Hollywood is a lot like the Lost City of Gold – a legendary place that many seek, but only a few find (and far fewer actually get to stay for any length of time). One of those lucky few is Orlando Jones, who studied at the College from 1985 to 1990. Jones saw that gleaming city hiding in plain sight and did what he always did: rolled up his sleeves, got serious and just went for it.
by Mark Berry
photography by Brownie Harris
Don’t let the beautiful weather deceive you on this mild Wednesday in April 1968. You don’t know it, but this is the season of assassinations. Just that previous Thursday, what seems like both a lifetime and a split second ago, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. shook the nation, sending shockwaves of dismay, fear and anger all the way to Mobile, Ala., where you’re being born right now.
Fortunately, your newborn cries lift the oppressive shadow of the moment. Your family sees hope, a ray of light in your large, bright eyes. But like most new parents, the Joneses are a little overwhelmed – and rightly so. In their quiet moments, they question what they’re doing bringing you, Orlando Jones, into a world – or a state, at least – that has been a battleground for the civil rights movement for more than a decade. What is your world going to look like? Better? Worse? It can’t be more Bull Connors, governors standing in schoolhouse doors, marathon marches, Bloody Sundays with fire hoses, teargas, police dogs and nightsticks. Aren’t we supposed to be sitting down together at the table of brotherhood, to be judged not by the color of our skin, but the content of our character? However, now, with the murder of King, who knows?
It’s in this period of unrest and struggle that you arrive. But where others might turn bitter and resentful, your family doesn’t. They focus on carving out lives of meaning in an imperfect world, and you see that early on. They teach you to endure and to make the most of any opportunity. Unlike many kids, you see a lot of the South and move frequently as your father climbs up the coaching ranks. From Mobile to Columbus, Ga., where your father is a basketball coach for an all-black high school, he lands an assistant coaching position at Furman University and later moves with the head coach to Tallahassee. From Florida State University, your father is hired to be the head coach at S.C. State, and you begin high school in Orangeburg.
Without having to say it, he teaches you by his own example to do what you love. It’s not about finding a job. Jobs are for those without imagination, without purpose. It’s about finding your passion. His are sports and teaching. That way, as he shows you, you’re never locked into a dead-end nine-to-fiver. You never get burned out. Rather, you’re always thinking about and doing what you love. That’s not working, that’s living.
And the moving around doesn’t bother you. You’ve always been outgoing, confident. You like meeting new people. You have a smile, everyone says, that rivals the sun and a natural way to make people laugh. Your family tells you that you remind them of your great-grandfather, The Mayor of Mobile. You know Great-Granddaddy wasn’t actually the mayor, but his personality was such that he never met a stranger. You enjoyed the times you got to spend with him, watching him make his rounds through the community, always jawing with somebody. You also learned, through him, to appreciate what the older generation had to go through. He was a bootleg taxi driver, because, by Alabama law, he could not hold a business license, and therefore, he could never charge a fare. When asked what was owed, he simply told his passenger, “Whatever you can give me.” Mobile wasn’t exactly New York City. He knew he was going to get paid something or that person would never get a ride again. More important, you sense that he is fulfilled, and his fulfillment doesn’t strike you as odd until you understand, many years later, how incredible that is for someone living in the Jim Crow era.
Basically, during the seventies, you’re an average American kid living an average American life. And perhaps that’s the truest realization of Dr. King’s dream. At 11, you see Star Wars for the first time. Your mom makes you go. You hear the title, and think, Wow, that’s lame. But once the movie starts and those large yellow words drift off into space, you get caught up in the story. When you walk out of the theater, like every other kid in America, you desperately need to own a light saber. You also start thinking about the Force and this idea that we are all connected and that we can be purveyors of good or evil. That’s a pretty big concept for an 11-year-old and one you can’t stop thinking about.
You start reading comic books – Batman, Superman, Spiderman. You’re not a collector. Keep that pristine copy and plastic sleeve to yourself, thank you very much. You’re a reader, someone who wants to absorb the over-the-top plots and colorful characters. You pass along everything you get, and your friends pass along whatever they have.
You do the same thing with your parents’ comedy albums. They are community property among your friends. You treat them like girly magazines. You hide away in a room where you’re not supposed to be, listen to the routines of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor and laugh yourself silly.
