Veteran actor Joe Morton was familiar to most of us before he ever hit Scandal. In addition to appearances on Broadway, he has appeared in several films, including the cult classic The Brother From Another Planet and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and on TV as Henry Deacon in Eureka, among other roles. The Root caught up with the New York native, who added the TNT drama Proof to his extensive TV credits over the summer, to talk Daddy Pope, A Different World and his true tango with life after death.
The Root: What was your first big break?
Joe Morton: My first big break would probably be Raisin, which was the musical version of A Raisin in the Sun, on Broadway. I played Walter Lee [Younger]. And I think that helped put me on the map, if you will. It was a sort of brilliant adaptation of the actual play. I was working with Ernestine Jackson, who played Ruth, and Debbie Allen, who played Beneatha—and, oh shoot, the young man from, oh gosh, I can’t even think of the series, who played my son [Ralph Carter, who played Michael Evans on Good Times]. It was just a wonderful, wonderful time. I got a Tony nomination for the play.
TR: How did you end up on A Different World?
JM: [Debbie Allen] called me and said she wanted me to do seven episodes of the series she was directing and producing. She told me what the character was. I told her I wasn’t all that excited about doing a sitcom, but I would obviously do it for her, and the deal that we made was, “Just give everybody else the jokes and give me some real politics of Virginia, and I think that should work,” and she did that and we had a great time.
TR: Yet, years later, people know you as the guy who was with Whitley. That must throw you.
JM: Well, it’s funny because on Twitter I kept getting that the reason Rowan [Pope] exists is because Byron got left at the altar, which, I guess that’s one way of looking at it, since Byron was a congressman.
TR: So let’s talk Daddy Pope. How did that come about?
JM: I was in [Los Angeles] for pilot season, and I had not yet seen Scandal. I knew about Kerry Washington and knew about the show but hadn’t seen it. Sat down with my computer and was watching it on Netflix. Loved it. Loved everything about it. Loved the writing, the directing, the way it’s shot, loved the dialogue. I loved Jeff Perry [Cyrus Beene] because he had all these wonderful monologues, and I literally thought, “I wonder if there’s a way that I can find my way onto this show.”
But before I had an opportunity to even talk to my agents or my manager about it, I got a call from my agents actually saying we just got a call from ABC: “They’re interested in you coming on in a recurring role on Scandal.” One of the producers called me and said, “Yes, we would love for you to come on, but if you do, there is a secret that you have to keep, and you can’t tell anyone.” And he went on to explain that the secret was that at the end of the second season, the very last script, the very last two lines of the script, would reveal me as Olivia’s father. And I said I’d do it, and so the secret was that I was going to be revealed, and no one else knew. Kerry did not know. Some of the other directors did not know.
TR: As a black male actor, what has this role meant to you?
JM: This is one of the high points. Suddenly, at the beginning of season 3 for Scandal, I’m handed this monologue, and what was glorious about the monologue was that it gave me the opportunity to be in two worlds at once. Here I am on television, but I am doing a very theatrical moment, a monologue that lasts for two-and-a-half pages. So it was incredibly challenging, wonderfully exciting, and a real joy to sort of be given that. And then [to] be given that over and over again just [knocks] me out.
TR: And then to be given an Emmy.
JM: Yes, that is the proverbial icing on the cake. To be nominated was great enough … to actually win the Emmy was over the top.
TR: On Proof you play Dr. Charles Richmond, head of the hospital where Jennifer Beals’ Dr. Carolyn Tyler is researching if an afterlife exists. During an interview with Today’s Al Roker, you were cut off before you could share your afterlife experience.
Many, many years ago I was in London and introduced to a psychic. Now, I’m not into psychics, but my friend was. She kept describing this particular one in a very special kind of way, and the more my friend talked about her, the more I got curious. So I went to see her, and she kept saying, “You have a question you want to ask,” and I was like, “No, I’m just here out of curiosity.”
And before I knew it, she began to describe a conversation between a fellow actor who had died and [me] that no one, no one, could have known anything about—certainly not in the kind of detail that she was relating it to me. And then she gave me his answer to our conversation, which, again, just seemed impossible.
Then my grandmother appeared. Didn’t say anything; she was just there. She had died several years before, and then my father appeared, and that was where the psychic was correct. The question was, “How did you die?” Because my father died under what I considered very suspicious circumstances, and his response to me was, “What was done to me you will never find out, but you have a greater responsibility, which is to take care of your mother,” at which point he disappeared. So it was an incredibly powerful afternoon. I went back once after that and nothing ever happened, and it’s the only time it’s ever happened.
TR: TVLine has suggested that Mr. Pope may be leaving us.
JM: That’s what TVLine said? We’ll see. I have no idea what’s going to happen. At the end of every season, there are people who think Papa Pope is going to die. All we know at the moment is, he is in prison, and it’s not Papa Pope who is in prison; it’s Eli who is in prison for absconding with some money that belonged to the Smithsonian, so we will see what happens.
Editor’s note: Scandal returns Thursday, Sept. 24, on ABC.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.