John Amos has been a household name for four decades. He has appeared in films like “Coming to America,” “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” and “Lock Up.” He is probably best known for his role as the adult slave Kunte Kinte in the TV miniseries “Roots” and for the loving, strong-minded, straightforward-talking father James Evans on “Good Times.”
Of course, TV audiences also had the pleasure of watching him in the role of Gordy the weatherman on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and as Percy Fitzwallace in the “West Wing.” But did you realize that Amos is a veteran actor of the stage?
He has starred on Broadway and in August Wilson plays including “Fences” and “Gem of the Ocean.” In addition, he wrote and performed a one-man play called “Halley’s Comet” for over 20 years.
Well, Amos is currently in New York to act in the world-premiere of the play, “Felony Friday,” which part of the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, running Aug. 12-28. Amos’ show takes place Aug. 20, 21, 24, 27 and 28 and plays at the Connelly Theatre on West 4th Street. This phenomenal thespian took time out prior to a rehearsal for the show to talk to AmNews about the play and his career. A Q&A follows.
AmNews: With four decades in the industry, why did you decide to do a play now and in the Fringe Festival?
JA: I love theater, I love the stage and I’ve always felt that the stage is truly the actor’s medium. For 20 years I’ve been touring with my own one-man show. I wanted to do an ensemble piece and I was intrigued by “Felony Friday.”
AmNews: What role are you playing? How would you describe your character and what attracted you to “Felony Friday”?
JA: The character is BBI-Big Black and Invisible. He’s incarcerated because he murdered his wife’s lover after he found them in bed together. His wife was everything to him, so he kills himself. He opts to die when he realizes that he has guilt over killing the man, and he realizes that his wife was unfaithful on more than one occasion. I was attracted to the difference in the writing, the imagination of Scott Decker, the playwright, and to the opportunity to be in the company of some of the younger actors.
AmNews: What is the message behind this play?
JA: We all must pay for the sins we commit-murder, other characters have committed crimes against society and have to answer for them.
AmNews: What should audiences expect when they come to see this show?
JA: They can expect to see something different in the way of writing as well as new, young faces. They’ll find this quite a departure from normal theater fare. It will be a standout in the Fringe Festival. It’s a minimalist set; the words stand on their own and you have a cross-section of characters from every slice of life-a mob boss and his underlings, my character and others. They show that the common denominator is that all these people have stumbled, made big mistakes, and they are about to pay. Everyone can identify with the facts that we’ve done things we have to regret in our lives.
AmNews: What are some of the projects that you are involved with?
JA: I’m taping an episode of “The 2-2” for CBS. I recently filmed a low-budget Western called “Shadow Hill” that my son K.C. Amos directed and is written by Lamont Clayton. After Fringe I will perform my show “Halley’s Comet” at the Arc in Washington, D.C. The proceeds will go to the wounded warriors who fight in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. I have strong relationships with those who have made tremendous sacrifices in support of the county, being a veteran and the son of veteran.
AmNews: You have played so many memorable roles. Which was your most challenging and why?
JA: It’s a toss-up between Admiral Percy Fitzwallace in “The West Wing” and Kunta Kinte in “Roots.” For “The West Wing,” the script didn’t make sense on the page, but when we said it, it made sense-the words, the hesitations. “Roots” was a challenge because I developed the accent when I was living in Libya for three to four months as an adult, so I was researching the character of Kunte Kinte unbeknownst to myself that I would be offered the role.
As I played the role, I had to fight my human instinct. It was hard to be a slave 18 hours a day and then go home and be free. Fiddler-played by Louis Gossett Jr.-mentored my character on how to act in order to survive as a slave. It was quite an experience and one of the most gratifying opportunities. Louis Gossett Jr., a wonderful actor, said when we were waiting for the cameras to be reloaded, “Chew this up and eat this like a big piece of steak. We will never get a role like this again.”
The 15th anniversary of the New York International Fringe Festival offers theater patrons 1,200 shows, including dramas, musicals and comedies. “Felony Friday” is written by Scott Decker and directed by Rebecca Yarsin. For ticket information, go to www.felonyfridaytheplay.com.