Your dad lands a job in Greenville, and you transfer to Mauldin High School. No sweat off your back. You play basketball, and you’re pretty good. An All-American kind of talent, if you say so yourself, but a knee injury slows you down and dampens your prospects. So, you also get involved with the speech and debate team, which is run by a small white lady with tall brown hair. You think the world of her – the first teacher you hear cuss. And not just a little, a lot. You see how some people play by the rules, play it safe. Not Gladys Robertson. Each day when you meet in sixth period, she’s there pushing you and everyone on that debate team to think on your feet and perform. She sees your potential and tells you that you can do great things with your mind. You start to understand how everything you are learning in school connects on some level as you prepare your arguments on unemployment and poverty – that year’s topics. Your team travels to debates in New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans, and you win the state championship your senior year and place in nationals. You’re an athlete and a scholar. You’re voted best dressed and serve as the voice of the Mauldin High Mavericks during homecoming (everyone’s always said you have a voice that can’t be ignored). In many ways, you are the complete package. And colleges take notice. Even Yale offers you a scholarship.
But Yale is still expensive – scholarship or not. Where was that money going to come from? Plus, on some level, you feel like going there would be cheating. You’ve now been around enough, traveled enough to see what the Ivy League types (or at least those destined for Harvard or Yale) are like. That’s not you. Not your game. You even tell a yearbook staff reporter, “They say the high school years are ‘the best years of their life’ because they never accomplish anything in college. I’d like to be an individual in college instead of just a number.”
And where can you go and not be just another number?
The College of Knowledge
You meet admissions counselor Otto German ’73 when he comes to your high school. He tells you about the College and its desire to attract more minority students. He tells you how he was one of the first blacks to integrate campus more than 15 years before and that if he could survive it, man, than anybody can survive it. That honesty impresses you. Plus, Charleston seems like a cool city, the campus is beautiful with those old buildings and Spanish moss that sparkles in the sun like tinsel, but, really, you just want to get out of the house, and the College is a good-enough fit.
What you don’t tell anyone is that college doesn’t really matter to you. You’ve been learning so much on your own – outside of your regular coursework – you can’t think that another classroom setting is going to be the difference in your success. You don’t want to sit through lectures and then regurgitate some facts and figures on a test. No, you think that the information you need is primarily in libraries and not sitting behind some pay wall. And last time you checked, the library was free. However, to make your parents happy, you’ll give it the old, college try (and you’re smart enough to get the irony, by the way).
You come to the College in the fall of 1985 at age 17. You realize that Mr. German was right. There aren’t a whole lot of people who look like you going to school here. But that’s OK. It’s cool. It’s not that you’re a chameleon, because you’re not. You don’t change colors to fit in – you’re always you – no matter the crowd. You discover that most people like that. And you figure out that you don’t want to claim one clique, because that means you “unclaim” another, and that’s not your style because you don’t want to miss out on anyone, anything.
You move seamlessly – it seems to most everyone on campus – from the basketball players, to the nerds, to the theatre rats, to the frat brothers. You take to heart the story the Mayor of Mobile told you about how to carry yourself. The story goes something like this: Sir Winston Churchill is walking down the street with one of his trusted advisers. Coming toward them is a lady of ill repute. As she walks by, Churchill tips his hat to her. After she passes, his adviser, incredulous at this display of civility to a prostitute, questions the prime minister on his intentions. Churchill replies: “I tip my hat because of who I am, not because of who she is.” This becomes your point of view – and how you can take control of any situation. You act and don’t react. You’re going to tip your hat.
Despite your general affability to everyone, you do, however, carry a slight chip on your shoulder. You declare yourself a chemistry major, but you hate taking the introductory courses. You feel like you’re just repeating your senior year of high school. But the department has its requirements and you have to take them. So, you don’t put in the work, and your grades show it.
You also get ticked off at the cost of books. When asked about the bookstore by the staff of The Meteor (the student newspaper), you reply (in all sincerity): “I think that is one of the most ridiculous misappropriation of funds in the state.” You’re fuming that you have to pay $300 that first semester in books. You aren’t actually against the bookstore, but you feel it’s a little too much about commerce and not about education – especially in light of some of the books being out-of-date and out-of-touch with current knowledge.
But you do love your political science classes. And you really enjoy Professors Doug Friedman and Jack Parson. These cats know a thing or two about international relations, Cuba and Botswana, respectively. You get picked to participate in Parson’s Model African Union and you partner with Jackson Davis ’90 and Jamie Moon ’90. You guys are the “Unholy Triumvirate” as you prepare like mad in representing South Africa’s African National Congress. You study the country’s many challenges, go beyond the headlines because you want to be genuine and accurate in your case against apartheid. In your afternoon workshops, Parson and the rest of the students in Applied International Diplomacy tear apart your language and arguments. It’s not fun being questioned on your ideas and interpretation of the ANC, having to defend every line of text, but you see how taking their criticisms can better the final product. It’s nothing personal. And you observe that not everyone can take that kind of critique without feeling defeated.
