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EntertainmentTV

Joe Morton talks 'God Friended Me,' 'Scandal' and dropping out of Hofstra

Joe Morton as the Rev.  Arthur Finer

Joe Morton as the Rev.  Arthur Finer in CBS' "God Friended Me." Credit: Warner Bros./Jeff Riedell

Legendary actor Joe Morton is starring in CBS' "God Friended Me," although you may best recall him as Rowan Pope, the treacherous paterfamilias of "Scandal."  Both roles are just tips of a remarkable iceberg. Morton recently wrapped a stage run with Tom Hanks and Hamish Linklater in a Los Angeles production of Shakespeare's "Henry IV," with Morton as Henry IV and Hanks as Falstaff (if you can picture that). He's also leading an effort to bring the John Legend-produced play "Turn Me Loose" — about comedian/activist Dick Gregory — to Broadway. ("Turn me loose" were the last words spoken by civil rights leader Medgar Evers before he was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963). Morton, who's already starred in the L.A. version, would play the lead on Broadway, too.

 He's starred in dozens of TV series over the decades, beginning with the soap "Search for Tomorrow" in the early '70s, then "M*A*S*H," then . . .

Oh, and the movies? There's been a few of those too, most recently 2017's "Justice League."

 I spoke recently with Morton. This is an edited version of our chat:

Let me quickly ask about Hofstra, where you went and did not graduate. What happened?

I loved the drama department for the most part and had some wonderful, wonderful teachers, and one teacher who I loved was directing [a play] and he said that I could I could do [a particular role] easily but that, "No pun intended, it would color the play." I was furious and said [to hell] with you all, and that I'd rather get paid than deal with this kind of abuse. The teacher was so upset that he recommended an agent for me.

And from Hofstra you jumped straight to Broadway! I think readers would be surprised to learn that you're a musician and launched your career in musicals.

It was an interesting time — this is 1968, '69 — for theater. Muhammad Ali was doing a play off Broadway, and things were happening. 'Hair' (in which he made his debut) opened some doors, but I didn't find musical theater satisfying because it didn't seem to lead anywhere, unless you wanted to go to Las Vegas. (Morton subsequently got a Tony nod for "Raisin," a musical adaptation of "A Raisin in the Sun.")

Let's fast-forward to 1984 and one of your most famous roles, as the mute "brother" in John Sayles' 1984 sci-fi "The Brother from Another Planet."

I thought it would put me on the map, and it sort of did: When I went to auditions [afterward] people said, "I love that movie," but that usually meant I wasn't going to get the role because they didn't know who I was because I didn't speak [in the movie] . . . Nobody knew what to do with me and so for the longest time I did [only] a lot of theater and television.

Then the big TV break — ABC's highly regarded "Equal Justice" in 1990.
It was huge [for me]. To be a black actor and have a lead on a dramatic series was unheard of. We had two seasons, then ABC canceled us along with "thirtysomething" and "China Beach."

Of course I have to ask about that other 'big' TV break — as Byron Douglas III, at the end of "A Different World" in 1992, betrothed to Jasmine Guy's Whitley Gilbert when Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) made that dramatic entrance?
[Laughs]. Yes, it comes up all the time, and when I was doing "Scandal," people on Twitter had come up with this complicated story about how Rowan existed because he was left at the altar by Whitley. But it's a wonderful thing when an actor can do something that becomes iconic.

Are you in a way like Arthur Finer, the Harlem pastor you play on "God Friended Me?"

I'm not a churchgoer, not a religious person, but the phrase I use with this show is that you don't have to believe in God to believe in good, which is how I have lived. It's not a religious show, but more of a humanistic show and about the connections that humans have with one another. We are all connected, whether you believe in God or not.

Rowan's classic line to his daughter Olivia (Kerry Washington) was, that "you have to be twice as good to get half of what they've got." Any truth in that for your career?

I think to some extent it is true. I look at white actors who are my age [71] and look at the opportunities they had, and they had far more opportunities than for black actors my age. I had to work twice as hard and at one point — a feeling I have that persists even to this day — I rarely took vacations just to keep things alive. You do have to work twice as hard.

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