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Joe Morton, Scheming Father Of 'Scandal,' On Playing Dick Gregory On Stage

Jan 7, 2018

If you are a fan of a certain television drama that airs on Thursday nights on ABC, then Joe Morton needs no introduction.

On the show Scandal, he plays Rowan "Eli" Pope, the notorious, scheming father of main character Olivia Pope. His scene-stealing work in the role earned Morton an Emmy for Best Guest Actor in a Drama Series, as well as a whole new generation of fans.

Morton's career didn't start with Scandal, of course — his work has spanned 40 years in film, television and live theater. You may have also seen him in 2017's blockbuster film Justice League, and recently Morton starred in the play Turn Me Loose, a one-man show about the late comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory.

"Unfortunately, we're living in a period that seems to be echoing what happened in 1968," Morton says. "The kinds of racial problems that we seem to be facing as of the last couple of years, white policemen shooting black men, are things that [Dick Gregory] talked about in the '60s. Corporate greed is another topic of his which, again, as of the new tax laws, we're still talking about corporate greed. So a lot of the things that seemed to have happened almost 45 years ago seem to be repeating themselves today."

With all of that going on, and as Scandal is expected to conclude its final season this year, we thought this would be a good time to check in with Joe Morton.


Interview Highlights

On similarities between his characters in Turn Me Loose and Scandal

I think I choose my material based on what it has to say. And in choosing to do Dick Gregory, it was because I then had the opportunity to say the kind of political things that I wish I had written myself — and there it was so I could sort of put it out there in the world. And the same thing is kind of true with Rowan. I didn't necessarily know at the outset where we were going with that character, but vis-a-vis the clip that you played [earlier in the interview], suddenly you have a black man who is in chains in his underwear telling a white Southern Republican president that he's a boy. So in that sense I suppose it's relatable in that you have two black male individuals who are very powerful in terms of how they express themselves in the world that they occupy.

On getting his start in acting

I didn't know what kind of career I was going to have. When I was in school, my mother thought — 'cause I changed my major from psychology to drama — and my mother thought that I was insane. My grandma who was supposed to help me with school withdrew her support because, again, she thought I was crazy. Because their point of view was that given that what the world was, society would only let a black man in that business, in this business, go but so far.

You know, I started in 1968, and a lot of the roles that were available for black men in particular were mostly either drug dealers or pimps or some strange bugaboo of some sort. And I made a decision — it was a very clear decision — that I would not take those roles, which was very frustrating for my agents at the time. I wanted to put together a career that would be an assembly of different black men who happened to be black — that those characters didn't necessarily have to have any particular meaning or symbolism by being black. They just needed to be three-dimensional male characters, Brother From Another Planet being the perfect example of that. Here was a movie about an extraterrestrial who was escaping slavery from his planet to come here, only to find that things are not that different. And you're also going into Harlem and seeing Harlem through the eyes of someone who looks like he should know what's going on but has no idea. He's a stranger in Harlem. So he's learning about it as the audience is learning about it.

So I think along the way, I was looking for parts and looking for projects that had some greater reverberation than just entertainment.

On personal responsibility, as an artist, in the current sociopolitical moment

I think it's important for artists to hold a mirror up to the world that surrounds them. I just watched Detroit, which is enormously disturbing when you watch it, but it tells a truth about a time in this country when the criminalization of black people was so overt that people were being, sort of, hauled off for no reason. People were being killed for clearly no reason at all. That's come back to us again, as I said before, in the last couple of years. So yes, I think on some level there is a responsibility — not to be a "role model," but certainly to hold a mirror up to what's going on. I mean, I think that what Dick Gregory proved was that you can make people laugh — you can be an entertainer — and say something all at the same time. And I guess that's what I hoping I'll be able to do.

Marc Rivers and Jennifer Liberto produced and edited the audio of this interview. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fans of ABC's "Scandal" should have no trouble recognizing this voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")

JOE MORTON: (As Rowan Pope) For you, it's always summertime and the living is easy. Daddy's rich and your momma's good-looking. You're a Grant. You got money in your blood. You are a boy. I'm a man.

MARTIN: That is Joe Morton playing Rowan Eli Pope, the notorious scheming father of Olivia Pope. His scene-stealing work in the role has earned Joe Morton an Emmy as well as a whole new generation of fans. As "Scandal" begins its final season this year, we thought this would be a good time to check back in with Joe Morton, whose work has spanned 40 years in film, television and live theater.

And I started by asking Joe Morton about a recent project he'd just finished, a production of "Turn Me Loose" about the life story and career of the comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. He just died last year. Dick Gregory was one of the first black comics to regularly perform in front of white audiences in the 1960s. And I asked Joe Morton why so many critics called "Turn Me Loose" relevant to the current moment.

