Men in Trees' John Amos Recalls His Celebrated Roots
John Amos in Roots
Can you say "charmed career"? John Amos
has starred in such beloved shows as Good Times, The West Wing
and, most recently, the sleeper hit Men in Trees
. It is Amos' role as the adult Kunta Kinte in Roots
, however, that will go down in history. In 1977, Roots
broke viewing records as America tuned in to watch what is still the No. 1 miniseries of all time. Based on Alex Haley's novel about his ancestor, who was taken from his homeland in Africa and forced into slavery in the U.S., Roots
opened a dialogue about race in America and sparked a fervent interest in genealogy. TVGuide.com spoke with Amos about the May 22 release of the 30th-anniversary special-edition Roots
DVD — and the work he's doing to continue its legacy.
TVGuide.com: You started out as a comedy writer and moved into acting with a recurring role as Gordy the weatherman on Mary Tyler Moore. From there it was James Evans on Good Times, then Kunta Kinte in Roots, and now, 30 years later, you're still on television in Men in Trees. You've had great longevity in this industry.
John Amos: I've been blessed, I tell you.
TVGuide.com: What would you consider your favorite role?
Amos: For me it falls into two genres, of comedy and drama. From a comedic standpoint, I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed being the dad on Good Times. And in film, of course, I loved the role of McDowell in Coming to America. It allowed me to work with a true comedic acting icon, Eddie Murphy. In terms of drama, more recently of course, it's Admiral Percy Fitzwallace on The West Wing. But it goes without saying that I am very, very proud to have been part of the Roots ensemble. Because of the writing and the passion of Alex Haley, I was able to enjoy something the likes of which I'll probably never get to do again in my career. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Louis Gossett Jr. and so many other incredible actors in that project. This was the kind of project that you would do for free. In fact, you would pay to be involved in it.
TVGuide.com: With the release of Roots' 30th-anniversary DVD, and it being introduced to a whole new generation, what do you think its impact will be this time around?
Amos: I'm sure if a concerted effort were made on the part of a network to publicize and promote the fact that it was being reaired again in conjunction with the 30th anniversary, it would generate tremendous numbers. I don't know if the numbers would be comparable to what they were when Roots became the most-watched television show in the history of the medium. It is a different world now and it's a different mindset, and since the material has been covered — not to the depth that it should, but to some degree — I'm not sure that it would attract the same interest or the same numbers.
TVGuide.com: When you were on Good Times, you fought with the producers over the portrayal of the characters on the show. Nowadays, do you see the same commitment from actors to quality programming?
Amos: I think so. I would hate to hold my own show up as an example, but I'm grateful to be working with the likes of [Men in Trees creator] Jenny Bicks, along with [executive producer] James Mangold. We're dealing with interracial relationships and multicultural diversity without putting a label on it. On the show, Lauren Tom, a wonderful Chinese actress, plays my wife, Mai. At one point it's made clear to the audience that I have had a relationship that resulted in the birth of Patrick (Derek Richardson), whose own mother describes him as as white as cottage cheese. Nevertheless, he's still my son. I'd like to think we're making an eloquent statement without actually making the statement or beating anybody over the head with a message.
TVGuide.com: You and Derek have great chemistry on the show. Do you enjoy working with him?
Amos: Yes. I enjoy working with the entire cast, but I particularly enjoy working with Derek because he's my son on the show and in real life my family is interracial. Both my children, K. C. and Shannon, are multiracial.
TVGuide.com: K. C. was nominated for a Grammy for directing the country-music video "Where'd You Hide the Body?" I understand that you are working on a country-music album of your own?
Amos: Yes, I'm working with Gene Cash of the late Johnny Cash's family. I just came back from Nashville where we laid down three tracks. I intend to donate the proceeds from the sale of the album, at least in part, to the Katrina victims, which is what prompted me to want to do a country album. I've always loved country music because it's basically storytelling. As an actor, that's what I've been doing on stage for the last 15 years, particularly with my one-man show Halley's Comet. So to be able to do so with music is very exciting.
TVGuide.com: You are also directing a documentary for Amistad America, which has built a replica of the original slave ship Amistad, upon which would-be slaves revolted against their captors. Will you be aboard when it sails to England to commemorate the act of Parliament that abolished the slave trade in 1807?
Amos: Yes, it's going to be very exciting and schoolchildren will be able to take a virtual passage with the Amistad as it makes its way to England and then subsequently to the slave ports along the African coast. It's an incredible educational opportunity for our younger people around the world who need to know the history of slavery. The legacy of Roots, as initiated by Alex Haley's incredible and incomparable novel, was perpetuated to some degree by the miniseries, but that legacy needs to be continued and refortified.
TVGuide.com: Have you always been an activist?
Amos: I'd like to think I've been an activist. When I came out of college, I went to work, I guess, in the form of an activist. I took my degree in sociology and my job was to try to acquire pretrial freedom for indigent defendants. It was almost a joke. The judge would be picking out his lunch from the Chinese restaurant menu while he was interviewing defendants. I knew then that the judicial system was a little bit askew. I made up my mind to be involved in projects that could possibly correct the system once I got into the entertainment industry. And when Roots afforded me that chance in the form of the character of Kunta Kinte, it gave me an opportunity to present a side of the story of slavery that this country and the world had never seen before.
TVGuide.com: So it's important to you to infuse a certain level of integrity into your work?
Amos: I've tried. With the reality shows, it seems like the public has an insatiable taste for the tasteless, if you follow my drift. I don't know if I'd want to take on the battles that I did when I was first starting my career.
TVGuide.com: You're not a fan of reality television, huh?
Amos: I can't say that I am. I understand the economics of it, which dictates that the networks try to satisfy the bottom line for the bean counters. But by the same token, when Paris Hilton is elevated to iconic status and her behavior is being emulated by young people, it's time for somebody to get kicked in the ass!
TVGuide.com: Is there anything that you haven't tackled yet that you'd like to do?
Amos: With the chance to direct this upcoming project for Amistad America, I think I'll pretty much have accomplished most of my creative objectives.
TVGuide.com: Between Men in Trees, your one-man show and the Amistad project, you sound extremely busy. When do you get a moment to rest?
Amos: Well, I make time to rest. Rest for me is to sit down on a boat in La Paz, Mexico, or to cast off, get out past the breakwater. Then there are no phones, no autographs, no fans — unless they can swim out eight or nine knots! The opportunities to rest don't come that frequently, but I'd much rather be busy. It makes life more interesting.
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