In his notable screen acting career John Beasley has done his share of television both as a one-off guest star (Detroit 1-8-7, Boston Legal, CSI: Miami, NCIS) and recurring player (Everwood, Treme).
But in the new TVLand series The Soul Man (formerly Have Faith) he has his biggest featured role to date, and in a comedy no less starring Cedric the Entertainer. The original show from the producers of Hot in Cleveland and Grimm premieres June 20 at 9 p.m.
"I'm third on the cast list and I'm getting a lot of work on the series, so I'm definitely happy about that," Beasley says. "It's a quality show. It's very funny. The writing is really very good. We have the writers from Hot in Cleveland, one of the hottest shows on cable. Phoef Sutton is the show runner. He won two Emmys with Cheers. Plus, Cedric has got a really good sense of comedic timing. What he brings to the table is tremendous.
"And then Stan Lathan, the director, has worked on a lot of the great four-camera shows, as far back as the Red Foxx show Sanford and Son. A very good director.
"So we're in very good hands."
This native son, who's continued making Omaha home as a busy stage-film-TV character actor, has his career in high gear pushing 70. Besides the show there's his long-in-development Marlin Briscoe feature film, plans for a North Omaha theater and the possibility of making his New York theater debut.
Beasley, who raised a family and worked at everything from gypsy cab driver to longshoreman, before pursuing acting, plays another in a long line of authority figures as retired minister Barton Ballentine. After years leading the flock at his St. Louis church he's stepped aside for the return of his prodigal son, Rev. Boyce "The Voice" Ballentine (Cedric). Boyce is a former R&B star turned Las Vegas entertainer who, heeding the call to preach, has quit show biz to minister to his father's church. He returns to the fold with his wife Lolli (Niecy Nash) and daughter Lyric (Jazz Raycole), who've reluctantly left the glitter for a humble lifestyle.
As Barton, Beasley's an "old school" man of God who disapproved of his son's former high life and racy lyrics and now holds Boyce's ego in check with fatherly criticism.
Speaking by phone from L.A. where he's in production on the series through mid-summer at Studio City, Beasley says Cedric's character "can never live up to his father's expectations – the father is always going to put him down no matter what he does, but he's got a hustler brother who's even worse." Beasley adds, "In the pilot episode the parishioners are filing out after church, telling Boyce, 'Great service, nice sermon,' and then I come up to him and say, 'I would have given it a C-minus. The bit near the end was decent but I would have approached it more from the Old Testament. But that's just me. God's way is the right way.' That's my character and that's his relationship with his son."
Praised by other actors for his ability to play the truth, Beasley says, "What I bring to the table is I kind of ground the show in reality. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don't play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact one of the characters he's patterned after is Old Joe from Gem of the Ocean.
"I was doing Gem of the Ocean at the theater (his John Beasley Theater in Omaha) when I got the call for this. Generally Tyrone (his son) and I will put my audition on tape and send it out to L.A. A lot of times it will take us five-six takes to get really what I want but with this character it was like one take and we both agreed that was it. We did another one for safety and sent it out, and the next day I got the call…"
A chemistry reading in L.A. sealed the deal.
For Beasley, who's worked with Oprah Winfrey (Brewster Place), James Cromwell (Sum of All Fears), Kathy Bates (Harry's Law) and Robert Duvall (The Apostle), working with Cedric marks another milestone.
"We play off each other so well. The chemistry between us is really good. I'm seeing it in the writing. I'm getting a lot of stuff written for me. Cedric has a lot to do with the show and he'll say, 'John's character needs this,' or 'We should give him this,' so he's really very giving and a great person to work with. As is Niecy Nash.
"We've only got five members in the cast and it just feels like family. I don't think theres a weak link."
Season one guest stars include Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster, Kim Coles, Tamar and Trina Braxton, Phelo and Sherri Shepherd.
Beasley's adjusted well to the four-camera, live audience, sit-com format.
"Having a good theater background has prepared me for this because the camera is almost like a proscenium -–you gotta play to the cameras, you've got to know where you're camera is so that you can open up to it. But you also have the feedback from the audience. For instance, in the first episode we did I appeared and Cedric and I just stopped and looked at each other because of the situation and the audience went on and on, so we had to wait for the audience to finish. That kind of thing happens.
"Sometimes Cedric or somebody forgets their lines or he ad-libs and the audience is with you all the way. It's a lot of fun. It's really like doing stage and I'm having a great time with it."
Beasley's invigorated, too, by how the writers keep tweaking things.
"The writers continue to write right up until taping and if something doesn't work then they huddle up and they come back with something else and by the time we finish with it it's working."
It's his fondest desire Soul Man gets picked up for a second season but Beasley has something more pressing on his mind now and, ironically, the show may prove an obstacle. On March 23 at the University of North Carolina Beasley and Everwood star Treat Williams did a staged reading of famed South African playwright Athol Fugard's new drama, The Train Driver. Fugard was there and Beasley says the writer made it clear he wants them for the play's August 14-Sept. 23 run at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, part of the fabled Signature Theatre, in New York.
Trouble is, Soul Man doesn't wrap till July 29. "I told the play's producers, 'Listen, nobody can do this better than I can. I want to do this. And so whatever we can do to work it out let's do that.' That's where we left it," says Beasley.
Whether it happens or not, he's convinced Soul Man is a career-changer.
"I really feel this is going to be a difference-maker just as The Apostle was because people aren't used to seeing me do comedy, so it'll give them a different look at me as a performer and that's really all I can ask."
"It's been quite a journey" to come from Omaha and find the success he has and still be able to reside here. And the best may yet be ahead.