TV Land –one of America’s beloved cable networks– continues with a string of popular sitcoms that showcase relatable slice-of-life scenarios. One such show is The Soul Man starring Cedric the Entertainer (Original Kings of Comedy, Barbershop movie franchise) and Niecy Nash (TV’s Reno 911, Clean House).
Cedric, as Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine, a former R&B crooner has returned to his less glamorous hometown to pastor his father’s church along with the ready-for-primetime first lady, wife Lolli, a beauty salon maven with a penchant for high heels, tight clothing and an appetite for the glitz and glam of the Las Vegas lifestyle they’ve abandoned.
Coupled with a spirited teenage daughter, a trifling brother and by-the-book father, the Ballentine household is a recipe for delicious family humor, set in a faith-focused community of opinionated parishioners.
John Beasley, one of my favorite actors, is Boyce’s father “Barton,” Big Daddy Ballentine, as I like to call him. His rock-of-Gibraltar brawn is the steady covering when hints of night life gone by collide with heavenly calling. All said –The Soul Man hits the mark without being preachy or pretentious– and that’s just right with me.
Recently, I spoke with Beasley (The Apostle, Walking Tall, The Sum of All Fears, The General’s Daughter, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, HBO’s Treme, TV’s Everwood and Judging Amy)–
Sandra Varner (Talk2SV): I’ve followed your career for quite some time, first being aware of you from the 1993 HBO movie, Laurel Avenue (Charles Dutton, Executive Producer), with actors Mary Alice (the original Sparkle) and back then, little known Malinda Williams (Showtime’s Soul Food) and Gary Dourdan (Jumping the Broom).
Beasley: Yeah, that was a few years ago. I was working out of Minneapolis in those days.
Talk2SV: You came to Hollywood in a rather unconventional manner, explain.
Beasley: I guess you could say that. I’ve been acting since high school and did a lot of my acting in Omaha; I still do community theatre [there]. I always knew that I could do it (acting) on a professional level but raising two children, two boys in Omaha, it took a while before I was in a position to say to my wife, ‘ hey listen, I need to do this.’ With her support, I was able to go off to Minneapolis and work at the age of 45, leaving a pretty decent job with the Union Pacific Railroad. Stepping out, some people would say, foolishly to pursue a dream. But I just felt that I could do it and my wife felt that I could do it so she lent her support and things took off in Minneapolis.
Talk2SV: Is it true that you and your wife have been married over 40 years?
Beasley: Yes, we’ve been married 48 years.
Talk2SV: How beautiful is that…
Beasley: I think the success of our marriage is due to the fact that I didn’t start (acting) until late. That decision really played a big part in maintaining a marriage. I think had I done it at an earlier age, the marriage might not have lasted this long. But starting at the age of 45, I was already settled and established in our relationship so it’s been a great ride. She’s a wonderful woman.
Talk2SV: When I hear your story, it reminds me of your costars, Cedric and Niecy, cast as a strong loving couple who have taken a divergent turn though it seems the wife was not excited to come on board with her husband’s new routine of the pulpit-driven life.
Beasley: Well, my wife wasn’t excited to come on board with the show business life so there are parallels. She came along kicking and screaming (laughter) but you have to understand that she wasn’t really excited about what she perceived an actor’s life to be and she was right. It (this lifestyle) really could put the marriage in jeopardy because you’re on the road at various times. As a stage actor, typically, I’m gone for a couple of months at a time. If I’m doing a film, the shooting schedule usually requires me to be on location for about a month or so; that’s kind of difficult on a marriage. Because we have a good foundation it works for us.
Talk2SV: Wonderful. The Soul Man tells the story of a pastor’s life on the other side of secular success. Are you a person of faith?
Beasley: I am. I walk in my faith all the time. I’m a member of a church, but I respect all faiths, so in that respect, that’s where I am. I think God can reach us in many different ways. Yes, I do have a strong faith and believe in a higher power.
Talk2SV: You are known for your indelible, intense, dramatic portrayals. Conversely, describe your appreciation of comedy and being a part of that genre.
Beasley: Comedy has always been a big part of my life though my film and TV work have always been serious. On stage I’ve been able to do comedic roles. I’ve done all of August Wilson’s plays and he had a great sense of humor. A couple of his characters [I’ve played] like “Turnbull” from Jitney and “Ole Joe” from Radio Golf among others have allowed me to do my comedy on stage. The Soul Man is really exciting because the public and the casting people get to see a different side of me. I’ve always thought I was funny; people who know me think I’m funny… but this is the first opportunity for me to show it. I like making people laugh. I’m just having a ball [on this show] and I think this is a turning point in my career. Speaking of turning points, I’ve had a couple in my career such as my role in The Apostle (1997) alongside Robert Duvall. That role (Beasley was cast as “Brother C. Charles Blackwell,” a lay minister in a small country town) brought a whole new audience for me and it really kind of opened up Los Angeles to me. I was working in Chicago when I got the audition; it was a success. It was a small film but everybody in the industry got a chance to see it. I knew it was life changing at that time. I think The Soul Man is also a life changing experience. I see it taking me to another level. The reviews have been excellent and I’ve gotten some strong recognition. The LA Times called me a ‘pro’ and that’s really flattering. I’m happy about that.
Talk2SV: Speaking of The Apostle, I saw it and agree it’s a great film. Robert Duvall is an amazing talent.
Beasley: Bobby Duvall is the best. It was a dream to work with him.
Talk2SV: You and Cedric seem to be having a great time on The Soul Man.
Beasley: Oh yeah… we can talk and listen to each other which play a very important part in how the show goes. I think it’s that believability that works between the two of us.
Talk2SV: Were you offered this role or did you audition for it?
Beasley: We were doing an August Wilson play at our theatre in Omaha (The John Beasley Theatre) when I received a call asking me to put myself on tape for the role. My son and I did just that and sent it off. Shortly after that, the show execs wanted me to come out (to Los Angeles), meet with the producers, and read for the part in front of a number of people including executive producers Sean Hayes, Stan Lathan and others. The next call came and they asked me to come out for a “chemistry read” with Cedric. The third call requested me to come back for a screen test. It was at that point I felt I had the role. I just claimed it; that’s just how strong my faith was.
Note: Beasley has two adult sons: Tyron and Michael, both actors. Michael will be seen this October in the new Denzel Washington film, Flight, from Paramount Pictures. There is more at www.Talk2SV.com.