Abbott Elementary Gave Me My Greatest Success, Four Decades Into My Career

7 minute read

On my second day in L.A., back in 1984, my car caught on fire and I lost everything. I could have turned around and bought a bus ticket home to St. Louis. Instead, I chose to stay and press on. Forty years later, I’m not only still in Los Angeles, but I've found myself at the Emmys as part of the cast of a nominated TV show.

Reaching the the Emmys was a feat: there was a maze of security, metal detectors, bomb- and COVID-19-sniffing dogs. But the bigger feat was the four decades of work it took to get there. As my shoes touched the red carpet, the cameras flashed, and people I had admired for years congratulated me, I was left looking back on how the hell I ended up there. At 72, while a lot of people my age are retiring, I feel like I’m just getting started.

Four decades earlier, when I was new to L.A. and truly just getting started, the Emmys were geographically close but in every other way a distant dream. Though I wanted to act, I had to take a lot of square jobs to get me through: working in a brick yard, as a short order cook in a truck stop, a telemarketer, limo driver, and even a country western DJ, often from 10 in the morning until 10 at night. It was a nightmare not to be able to pursue my dream.

Then I remembered the reason why I came to Los Angeles. I willed myself to pursue the craft of acting. I began booking small jobs on shows like The Bold and the Beautiful and The Practice. Eventually, I got a chance to audition for the sitcom Friends. I thought I knocked it out of the park. But when I called my agent for feedback, the phone went dead silent. He told me that the casting department thought my audition was so terrible, I should go back to being a telemarketer. My face dropped. My heart sank.

But I did not allow it to break me. It lit a fire instead. I was determined that no one would ever say that about my work again. I enrolled in classes, workshops, performed theater. When I was invited to become a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, I not only felt like a working actor, but that I belonged. In hindsight, that rejection was one of the best things to happen in my career—until I met Quinta Brunson.

Read more: 8 Shows to Watch After Abbott Elementary

Davis in the Season 3 premiere of Abbott ElementaryCourtesy of Disney

Long before I landed the role of a lifetime as Mr. Johnson, the custodian at Abbott Elementary School, my life was shaped by the real underpaid teachers at inner city schools in St. Louis—schools that, then as now, lacked equipment, supplies, and facilities. Like the teachers on Abbott Elementary, they would do anything to help their students succeed. Teachers like my Aunt Helen, one of my favorite humans, who also happened to be my third grade teacher, who grabbed me by my collar on the first day and let me know that there would be no messing around. She demanded excellence. She constantly reminded me of how smart I was. That was going to be my key to freedom.

Growing up in The Ville neighborhood in St. Louis, my community was full of Black cultural, civic, and business leaders: doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, and entrepreneurs. I never heard words like impossible, stopcan’t, or quit. I heard, you can. You must. Continue. I had been shielded from Jim Crow, from the realities of colored only movie theaters and restrooms. 

So it was a shock when, after leaving Lincoln University and working as the only Black man at a newspaper in Texas, on my second day on the job I found “KKK” and the N-word carved into my desk. I called my grandparents, who raised me, and told them, “I’m coming home.” My grandmother laughed. “Is that all? They didn’t carve ‘em in you?” After all she and my grandfather had lived through, she said: “We don’t let anybody block us, turn us back, or say we can’t.”

William Stanford Davis
The author as a younger man, working as a DJCourtesy of William Stanford Davis

That advice propelled me through so many hard years and to the day when, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, I put myself on tape in my own home to audition for the pilot of a new sitcom called Abbott Elementary. This was one of the darkest times in American history, defined by everything that was taken away from us. But that’s when one of the greatest events of my life happened–and I do mean the greatest. The pandemic took so much from everyone, but it gave so much to me. A few weeks after sending in my taped audition, I booked the part of Mr. Johnson, though because it was just a guest role, I thought it was just going to be a day or two of my life.

When the day came to film the pilot, there was a scene with all the teachers in the library: Jeanine (Quinta Brunson), Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), Gregory (Tyler James Williams), Principal Ava (Janelle James), Melissa (Lisa Ann Walters), and Jacob (Chris Perfetti). I was standing in the far back behind all of them. I couldn’t hear the cues. And every actor knows your job as a guest star is to hit your mark, say your line, and stay out of the way. Do your job. Don’t knock over the furniture, and go home. You're a guest in someone else’s house.

I asked a PA to give me the cue, and I yelled out my line: “She’s got some big feet!” The other actors hadn’t even realized I was there; they all broke immediately and looked back at me. It was as if, in that moment, after 40 years of struggle, people were finally taking notice. I knew from making the pilot that it was going to be a memorable show. But once I saw the trailer, I could sense even more that this was different. Whether or not I would be coming back to feel that feeling again was still unknown to me.

But then they asked me back. First for two episodes, then three, then four. Toward the end of filming season one, Quinta mentioned they were considering making me a series regular. Every actor is superstitious, so I didn’t want to jinx it. I kept it under one of my hats until it came true. At the end of Season 1, I pulled Quinta aside, thanked her, and told her she had changed my life. 

Success is when preparedness and opportunity collide. To be successful at any age, but especially as the years go by, is to never give up. It is to believe, deep down, that something great is going to happen. To will it into existence. For me, success has been about the journey, not the destination, and knowing the universe always puts you exactly where you’re supposed to be. In my case: in a sage green uniform with a lanyard and a broom, sweeping up the linoleum floors of a Philadelphia elementary school.

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