|High Hair And Tales
Whether playing an avenging angel or an avenging district attorney, Richard Brooks is more than the sum of his parts.
Stern, stolid and reliable, Richard Brooks served as Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette on Law & Order from the first episode through the end of the third season, when he was unceremoniously removed when NBC insisted that Dick Wolf add some estrogen into the show. From the moment Brooks looked up from his desk in the D.A.'s office at Detective Mike Logan and Sergeant Max Greevey (in the original pilot, "Everybody's Favorite Bagman)" he was a true presence on the show, both in bearing, demeanor, haircut (the severe flat-top was both vaguely funky and pointedly conservative) -- and the fact that he would remain the only African-American character to hold a position as either a primary lawyer or cop until season 10, when Jesse Martin joined the show as Detective Eddie Green. Even today, Robinette lingers in the collective unconsciousness of Law & Order fans, as representative of the earliest of shows, when writing was questionable, when the EADA and the ADA were never, ever going to be confused as a "couple," and when the ties they wore had Windsor knots that but held their necks in place.
As for Brooks himself, the Ohio native has worked all over television and the movies, starting with a role in 1985's Teen Wolf, with highlights along the way in 1990's To Sleep with Anger and Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones -- and lowlights like 1994's Ernest Goes to School. But he's kept steadily working since he left Law & Order in 1993, appearing in The Crow: City of Angels and The Substitute in 1996. Currently he can be found with another astounding hairdo -- and a completely different presence -- working as Henry McNeil on USA Networks' G vs. E, a show that successfully combines the quirkiness of Pulp Fiction with the X-Files and Touched By An Angel. The combo simply can't work -- yet it does, and in no small part thanks to Brooks. In his spare time (which doesn't really exist), Brooks has starred in his directoral debut Johnny B Good, which should be out early next year, and formed his own record label -- Flat Top Entertainment, what else? Flat Top features, among other artists, Brooks' album Smooth Love. "I've got that baritone voice going, you know what I'm saying?" he laughs. apocrypha caught up with Brooks and talked about his G vs. E role, haircuts, Samuel Jackson and that elusive recording career.
|| Are you in a car yet? I was told you'd be calling us from a car.
|| Not yet, no. Where are you?
|| I'm in New York.|| I'm trying to get to New York.
|| What are you going to do here?
|| There's a film festival and a wedding for my cousin, I'm going to this weekend.
|| Are they tying the two of those together?|| Ah, no (laughs). That would be funny. That might be a first, actually.
|| Do you have a film in the festival?
|| No, I should. I mean, I have this film I just did, called Johnny B Good, but because of the series G vs. E, I wasn't able to attend and get it ready in time for this festival, the Urban World festival. But I like to go and show some support.
|| So tell me about G vs. E. Are you enjoying it?
|| Oh, yeah, yeah. It's really fun. So opposite from Law & Order.
|| Well, there's humor involved, for one thing.|| Exactly. So that's the whole ball of wax there. And it's more character-based. You know about the characters as opposed to the story, and we get to do a lot more crazy things.
|| The question on everyone's mind: Is that your hair or a wig?
|| That's a wig, but mine is there. It's like, when I started, I'd just come off of [TV series] Brimstone, with a bald head, so I had to grow mine out, and now I actually have my own 'Fro, which is wild. I haven't had my hair this long since I was a kid. Because I've been wearing the wig, I can let it grow, go through those hard spots. Now I have a big 'Fro, so I have to see when we come back if I wear mine now or that one.
|| Hard to know if your hair is allowed to grow in the Afterlife.
|| That's kind of funny. You can be whatever you want to be.
|| Were you given a character sketch for Henry?
|| No, actually, I was given almost free reign to create the character. We came up with the 'Fro because we wanted something a little more way out, and not so straitlaced, and to make a real difference between my Robinette character.
|| He had a hair thing going, too, of course.
|| Yeah, that's when I was into the flat top. That sort of evolved as opposed to Henry's, which came out totally together from the jump, first episode, bam, there's Henry.
