Friday, June 14, 2024



James Pickens Jr. on succeeding in Hollywood and the African-American presence in the West.


James Pickens Jr.

For a decade, James Pickens Jr. has captivated audiences as the formidable Dr. Richard Webber on the hit ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” Although he has been a consistent presence in Hollywood for decades — among his credits: portraying civil rights leader Medgar Evers in “Ghosts of Mississippi,” along with central roles in such favorites as “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Menace II Society” and the Jackie Robinson biopic “42” — his foray into show business was pure chance. He had planned to pursue the artist’s life after graduating from college with an art degree and leaving his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. “Becoming an actor,” he says, “was purely by accident.” When he’s not on camera, he puts considerable focus on the James Pickens Jr. Foundation, which works to improve the lives of families and children in underserved communities. In a conversation with Black Image, Pickens shared his story and revealed why a particular passion leads him to Las Vegas each year.

Why will you be in Las Vegas this December?

I have been coming to Las Vegas for 15 years for the National Finals Rodeo. They have roping events that I am a big fan of, and I have developed some really nice relationships with the National Rodeo Association, Wrangler and ESPN. I do some commentary during the events for ESPN along with their rodeo analyst. Ever since I was a child growing up in the ‘50s, I have been a fan of the Westerns I would watch on television.

Tell us your perspective on the history of African-Americans in the Western lifestyle?

Yeah, our history is very rich when it comes to the American West. The records show that one-third of all cowboys in the old West were men of color. Judge Paul Brady’s great-great-great grand uncle was the legendary Bass Reeves [the first African-American deputy marshal west of the Mississippi]. There was an African-American stagecoach woman who was mightier than any man, and drove six to eight coaches. Our African-American presence was felt largely at that time. We were ranch hands and great horsemen. The landscape was filled with accomplished people of color.

This season on “Grey’s Anatomy,” what’s going on between your character and Catherine, who is played by Debbie Allen?

Debbie Allen’s character and mine are cultivating a relationship this season. Once my character can get back on his feet, we will investigate the relationship and see where it goes. Obviously, they care a lot for one another. I am interested to see how it starts to play out. It is so fun working with Debbie, because I have known her for a few years. It’s nice to play a role with someone you have history with. She is just a blast — super-professional and fun.


How do you see the longevity of “Grey’s Anatomy”?

You can never put your finger on how long a show will stay on the air. Folks are continuing to watch, and our numbers are relatively good. For a show that has age — this is always good. The dollars and cents of the show seem to be pleasing to the network. It still brings in some great advertising dollars. There is still great storytelling. A bunch of wonderful actors, a group of great writers and the creative genius of creator Shonda Rhimes make the show a success.

What makes a good television series?

A lot of things make a television series a success. It takes a great story, good cast, and interesting writing to bring everything together for a show to have longevity. Also, a little bit of drama, sex and comedy never hurts. All of these things together usually make some good watching, and it will create fans that want to take the journey with the show. Fortunately, for “Grey’s Anatomy,” people have attached themselves to the show. Our television viewers want to see our characters’ … lives play out on a weekly basis.

Will any upcoming “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes focus on the new health care law?

I don’t know. That is a great question. To be honest I wouldn’t know, but you might have given me an idea (laughter).

How is the Hollywood environment for African-American actors and actresses?

I can honestly say after 30 years in the industry that Hollywood has made some strides because they were forced to. They were forced because the culture has changed, and there are many faces the industry has to address. There are people of colors and different ethnic backgrounds and cultures — and television has to recognize that. Organizations such as the NAACP and others said the industry had to change, because the complexion of the world is changing. Hollywood took heed, and you can really see the change now with actors and actresses. The actor and actresses are important, but we also need our African-American representation as directors, writers and producers. Shonda Rhimes, who is an African-American female and creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” there will be folks who will come behind her because of her influence.

You recently performed in a stage play regarding Proposition 8 on marriage equality?

My manager told me about it — and Rob Reiner, who I had worked with before, was doing this Los Angeles stage play with an all-star cast that included George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis and Brad Pitt. Initially, I have to admit that I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the message, but I decided to be a part of it. It is an interesting dilemma, but we can’t legislate who people love.

Out of all the television and film projects you have appeared in, what behind-the-scene moment stands out most?

The most profound for me was when I worked on the movie “Ghosts of Mississippi,” a Rob Reiner film that is about the reopening of the Medgar Evers murder case. My cousin went to the screening of the movie, and asked me if I knew about our family connection to the case. I told him I didn’t, and he began to tell me about his parents, my aunt and uncle, who were living in Mississippi during that time. Medgar Evers was visiting his parents’ house the night he was murdered. He indicated that his parents pleaded with Evers not to leave their house that fateful night, because they sensed the danger. But Evers declined their offer to stay overnight, because he didn’t like to be away from his family at night. Evers went home and was shot down when arriving to his home in his driveway.

What are some of your other passions?

Besides being a lover of the Western lifestyle, I have a passion for art. I carry sketch pads when I am on the set of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and I am trying to teach myself how to play the harmonica because I love the blues.

What is Christmas like at the Pickens house?

Christmas is our family’s favorite holiday, and my wife is really great with decorating the house with lights and Christmas artifacts. We love to stay home, cook and open gifts. We love to open a few of our gifts on Christmas Eve. We watch football. Our family is the same as most families. We enjoy each other, and it is exciting to have my daughter and grandchildren come home from the East. We thank God for all of our blessings he has given us throughout the year, and remember the real significance of what Christmas is all about.

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