You leave for Washington, D.C., packed tight in a van, you sitting up front, tasked with keeping Parson awake as he drives through the night. You arrive at Howard University, where the students have barricaded themselves in the main administration building in an effort to get Lee Atwater, then chairman of the Republican National Committee and a South Carolina native, to resign from their Board of Trustees. It’s a politically charged environment and one that makes the model union seem even more relevant in preparing students for the world. You, Davis and Moon impress the other delegations with your thoughtful resolutions and discussions, so much so that you are elected secretary general for the next year.
You enjoy the political scene. You even like learning the nuances of parliamentary procedure while preparing for next year’s model union. If you listen to the whispers of others, you might be tempted a little to think about a life in politics, but you dismiss it because it takes away from your real goal, your real purpose, your true passion: storytelling.
Your freshman year you wander over to the fine arts department (a precursor of today’s theatre department). In tryouts, everyone seems to take note of you. You get cast as a guard in Tina Howe’s Museum, a farcical play critiquing the art world. Several people take you aside and tell you that you stole the show, that you had a physical understanding of the stage and rapport with the audience beyond your years. Even a future Emmy Award–winning actress thinks you’re good. Carrie Preston (later of True Blood and The Good Wife fame), one of the leads in this ensemble cast, can’t believe that she hasn’t seen you before. She thinks you’re hilarious and questions the other actors why they don’t know you. You take the compliments in stride, but you want something with more meat.
Well, you get a lot more meat with the College’s production of Home, in which you are cast as the lead along with Alanna Johnson Steaple ’89. You have great chemistry on stage, and you help her find herself in the role. You love the immediacy of live performance. The rush. The daredevil act without a net. And you love how the stage creates this transformative moment in time – with its ability to inspire, to entertain, to communicate emotion. But while you were jazzed about this opportunity, you also take note that a bunch of other people in the department have done multiple performances – and as a black male in a predominantly white school, you know your chances and choices are going to be limited. Sure, you can do Othello (and you will), but what else? You want to be a bigger fish in a bigger pond.
That opportunity to be a bigger fish comes to you in an unlikely place. One of your favorite professors is Shirley Moore, who teaches communication. Like Mrs. Robertson, Moore just gets you. You are taking her COMM 211 Oral Interpretation, in which you write a monologue and perform it in public. Moore has heard that a Hollywood director is in town and invites him to teach a master class on auditioning and to give some pointers about the business side of entertainment. She tells you that you’re going to con this guy and get your ticket to Hollywood. And she’s going to make it happen. You agree and promptly forget about it. In fact, a few days later, you’re on your way to the gym to play basketball and cut class when she reminds you that this director is coming today.
You walk in and you see Paul Aaron sitting there. He has this booming voice – a voice that sounds like Rolexes, infinity pools and sports cars. This guy has directed Glenn Close, Mandy Patinkin and Chuck Norris. Moore asks if any of the students are interested in being critiqued by this Hollywood director, and you, alone, raise your hand. You turn to Aaron and say that before you do your audition, you need to share something, and you tell him about Chad:
I had a neighbor named Chad, and we used to play in this creek in my backyard. We used to swim through there and catch tadpoles and minnows with breadcrumbs wound up in little balls that we put on a string. I came down to play one day, and I was looking for Chad, and he wasn’t there. I went up to his house and knocked on the door and asked his mom where he was. He wasn’t in the house, but he was outside, she said. So, I got on my bike and rode around the neighborhood to see where he was so we could go in the backyard and play. I couldn’t find him anywhere, and when I went back down to the backyard, I thought I saw a body floating in the water – trapped underneath this tree. When I got down close to it, I realized it was Chad. Something had happened and he had drowned in the water. He was dead. The hardest thing to do at that moment was … how do you tell somebody’s mother that their kid, you know, is dead in the backyard? It was a long, surreal walk to get to his mom’s house – it was a hard thing to deal with.
Tears stream down both cheeks and you choke back quiet sobs. Aaron is smiling. For the first two minutes, he’s been wrapped in the story, nodding his head along, and then he realizes that this is your monologue. You don’t need a handshake – you have the power of story going for you. And he is impressed. He sees that you have talent and tells you that if you want to talk, you can meet him for breakfast the next day at the Francis Marion Hotel.