|| But between the hair and the leather jacket and the humor of the show, it reminded me of Pulp Fiction. The cops and the hair and it feels like the 70s, but it's not the 70s.|| That's exactly right, I mean I'm really influenced by the whole Pulp Fiction thing. I wanted to be in it. It was sort of -- I think it came down to me and Sam[uel L. Jackson, who played Jules in Pulp Fiction] in that. Of course, I lost....
|| Yeah, you know. I totally 'got' that character. So I probably am subconsciously bringing a little bit of that Pulp Fiction flavor in. That's my revenge.
|| Did you enjoy working with Sam Jackson when he guested on Law & Order as Louis Taggert in "The Violence of Summer" and you were still there as Robinette?
|| Oh, yeah. Last time I saw him, we talked about that, too, it was just funny. And then he blew up. And I was still on the show!
|| And you had the juicier role on Law & Order! He was just a defense attorney!
|| That's funny, you know how that happens. You get on a series and all of a sudden you're not available for a lot of films. You win, and you lose.
|| How did the G vs. E part come about?
|| It was a little adventurous of my agents to actually send me in to meet for this, because it was so different from anything I'd done before. And also, when [G vs. E's casting directors] met me, the way I wanted to play the character, it really took some visionary filmmakers, guys who could see me as Henry. What happens now is that people who were big fans of Law & Order, they sort of assume that's all I do, that's who I am, and anything else I do, any other characters I create are more of 'the act.' Whereas in reality --
|| You're closer to Henry.|| As close to Henry as I was to Robinette. That's just the way I try to approach the work.
|| Did you model Henry after any one person or character?
|| No, actually, I pulled a little bit from Shaft, and Richard Pryor, and in my own description of Henry as a soul singer back in the Motown days, who kind of lost after Marvin Gaye. What I tried to do was go back to the 70s and try to forget that we've been making fun of the 70s and the Afro and all of these things, and try to reinvent the fact that it was cool at the time, and everybody ... you had strong male images....
|| When your hair was a political statement.
|| It was a political statement, back then, but these days, it was becoming the butt of a lot of jokes, and it was an embarrassment. And I just thought that this was one way to bring back some sort of dignity to that character with this show, and the archetype of the 70s man. With the 'Fro and that sense of humor and maleness. The Barry White filling in the hole ... which is all coming back now, and it's hip now because the hip-hop kids are grabbing all the beats, the Parliament and the Funkadelic --
|| And Isaac Hayes has a revival as Chef on South Park.
|| And Barry White is as big as ever. Marvin Gaye, all of those sounds are still ... that's what we're living with, really.
|| That stuff has a timelessness to it.
|| Exactly. And at the time I was doing Robinette, it was kind of the same thing, I wanted to bring the Sidney Poitier type of thing, professional Buppie man to the media and the public's attention. As a dignified professional, strong, intelligent....
|| And the way they wrote those scripts, that persona was very much tied into Robinette's identity.
|| Yeah, because we were totally tied into the current affairs and what was going on, with Jesse Jackson running for President and the different things.
|| And the difficulties with working for the government while trying to identify with your community.
|| Exactly. So that total conflict was in the character, and that's the line I tried to walk with him. So I always look for some kind of archetype when I'm creating a character.
|| So with Robinette, you had more of Sidney Poitier in mind?
|| I definitely felt some of him, but a younger version.
|| Heat of the Night era, when he was playing Virgil Tibbs.
|| Yeah, definitely. I definitely felt that -- and at the time, that no-nonsense, not having to skin-and-grin so much, and play nice, but just be a man -- although I was always the rookie and the youngest on the team. It was definitely like 'You have authority, but you're the youngest guy.' You had to do all the legwork, and you felt a little more compassion for the victims or sometimes even the perps.
|| Did you enjoy your time with Law & Order?
|| Yeah, I loved it, I loved Law & Order. It was great, it is still great. I knew we were doing a show which, given a chance would have some sort of historical resonance. Because I knew that the topics we were dealing with would be timeless, the style we were acting in and the way the film -- the show, I call everything films -- but the way that the show was produced, we were trying to go back to the old classics like Naked City and Dragnet feelings, of those shows that are -- you can always watch them all the time because the stories are self-contained and make you think. I felt that when we were doing it. I enjoyed it. From an actor's point of view, I think sometimes, because it is about the story and it is about the guest stars most of the time, I wasn't sure that there were a lot of opportunities to shine to the max that's possible, but knowing that you're doing a wonderful dramatic series I've always been proud of that.
