John Witherspoon was an comedian and actor who has performed in many television shows and films. Best known for his role as Willie Jones for the Friday series, Witherspoon has also starred in films such as Hollywood Shuffle and Boomerang.
Early Life and Career
Born John Weatherspoon in Detroit, Michigan, was born to the last name Weatherspoon but later changed it to Witherspoon. He also goes by the nicknames of Johnny Witherspoon and “mexico” John Witherspoon. John was one of 11 children. One of his older siblings, William Weatherspoon, went on to become a songwriter in Detroit for Motown Records and Hitsville, USA in the 1960's, best known for his work on the Jimmy Ruffin song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”
John is also related to singer Lamont Dozier, who was a songwriter and record producer well known for co-producing hits with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland , for acts such as Martha & the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Isley Brothers. John and his brother William grew up enjoying music. Young John continued his passion for music and learned how to play the trumpet and french Horn.
Also during his childhood, Witherspoon did occasional work as a model. During the 1960s and 1970s, Witherspoon began to pursue a career in comedy. During that time he began his stand up comedy career. While doing stand up comedy he made many friends in the business. This included actor Tim Reid (while he was working on the CBS-TV series WKRP in Cincinnati and The Richard Pryor Show), Robin Williams (also on The Richard Pryor Show), Jay Leno, and David Letterman.
Letterman and John became such good friends that Witherspoon asked Letterman to be the Godfather to both his children, John David and Alexander. Letterman would accept the privilege. Witherspoon’s stand up comedy career led to his comedic film career. His comical character was seen in his movies, TV shows, and now once again in his comedy tour. In 1988, he married Angela Robinson. They have two children, John David and Alexander.
John Witherspoon’s career as a stand up comedian made the transition into acting very easy. His first television appearance was on the 1970s CBS television series Barnaby Jones, which was about a father and daughter that ran a private detective and investigation firm in Los Angeles. In the episode he appeared in he played the role of a camp counselor for kids who are drug addicts. The episode he was in was also actor Sean Penn’s first acting job. Sean played the role of one of the kids that Witherspoon counseled in the camp.
After his appearance in Barnaby Jones, Witherspoon appeared in Good Times as a detective, What's Happening!! as a D.J., and The Incredible Hulk as Tom.
In 1977, Witherspoon became a regular on the series The Richard Pryor Show, an NBC American comedy series. This then led to his appearance in WKRP In Cincinnati in 1978. Witherspoon played the part of Detective Davies.
In 1981, he appeared in Hill Street Blues, an NBC police drama, as a businessman who tries to buy a hotdog from an undercover Detective Belker. In 1981, he had an appearance on L.A. Law, an NBC legal drama, in the episode “On Your Honor” as Mark Steadman.
In 1986, he was on the television series You Again? as Osborne.
Next, Witherspoon was seen on the critically-acclaimed but short-lived NBC series Frank's Place (1987). Also in 1987, he made a guest appearance on the NBC series 227, then finally late that year on the syndicated series What's Happening Now!. In 1988, John also would make appearances on two more popular NBC sitcoms, The Cosby Show and Amen.
Next came spots on 1993's Townsend Television (reuniting with Robert Townsend, who executive produced and starred in the series), Cosmic Slop (1994), and Murder Was The Case (1994) as a drunk. Also in 1994, Witherspoon was in the NBC’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air and on FOX-TV's Living Single (1997).
After this, John Witherspoon played his biggest role in a television series in the Wayans Bros (1995–1999). The series, which aired on the WB Network, starred Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans, who played brothers Shawn and Marlon Williams, and Witherspoon as their dad, John “Pops” Williams. In the first season, Shawn worked as a courier driver, while Marlon worked in his father's diner. The series was somewhat re-tooled starting in the second season, where Shawn and Marlon operated a newspaper stand in the lobby of a Manhattan office building, while Pops’ Diner was located in the same building, across the way.
The show aired for five seasons and now can be seen as re-runs on BET and MTV2. Also during that time, Witherspoon also found work on the Kids WB animation series Waynehead, which was about a young boy who grew up in poor in a Harlem neighborhood. The show was aired on Saturday mornings and was based on creator Damon Wayans's (brother of Shawn and Marlon) own life.
In 2003, Witherspoon made a showing on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, a reality television show that selected the comedian out of a group and gave him contract, in the Las Vegas finals. The show still airs today. Next in 2003, he was seen in The Proud Family, an animation that aired on Disney Channel, as Oran Jones in the episode “Adventures in Bebe Sitting.” Finally in 2003, he starred in the comedy show The Tracy Morgan Show as Spoon. Witherspoon was seen in all 18 episodes of the show.
In 2004, he made a guest appearance on the Disney Channel’s Kim Possible, which was an animation series about a teenage girl crime fighter who not only has to worrying about worldwide challenges but also family and school issues. He was the voice of Wayne, who was Wade’s uncle who was in the episode of rewriting history. Also in 2004, he was in Pryor Offenses, a television movie and played Willie the Wino.