MORTON: Unfortunately, we're living in a period that seems to be echoing what happened in 1968. The kinds of racial problems that we seem to be facing as of the last couple of years of white policemen shooting black men are things that he talked about in the '60s. Corporate greed is another topic of his which, you know, again, as the new tax laws, you know, we're still talking about corporate greed. So a lot of the things that seem to have happened almost 45 years ago seem to be repeating themselves today.

MARTIN: And I was wondering if you see a connection between "Turn Me Loose" in your work on "Scandal"?

MORTON: I think I choose my material based on what it has to say. And in choosing to do Dick Gregory, it was because I then had the opportunity to say the kind of political things that I wish I had written myself. And there it was so that I could sort of put it out there in the world. And the same thing is kind of true with Rowan. I didn't necessarily know at the outset where we were going with that character but vis-a-vis the clip that you played, suddenly you have a black man who is in chains in his underwear telling a white Southern Republican president that he's a boy. So in that sense, I suppose it's relatable in that you have two black male individuals who are very powerful in terms of how they express themselves in the world that they occupy.

MARTIN: And the other thing I think too is these glorious monologues that you are responsible for delivering. And let me just play one again from season 3.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")

MORTON: (As Rowan Pope) He told you that you would be first lady and you believed him. Did I not raise you for better? How many times have I told you you have to be what?

KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) Twice...

MORTON: (As Rowan Pope) What?

WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) ...Twice as good.

MORTON: (As Rowan Pope) Twice as good as them to get half of what they have.

MARTIN: Gosh, I'm sure you know by now how Twitter went crazy over this. And I'm wondering if people have kind of walked up to you on the street and told you, you know, how many times their parents may have said the same thing to them?

MORTON: Exactly. I don't think there's a black child in America probably who hasn't heard that speech in terms of having to work twice as hard to get half as much. So it resonated across the country, which was wonderful for the character, for the show and for me, et cetera, et cetera. Even the other clip that you played before, the hell and the high water, those seem to be the kind of signature pieces that people will ask me about when they see me on a plane or on the street or whatever it is. But twice as much is, as I said, one of those things I think that every black child in America has probably heard at some time or another.

MARTIN: I was wondering, given - as I mentioned at the beginning, you've had a very wide-ranging career, I mean, starting with your breakout role in "Brother From Another Planet." I understand that there is talk of actually making that into a television series which is - which would be really interesting in the current times. And I think people who can hear your voice can hear your classical training, I mean, the way you deliver your lines, the nuance that you bring to everything that you say. I was wondering, though, when you first started out, did you think this was the career you were going to have?

MORTON: (Laughter) I didn't know what kind of career I was going to have. When I was in school, my mother thought - because I changed my majors from psychology to drama and my mother thought that I was insane. My grandmother, who was supposed to help me with school, withdrew her support because, again, she thought I was crazy. Because their point of view was that, given what the world was, society would only let a black man in that business - in this business go but so far. You know, I started in 1968. And a lot of the roles that were available for black men in particular were mostly either drug dealers or pimps or some strange bugaboo of some sort. And I made a decision, it was a very clear decision, that I would not take those roles, which was very frustrating for my agents at the time.

I wanted to put together a career that would be an assembly of different black men who happened to be black, that those characters didn't necessarily have to have any particular meaning or symbolism by being black. They just needed to be three-dimensional male characters, "Brother From Another Planet" being sort of the perfect example of that. Here was a movie about an extraterrestrial who was escaping slavery from his planet to come here, only to find out that things are not that different. And you're also going into Harlem and seeing Harlem through the eyes of someone who looks like he should know what's going on but has no idea. He's a stranger in Harlem, and so he's learning about it as the audience is learning about it. So I think along the way I was looking for parts and looking for projects that had some greater reverberation than just entertainment.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I did want to ask, you know, this is your work, your professional work. I mean, in "Scandal," for example, the show has taken on Ferguson, mass incarceration. I mean, it features a (unintelligible) character. A lot of artists seem to be asking themselves, like, what's my job right now, particularly in the current political moment. I wonder, do you feel called to any particular position or place or task right now?

MORTON: I think it's important for artists to hold a mirror up to the world that surrounds them. I just watched "Detroit," which is enormously disturbing when you watch it. But it tells the truth about a time in this country when the criminalization of black people was so overt that people were being sort of hauled off for no reason. People were being killed for clearly no reason at all. That's come back to us again, as I said before, in the last couple of years.

So yes, I think on some level there is a responsibility not to be a "role model," quote, unquote, but certainly to hold a mirror up to what's going on. I mean, I think that what Dick Gregory proved was that you can make people laugh, you can be an entertainer and say something all at the same time. And that's what I guess I'm hoping I'll be able to do.

MARTIN: That's Joe Morton. He plays Rowan Pope on ABC's "Scandal." He was nice enough to join us during his break from filming at our studios in New York. Joe Morton, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

MORTON: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.