HE TALK LIKE A SOAP ACTOR
Actor Joseph C. Phillips is probably best known to prime-time audiences for his role as Martin, a.k.a. The Guy Who Married Denise, on The Cosby Show.
He is known to readers as the author of a memoir, He Talk Like a White Boy, and to daytime viewers as Justus, a.k.a. Another of Edward's Many, Many Illegitimate Descendants, on General Hospital.
But, before he was Martin or Justus or a popular political pundit on the state of America (Black and otherwise), Joseph was a young actor making his major television debut by playing Cruiser McCullough on Search for Tomorrow.
With his SFT episodes currently airing on the AOL/PGP Classic Soap Channel, The PGP Classic Soaps Blog thought it was a great time to catch up with Joseph and find out what this Henderson alum is doing now!
PGP: How did your SFT role come about? Do you remember your audition?
JCP: I had done commercials and appeared in a small role on another soap (it has been so long that I do not even recall which one. I am getting old!), but Search was really my first major television role. It is funny to remember it as major since when I got the job I was told the show could be cancelled at any moment. It was at that time a dinosaur, but I do remember it as a cuddly dinosaur. I still recall the thrill of seeing my name in the credits for the very first time. The role came about as I think most roles come. My agent submitted me and I was given an audition. I threw on my old high school letter jacket, jeans and high-top sneakers, tuned my hat around backwards and dove in. I walked in the room singing Cruising by Smokey Robinson. I really jazzed up the dialogue and I guess it worked. A few things I recall about that particular time in my career: In the beginning of October I returned from doing a play at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Money was very tight and as December closed in I was feeling real blue – a kind of recurring theme in the life of most actors. I went in for this audition really needing money – I had no winter shoes – and even more needing a boost to my confidence. At the same time I auditioned for a scholarship to Shakespeare and Company. I had wanted to be a part of their program since graduating from school two years previous. I received the scholarship, but had to turn it down in order to do Search for Tomorrow.
PGP: What was your SFT storyline? Which actors did you work with and what are some of your favorite memories of those days?
JCP: Oh, you are really testing the old memory. I came on the show along with Adam Storke. He played Rider. He was a street kid and the two of us were best friends, making money fixing up old junk and selling it. Jane Krakowski had run away from home and I saved her from being roughed up by some street thugs. She stays with us. I don’t recall much else. Jane and Adam fall in love and about that time my sister came on, played by Angela Bassett. Then, the executive producer was fired and I was cut when the new producer took over. I think what I loved best was just getting a steady check. It wasn't much, but it paid for new shoes.
PGP: How did you feel about the quick pace of daytime work and did anyone offer you any advice on how to survive it? How did it help prepare you for any other type of acting?
JCP: The pace was not that quick at Search. We rehearsed in the morning and then shot in order. I recall one episode, I had a phone call and was there for 12 hours. It was terrible just sitting around waiting and waiting. The pace was much faster and I think better on General Hospital. We shot based on what was on a particular set. It was possible to come in, in the morning and be finished by lunch. Of course there were also 12 hour days (and longer) at G.H. The key to survival is preparation. If you show up and your stuff is not together you will be swallowed up and frustrate everyone. Eventually you will be passed by i.e. replaced by someone that can keep up.
PGP: What prompted you to write He Talk Like a White Boy, and what do you want readers to take away from it?
JCP: I really hope my book can inspire dialogue and get people talking and thinking about moving beyond labels, beyond race. I would like to get people talking again about how to raise our children, honor our wives and husbands, how we love god, love our country and how we define ourselves as individuals and as Americans. Honestly, I didn't start out to write a book. I love talking to people and sharing ideas and wanted to do more of that…speaking in front of groups and that sort of thing. I have always believed that when you see successful people you ask them what they did to find success, so one day after cutting some commentary for Tavis Smiley, I sat down with him and asked what he did to reach his level of success. The first thing he told me to do was write a book. He laid down the gauntlet. He didn't believe I could or would do it. To make a long story short, I completed my manuscript, a publisher picked it up and once that happened I began the process of writing a real book.
PGP: Daytime television -- all television, frankly -- is always making noises about encouraging and portraying diversity. How would you evaluate the state of the industry in that regard, starting with your SFT days twenty years ago, to now?
JCP: Honestly, things are much better. Let me paint for you a picture of what the world was like when I entered the business. Eddie Murphy had just hit it big and break-dancing was the new, hot thing. I came out of acting school completely unprepared to be an actor. I was asked if I could rap and break-dance or I was asked to do “Eddie.” It was terrible. Now of course, there are programs all over television depicting black families of all stripes and economic classes. There are black characters all over nighttime dramas and cable television. Unfortunately, daytime television has not kept up. There are painfully few black characters on daytime television (Y&R is an exception) and the experience I had on G.H. was sadly typical. A wonderful and popular black family, the Wards, was introduced to the program by the beautiful Claire Labine. Once she left, the family was slowly dismantled because the new writers “didn't know how to write for black people.” Those are not my words; they are the words of the Headwriter. For some reason, Claire was able to write for the Wards, yet the new writers could not. More honestly -- they would not. When I was hired for G.H. the staff had a commitment to the characters and to including us in the storylines. The audience responded quite favorably. It is not rocket science. There is no special talent a writer needs to write for black actors. I do not mean to single out G.H. They are not unusual. The result is that while there is increasing diversity on nighttime television, there is not much on daytime.
PGP: It seems to me, even when shows hire actors of different colors, genders, religions, their characters all still think and behave the same way. What are your thoughts on whether there is diversity on television of another kind, that of people who have different, possibly less politically correct, opinions? As a corollary to that, having written a conservative book, have you felt a backlash from the entertainment industry?
JCP: I think you are correct, but I don’t think it is specific to black characters. One of the reasons I have turned off so much of network television is that all of the characters have tended to blend into one homogeneous glob. They all speak the same, behave the same and the programs all tend to be similar. Hollywood is a very incestuous -- I believe that is the word I am looking for -- place. We have a tendency to view Hollywood as a bastion of creativity, but the truth is, it is more “business” than it is “show.” Creative network execs tend to replicate formulas that have had success. The views of the characters also tend to reflect the politics of those folks producing the programs. This is a question I am frequently asked and my response is always the same: The answer is to offer an alternative product. I have grown rather tired of conservatives or traditional family groups complaining about what is on television while they refuse to jump into the market and compete. There is a great deal of money and power in that particular community and if they were really concerned with the images on television they would produce alternative, family friendly programming. Instead, we are encouraged to boycott and complain and pray in church…but don’t get up off any dollars! It is odd that as I continue to write and speak on various radio and television programs, I am being labeled a conservative. I will admit to that only if I get to define what that means. But I digress. To my knowledge I have not been blacklisted or denied work because someone didn't like something I wrote or said. Most often I hear people tell me that they appreciate things I have said or that they are reading me. I think that is proof of a couple things: first that the ideological lines that we tend to see as black and white are not nearly so stark and that there are a lot more people in Hollywood that believe in faith, family and freedom than you would ever believe.
To read more by Joseph, please visit his website, www.JosephCPhillips.com. And to watch him (and Jane Krakowski and Angela Bassett) on classic episodes of Search for Tomorrow, check out the AOL/PGP Classic Soap Channel, here!