|| Any actors you still keep in touch with?
|| Well, when I left it was so weird the way I left, and it was kind of at the last minute, because we were a week away from going back into the 4th season, and that's when I heard, and I sort of felt like, "Obviously this has been discussed all during the hiatus and no one's really told me." I didn't even know at the time that Dann Florek [Don Cragen] was off, too. I was just expecting to go back. When you're working with someone 16, 18 hours a day, every day for 3 years, you don't need to hang out with each other to feel like you guys are still tight. And I was really close to the crew, and I really loved everybody, Gus [Constantine Makris] was directing a lot, he was the director of photography., and I just really had to let it go.
|| Were you angry at first, or just hurt?
|| The business is so intense, and I know at any moment anything can happen, you don't ever have security when you're an actor, but it felt kind of dazing, because I just felt I had been with the show from the beginning, and from the pilot, and I thought I'd help set the tone, and make it the success it was, as much as any actor can do, and there was no point where anyone could say, "You were doing less than your job," or "We weren't happy with your work on the show," so it was just that weird thing where you realize you can be good, you can do your work, and you can still lose out on the show.
|| Had you been totally based out of New York in that time period? Were you considered a New York actor?
|| I think I was, because I had trained at Circle in the Square, and I had been going back and forth to NY all the time. But I left New York real quickly to start doing television and film. I just came out here on a fluke with a friend of mine, and after about 2 weeks I was getting great guest spots and making more money than I'd made in my whole Off-Broadway play run. So instantly I was like I could do one show, one guest spot and live for 3 months! As opposed to having to scrape with $400 a week. So I kind of started living in LA, but I always kept my persona as a New York actor. And maybe I still have that now, you know, it's just that a lot of people in the New York theater are a little upset that I'm not more available in the city to do the plays and to come in and support the theater.
|| It's a different lifestyle.
|| It's hard, because I have a family and New York is a tough city -- there's not a bunch of work there, and here I was, at some points I was like the only African-American actor working in New York on any television series. After the Cosby show went down. So where I had gone from studying in New York, and living on the streets for years while I was going to Circle in the Square, here I was on top of the world, a star on the only dramatic series in town, and then to get off of the show was like oh, I probably need to leave New York.
|| There's been this recent flap about not enough roles for black actors on television. Do you find that's true?
|| Well, you know, that's the most amazing thing with all of that is I haven't stopped working since all of that started. I've been shooting this series every day, all the time, like maybe one of my favorite parts so far in my career.
|| So it's not a reality for you.
|| No, it hasn't been the reality for me, and now that we're on hiatus, we're still sort of doing different things for the show, doing the promotions, and I just finished directing and producing my own film, called Johnny B Good. So I've been totally busy, so I haven't had a whole lot of time to sit around saying, "Man there's not a lot for me." My feeling with that is that stars will work, in general. More than the average working actor. It's always hard to be a working actor, I think, and when I look and there are 26 new shows and there are no African-American leads on it or Latino or Asian or whatever, the numbers of it, I agree there are plenty of talented actors who could fill any of those roles, and a lot of times the parts could be opened up to different nationalities or whatever, but at the same time you're looking at what, two leads, maybe two supporting leads? So you're looking at maybe 120, 130 parts out of all of these actors who are out here who are so wonderful. If you're looking for any kind of justice or fairness or job security or opportunities, you need to go and be a computer person.
|| Acting is not the field to go into.
|| Acting is not the place you really want to if you can't deal with the fact that there's going to be injustice and stuff, and lack of opportunity for stuff to shine. That's just something that I think is the downside of the pursuit of fame. It's everybody's dream. So I just thank God that I've been able to work and I hope that -- I know that when I was doing Law & Order, I was one of the few black actors working then. The only thing I would like to see is I would like to see more attention paid to the networks who are having the actors work, you know? I think it's fine to say there's no one working, but where we do work, just toot the horn a little bit for that, because I've been doing a lot of work. And when I'm working nobody says anything, but when you get off it's only then that people say, "There's no work." I think a lot of the organizations have to support the actors who are working, too. Sometimes you get a lot with love and honey and sugar, you know what I mean? I'm sure that stuff will be worked out. I'm not one of the pessimists who feel like there's a big problem, if you can get away with it, there are a lot of people who want to do those parts. I'm glad people are standing up to make some noise, but I'm probably not the one. Here I am, I'm just totally overwhelmed with the amount of opportunities I have now.
