show, and it was a musical, and I got it, and then - all of a sudden - everyone thought of me as primarily a musical person. And I loved it. It was a wonderful way of staying in New York. I would call myself, then, an actor who sings and moves well.

 

On The Rink

I was actually friends with John Kander; we just sort of knew each other socially, and his good buddy was my voice teacher. And we all thought this [The Rink] was going to be the be-all and end-all.

It was originally going to be a little off-Broadway show written for Chita Rivera, and when Liza - who's a really good friend of Chita's - found out about the show, she said to her, 'I'd really love to play your daughter.' So once that happened, it became a Broadway show. And it was great. I'm still very close with Chita and Liza - they both came to see Hot Feet, the last thing I did [on Broadway] - and Jason Alexander and I are really good buddies. In fact, I directed his one-man show [a Los Angeles production of Give 'Em Hell Harry], which was a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed that show.

 

On The Lion King

When it was first conceived, I was doing Jelly's Last Jam on the road, and Disney had just started doing shows on Broadway - and, you know, everybody was saying, "Oh, Disney's taking over Broadway!" I agreed to go see it because two friends were in it, and I sat there with my arms crossed. You know, "I don't want to see this show ... !"

And then when it started, I mean, my jaw dropped. When the animals came down the aisle, tears came out of my eyes, and I just said, "I've got to play Mufasa one of these days." And when I was living in California, I just told my agents, you know, to organize an audition, and boom - about three or four months later they called me, and they asked me to take over on Broadway for a while. It was just great. All bells and whistles. Just great.

 

On On the Air

When I auditioned - well, met with David Lynch, because he didn't ask me to audition - I went in and talked with him for, like, 20 minutes, half an hour. We just sat down and we started talking. And I was involved in this organization called the Imagination Workshop in Los Angeles, which was a group of writers, actors, and directors who worked within the psychiatric community, improving self-esteem. And the Log Lady [from Lynch's Twin Peaks], her husband was in that group, and so when he [Lynch] found that out, he said, "Oh, yes! She talked about that organization!" And then he asked me, "Can you cry on screen?" And I said, "Yeah!" And by the time I got home, he had called, and I had got this job.

And it was wonderful. It was really the first time they used single-camera film for a half-hour comedy, so it was shot like a little movie. And David was fascinating, but that show was so far ahead of its time. I mean, we had talking animals, the director [character] didn't speak in a language that anybody could understand ... . It was wild. I said to myself, "This thing is not gonna fly." I mean, come on! We shot seven or eight of them, and they aired three, and against the Olympics ... !

Support the River Cities' Reader

The QCA’s Only Free Press Can Really Use Your Support

 

With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage.

With your support, at what ever level and frequency you choose, the independently owned (since 1993) Reader will continue printing and distributing monthly as well as maintaining its staff and freelancers that keep the online Reader fresh and relevant.