James Pickens Jr.
James Pickens Jr. Interview
During a recent visit to the Idea Center in Playhouse Square, ideastream Producer Dennis Knowles sat down with actor James Pickens, Jr.
Dennis Knowles, ideastream: Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like as a kid growing up in Northeast Ohio?
James Pickens, Jr: I had a great upbringing in Cleveland. I was here from when I was born until 1978. I was raised mostly around the Wade Park area, Superior, East 92nd street to be exact. 1477 East 92nd, I still remember that address. The building’s no longer there. And the around the age of 14 I moved over into the Glenville area around 105, just a little south of St. Clair and right before I moved to New York I was living in Shaker Heights off of Lee and Scottsdale. It was a great upbringing, it was a great time to be in Cleveland. Cleveland at that time was one of the top 10 largest cities in the country and a major hub for industry and manufacturing. My father worked for Republic Steel for many years. My mom stayed at home. I’m one of three, a younger brother and a younger sister who still live here in Cleveland with their children. I was here for the last professional sports championship we’ve ever won in 50 years. Cleveland Browns 1964, I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a great place to be from and I look back very fondly on those memories.
Knowles: How did you become involved in Karamu?
Pickens: Long story short, it was totally by accident. Growing up in Cleveland I knew about Karamu, but I had never been there until I had graduated from college. I never intended on getting into this acting thing and it was truly by happenstance, but there was a playwright and resident at the college I went to Bowling Green State University, a gentleman named John Scott who had written some plays and had some things produced in New York. Once I was done with my bachelors he said, “What are you going to do when you’re done with your education?” I said, “I don’t know. Maybe just go back to Cleveland and teach or something.” I didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do. And I had kind of dabbled in a play my senior year. I had no idea what I was doing, but a gentleman introduced himself. He was looking for an actor and he kind of forced me, I don’t know if forced is the right word, but he was able to get me to do this thing and I got the bug. John Scott said, “You should really look into Karamu. That’s probably one of the best institutions in the country. It’s right there in your hometown.” I graduated in ’76 and I came back to Cleveland, I went to Karamu, I started out in the actors workshops. My first real taste of the theatre was as a stage manager. I was a part of their children’s theatre program and I progressed into the bigger stages, the arena and to the main stage. That’s how I got involved.
Knowles: Your acting career started to take off when you first moved to New York. Can you pinpoint your big break and what was that time like?
Pickens: It would have to be with the Negro Ensemble Company and the production of A Soldier’s Play written by Charles Fuller that won a Pulitzer’s Prize that year. I was lucky and honored enough to be a part of a cast that included Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, the late Adolf Caesar, some wonderful talented people. And then in 1986 I was honored to be apart the 25th anniversary of A Raisin in the Sun which was produced by Lorraine Hansberry’s widower Bob Nemiroff at the Roundabout Theatre. I played Walter Lee and it was a wonderful experience. And then I was a part of a wonderful production by Langford Hughes called The Balm in Gilead that was in conjunction with Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and it was really a historic production John Malkovich directed it. I had a great time.
Knowles: Aside from acting, you have a passion for the great outdoors, more specifically, rodeos and roping. How did that come into your life?
Pickens: I’m not cowboy, but I love the Western lifestyle. Let’s put it like that, but I’m a child of the 50’s when we only had three channels. Each of those channels may have had 20 Westerns on it. As a kid we’d try to watch them all. My dad was a big fan of Westerns and my brother and I would sit and watch them. We’d play cowboys and Indians with our buddies outside. I actually started riding in New York City of all places. I used to live right down the street from a very famous rental stable. It’s no longer there, but you could rent horses. They converted an old fire house into a stable. They put the horses on an elevator and they’d bring them up from the basement. They only used English saddles. You’d ride them down 89th street to Central Park West and wait for the light. The horse would cross Central Park West and you’d ride in the park. Sometimes I’d go up to the Bronx and there was a riding stable too. When I got to California which has a huge Western culture anyway, especially in Southern California, they have a big cowboy culture in their history. I hooked up with some stuntmen and wranglers, and progressed from there. It’s been a lot of fun. I own two horses now and started roping. It’s a great hobby.
Knowles: I think you’re being a little modest. I’ve read that you’ve participated in roping competitions with championship level teams.
Pickens: There’s a few organizations, but I belong to two. World Series of Team Roping and also the United States Team Roping Association. I’ve roped in both, mostly in USTRC. It’s a lot of fun. Every once in a while I’ll catch one.
Knowles: You also operate the James Pickens Jr. Foundation. What work do you do with that organization?
Pickens: It’s something that’s very dear to my heart. My wife and I started it about eight years ago. It was our way of trying to give back to the community. We both have a very strong feeling for the kids and the youth. That’s a big priority right now. We see so many negative images of our youth in media today, but there are a lot of kids that are doing some great things out there and we wanted to try and earmark and highlight those. We started this organization in order to bring focus to a couple of foundations and charities that we really have a heart for. One’s an after school program called Hands for Hope and the other one is a Western style sleepover camp that a good friend of mine, fellow actor Glynn Turman and his wife started called Camp Giddy-Up that takes at-risk youth from the inner city and brings them up to his ranch. He has a place about an hour outside of L.A. and for about a weekend they experience the cowboy lifestyle for free. They ride, they hike, they sleep under the stars, swim, the whole bit. We wanted to help them with that. It’s been great. We’ve been trying to enhance the lives of these kids with this generation and the ones to follow.
Knowles: When you first started participating with Karamu, They were around 55 years old at the time and had just celebrated their 50th anniversary. Now we’re celebrating 100 years. What are your hopes as this organization moves into its second century?
Pickens: I think my biggest hope is that more people realize the importance and the significance of it. I’d love to see it get back to its original intent, which was all inclusive, all cultures, complete diversity. Karamu at one point had an opera company. A lot of folks don’t know that. At one time they were given donates by Oscar Hammerstein. They had more than one theatre company. They had Clarence Gilpin who was the original Emperor Jones and obviously the Langston Hughes connection, but I would love to see them get back to what Rowena and Russell Jelliffe had intended when they founded it. A gathering place of talent and creativity that could come together and infuse it with different cultures and what they brought from that culture together to create art, playwriting, acting, singing, and all of those great art forms that make us who we are and what made Cleveland so unique to have an institution like that. It wasn’t just an African American theatre. It was a multi-cultural community art center. That’s what it was and all were welcome and all facets of the creative arts were embraced and nurtured and uplifted. I’d like to see that happen again.
James Pickens Jr., actor