|| A couple years ago you did go back to Law & Order and did one episode, "Custody." Were you involved with how they changed the Robinette character, or did they just say, "This is what we want to do, and we want you to do it."|| No, that was definitely like, "We want you to do this." That's the kind of show -- the creators on that show really know what they want to do, and your job there is really to just interpret the script.
|| Were you surprised at the way they took the character?
|| Well...I thought it was probably the most dramatic turnaround that you could do, and I know that I'd been on the other side, so I'd gone from being the good guy to being kind of the bad guy.
|| You had a valid point of view, it was just surprising coming it out of Paul Robinette's mouth.
|| It was challenging for me, because I always want -- it's not my point of view, you know what I mean? The show always for me had its difficulties with either being the Uncle Tom, or the Oreo, or being, in this case now you're going to be the radical, but I just felt that if I could convey him and have people empathize with him, understand my point of view, then I had done my job, which is what I tried to do when I went in there. But when I first read the script, I said, "Oh, wow, I don't want to destroy the good guy that Robinette was, and the line that Robinette walked," and here it was ... but at the same time it was a great way to vent in a way the unjust way that I was removed from the show. It was a way to come back and say, "I know who you guys are. And now I'm going to work it, now I'm on this side, and that's it." But they took really good care of me, and the new cast was really giving, because I basically went back and took over the show.
|| And it was all almost entirely new people by then.
|| Exactly, it was all new except for Jerry [Orbach, Lennie Briscoe] and Steven Hill [Adam Schiff]. But at the same time, I had no qualms with it. It was like, "This is my show."
|| You were the guest star!
|| And I was the man who built the house, one of the architects, the builders.
|| Would you go back and do another?
|| I thought I would go back more, after that, and there was talk about some kind of reunion in the 200th episode, that turned into Julia Roberts' vehicle.
|| How they went from you to Julia Roberts I can't make the connection.
|| We were all -- there was talk about Carey Lowell, and some of the former Law & Order cast ....
|| So they were going to have the guest stars return, and then they decided not to.
|| For whatever reason. But I was shooting G vs. E anyway, so I don't know if that had a part to do with it or whatever, but I was interested in doing the 2 hour movies, so I would love to come back and take Robinette into some kind of 2 hour thing.
|| Now they have the other show, and Cragen's back on that show...
|| Which is nice, but I'm totally, totally happy with G vs. E. It's much more fun. It allows me -- it'll allow me to advance more as an actor into movies and different things, I think.
|| Tell me about your film.
|| Johnny B Good is a romantic urban story about a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who has to get his life together to win the girl he loves. It's basically on the premise of...if you could take some guys away from their lives of negativity in the neighborhood and give them a positive attitude, how much they could contribute to society and change things. I directed and star in it.
|| Do you have a distributor for that?
|| We have distribution into video and pay-per-view, and we're working on cable. We're looking to get it out in January and February. That should be fun.
|| Anything else you're working on we should know about?
|| Well, I'm always working on this music career, and they actually have me singing on one of the [G vs. E] episodes, on an airplane, one of my original songs, "Candy Thighs."
|| Candy what?
|| "Candy Thighs."
|| That's what I thought you said! So, is your music on a record label, or are you self-produced?
|| I'm self-produced, but the label is Flat Top Entertainment.
|| Named after anybody's hair we know?
|| What's the album called?
|| We just have the one album -- Smooth Love.
|| Is there an address people can use to send for it?
|| They can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or to PMB #102, 333 Washington Blvd. Marina Del Rey, California 90292.
|| It's a very Barry White title, by the way.
|| Well, I'm totally on the Barry White, I've got the baritone voice going, you know. That's where I am.