In 2005, he was seen in the Comedy Central talk show Weekends at the D.L. where he played the character of Michael Johnson. The next year he was on another television movie called Thugaboo: A Miracle on D-Roc’s Street, a story about a group of kids who find the true meaning of Christmas. In the movie he plays Real Santa, a Christmas singer on the radio. John then appeared on The Super Rumble Mixshow in 2008.
His latest television appearance was in The Boondocks starred in a Final Destination spoof with Shane Dawson on YouTube.
John has made numerous noted film appearances, which began in such films as 1980's The Jazz Singer, the animated feature Kidnapped (1986), Ratboy (1986), and Bird (1988).
John got his big break though due to the film Hollywood Shuffle, directed by comedian/actor Robert Townsend. Set about an actor who has trouble landing it big in Hollywood due to the stereotypical roles because of his race, throughout the film many African American actors of Hollywood are seen, including John, who plays Mr. Jones. In the film, Witherspoon ad-libs most of his part.
That same year, Witherspoon was in the film I'm Gonna Git You Sucka directed and written by Keenan Ivory Wayans. The film is a blaxploitation parody that features many African American actors that were part of blaxploitation. The film is a urban war with a local crime lord, Mr. Big. In the film, John Witherspoon plays a Reverend.
Two years later in 1990, Witherspoon was in the New Line Cinema comedy House Party. The film is about a teen named Kid who wants to go to a house party. He is grounded due to getting into a fight and then sneaks out later only to get a lesson from a group of thugs at the party. In the film, Witherspoon plays Mr. Strickland.
In 1991, John appeared in the movie Talkin’ Dirty After Dark, which was written and directed by Topper Carew, which starred Martin Lawrence. That same year, Witherspoon was in the highly successful movie The Five Heartbeats which reunited him with Robert Townsend, who directed and also appeared in the film. The film follows the three decade career of a band called the The Five Heartbeats. In the film, Witherspoon plays Wild Rudy, a local area R&B station disc jockey.
To start off 1992, John Witherspoon as in the movie Boomerang directed by Reginald Hudlin and starred Eddie Murphy. The film also starred Martin Lawrence and Halle Berry. The Film grossed $131 million.
Witherspoon plays the role of Mr. Jackson, Gerald Jackson’s father, and steals the spot light at the Thanksgiving dinner from other stars Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence with his quotes “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!” and “the secret is, you gotta coordinate!” when talking to Marcus about his relationship with a girl.
Just like in other movies Witherspoon is smacking his lips and licking his fingers in a certain way only he can do and is well known for. These two quotes are some of Witherspoon’s most famous. In the book Black Comedians on Black Comedy, by Darryl Littleton, Witherspoon is described as “when you mention John Witherspoon everybody says, ‘Bang, bang, bang!’”
In the 1993 superhero film, The Meteor Man which was directed, written and starred Robert Townsend, Witherspoon stars as Clarence James Carter III. Later that year, Witherspoon had a role in the film Fatal Instinct directed by Carl Reiner. The movie was making fun of erotic thrillers, which at the time were very popular. In the film Witherspoon plays Arch.
Two years later in 1995, one of John’s biggest years, he played the role Silas Green in the horror comedy Vampire in Brooklyn directed by Wes Craven and starred Eddie Murphy. Silas Green was ship inspector and the uncle to Julius Jones. In the beginning of the movie, Silas inspects and abandoned ship that crashed in Brooklyn to find that it is full of corpses. The film did alright in box offices but did not fare well with critics.
Next was what is arguably John’s most well known film appearance as Mr. Willie Jones, a dog catcher, in the 1995 box office hit Friday directed by F. Gary Gray, which was the first of a franchise of three films in total, which included Next Friday, and Friday After Next.
Castmate Anna Maria Horsford also appeared in all of the films as Mrs. Jones, Willie's wife and mother of the Craig character. The first movie was a star vehicle for Ice Cube, who appeared as Craig Jones, and Chris Tucker, as his weed smoking friend, Smokey. The film was a domestic success and would be followed up with two more sequels, which would feature comedian Mike Epps.
January 27, 1942
October 29, 2019
- Witherspoon worked on a Cadillac assembly line, modeled for the now-defunct J.L. Hudson's department store in the 1960s and began his comedy career in the city's club scene. He also loved music growing up in Detroit and played French horn and trumpet in school.
- One of 11 siblings, Witherspoon's brother, William Weatherspoon, a Motown songwriter, co-wrote the timeless classic “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted.” Another brother, Cato Weatherspoon, was a director for Detroit Public TV. His sister Gertrude Stacks is senior pastor of Detroit's Shalom Fellowship International church, and was an occasional topic of her brother's comedy.
- Although he deserved several major awards for his supporting acting, he never got an Emmy or an Emmy nomination.
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