When it comes to Black Hollywood, there are actors who belong to everyone, and there are our peoples.
Will Smith, Denzel Washington and the like belong to everyone. But our peoples are those actors and comedians whom Black folks adore, but the mainstream might only have a passing interest in, like “Oh, that’s that guy from that one thing.” John Witherspoon was a shining example of our peoples.
Witherspoon, who died in his home Tuesday at age 77, leaves behind a half-century-plus career as a comic and actor, having cut his teeth on the stand-up circuit in the 1970s alongside friends and peers Robin Williams, Jay Leno and David Letterman. While he never achieved their level of mainstream success (I’ll give you one guess why), Witherspoon’s avuncular approach to comedy and his Samuel L. Jackson-esque ability to appear as if he’s been the same age for decades resonated with Black audiences.
He was an icon whose face and/or voice popped up in so much of the content for us and by us for decades: My social media feeds are full of “rest in peace, Pops” because of his longest television role as John “Pops” Williams in five seasons of The Wayans Bros. Find me a Black American between 30 and 45 who didn’t watch that show.
Perhaps his most beloved role was as Ice Cube and Regina King’s dad in the 1995 seminal hood classic Friday, from which his paternal coaching quote to Craig – “You win some, you lose some, but you live…you live to fight another day” – is being disseminated in memoriam.
I’m devastated over the passing of John Witherspoon. Life won’t be as funny without him. pic.twitter.com/gtmiZiEppP
— Ice Cube (@icecube) October 30, 2019
My dad, my grandpa, my comedic inspiration! I love you Spoons! Rest In Paradise, King pic.twitter.com/U6GsNrrKXF
— Regina King (@ReginaKing) October 30, 2019
Witherspoon’s career was prolific enough that it’s easy to forget, or have never even known, material that he was in. Those of us of a certain age can watch movies from our youth for the first time in ages and find him in them, as I did recently when I watched 1990’s House Party and was delighted that I’d forgotten he was the annoyed neighbor calling the police, talking about “What’s a Public Enema anyway?”
He didn’t just pop up in movies and shows – he was often the funniest or most memorable aspect of his content: Witherspoon was responsible for, hands down, the funniest sequence in the hilarious and racially groundbreaking 1992 comedy Boomerang, complete with his mushroom coat, mushroom belt, and his signature BANG BANG BANG! as he described getting it in with his wife. He was also the beating heart of The Boondocks animated show as Robert “Granddad” Freeman; he delivered his series-best performance in Season 1’s “Guess Hoe’s Coming to Dinner.” (He was also attached to the upcoming reboot of that show.)
For me, his death hits a certain way because it’s not hard to imagine Witherspoon as my dad or uncle. Because he was a Detroit boy like me, I see him in so many of my relatives and the relatives of friends. If anything, his death makes me want to drive home and hug my own old, cranky-ass Black dad.
Though he was like a father to all of us, Witherspoon had two children of his own with Angela Robinson, to whom he was married for 31 years before his death (Letterman is the godfather to their sons). One of them, comic and YouTube personality J.D. Witherspoon, has spent Tuesday and Wednesday posting Twitter tributes to his dad.
So…my Dad died today & honestly I’m not sure how to feel. I’m sad, but I’m also happy 4 all the great times we had together. We’d roast each other like homies more than Father & Son, and I really liked that. He was my best friend & my idol.
Love U Dad…I’ll miss u.
– J.D. pic.twitter.com/zvzep5S11I
— J.D. (@jdwitherspoon) October 30, 2019
Here are some fun moments of us. https://t.co/s0qS457nFM
— J.D. (@jdwitherspoon) October 30, 2019
The only good part about the death of an icon like Witherspoon is that it motivates us to revisit his older material, both known and unknown (dude was on an episode of Amen!). I’ll likely spend the afternoon bingeing YouTube clips of this funny, unproblematic Black comedian who touched so many of us. If you’re a non-Black person reading this, give your Black co-worker a pound and a BANG BANG BANG! today.
Trust me…it’ll make them feel better.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. Miraculously, people have paid him to be aggressively light-skinned via a computer keyboard for nearly two decades. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at his own site, wafflecolored.com.