At breakfast the next day, as you’re eating grits and biscuits, you listen intently to his advice. He tells you about the differences between actors and personalities. And more important, he tells you to look him up if you come out to Los Angeles.
During this time, you have a lot of irons in the fire. After having consulted with a Columbia, S.C., ad agency your freshman year (they were working on a youth minority campaign for the state and needed an African American perspective), you actually start your own ad agency (Homeboy Productions) and successfully pitch commercial work with Food Lion, a local Mazda dealership and the S.C. Credit Union. You also do political ads for the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign in South Carolina.
While working as a doorman at the Omni Hotel at Charleston Place, you pick up the trade papers – Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. You answer different ads in the back, sending jokes to the late-night shows. The catch is that your submissions have to come from an agent or lawyer. You ask a local attorney for help, but he will only do it for $250. You don’t have $250, so you create your own letterhead and sign it, “Herman P. Stinklemeyer, Esquire” – an homage to a Johnny Carson character. You get a lot of rejection letters, but you remain undeterred.
When you audition for The Return of Swamp Thing (which is being filmed in Hilton Head and Savannah), the casting directors tell you that you aren’t a good fit, but they may have another role in mind for you – playing Barry Sobel’s roommate on 227. You get flown out to L.A., and while you are there, you call your most recent acquaintance, Paul Aaron. He then introduces you to one of his colleagues, Erwin Stoff (who will later be executive producer of The Matrix and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), and he asks you to send him a spec script for the short-lived show Homeroom, starring Darryl Sivad.
That show is cancelled after only airing 10 episodes, but your spec script is sent over to the writers of Bill Cosby’s A Different World, and they like it. Next thing you know, you are back on an airplane, trading East Coast sunrises for West Coast sunsets.
A Star Rising
You get picked up at the airport. You’ve only brought clothes and a bike. You crash at a guy’s apartment for a little while and sleep in his chair. (The couch isn’t available.) Then you stay at another guy’s apartment and sleep on his living room floor. (He doesn’t have furniture.) You finally get an apartment of your own across from the studio and walk to work every day.
Paul Aaron had warned you about the sitcom writing room. If you thought you were hot stuff before, forget about it. You are not going to impress anybody in the room. These people are funny for a living – all day, every day. You best sit there and listen.
This is when you come to understand the longstanding tradition of master and apprentice. You watch and study how the other writers pitch jokes and scenarios. You don’t take it personally – when someone slaps down one of your ideas. You remember that feeling in Parson’s model union afternoon workshops, so you’re good with it. You learn that what’s funny coming out of your mouth isn’t funny coming out of someone else’s. You learn that you’re not writing for your own ear. And you’re actually not writing for a particular actor, either. Rather, you’re writing for the show runner and how that person would write it. Your job is to become part of the show runner’s brain. Show runners don’t have time to write. They only have time to polish.
Plain and simple, no one is giving you a road map. In fact, the road map is different for everyone in the room. You have to study tape and watch back episodes and figure it out. And there is no time to be overwhelmed. It’s like in basketball: When you step up to the free throw line with the game hanging in the balance, you don’t think about missing the shot. You just go up there and do it. If you miss, you do everything in your power to make sure you don’t mess up again – and no one cares how long it takes for you to rehearse, how long you have to work on your own time – you do what you have to do. Or, you better pack up those few belongings and head back home.
Once you acclimate and absorb some of these tough lessons in your apprenticeship, you find that you actually get the hang of it. You like it. You get the main writing credit for two shows that air in spring 1991. In “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Sinbad’s final episode on the show, you pen the memorable closing line spoken by Sinbad’s character, Walter Oaks, who is imploring another character not to drop out of college: “When you get your degree, it’s a different world out there.” Although you don’t believe it for yourself, you know that’s a line the show runner would have loved to have written. You are an apprentice no longer.
What happens next for you is the insane, explosive ride that is Hollywood. There are many highs, many lows. Many starts, many stops. You write successful pilots, become the executive writer on different shows, are handpicked by Quincy Jones to be on MadTV (both as a writer and original cast member), break into film as an actor and help pen one of the most amazing and well-received soft drink campaigns in television history (Make 7-Up Yours). But you also work on shows that never see the light of day or are cancelled, you find yourself on the cutting room floor when a film comes out, you get bad reviews as well as being in movies that tank at the box office. You realize that you work just as hard on stuff that people hate as you do on stuff that people love. There is no formula. Some things just resonate. Go figure.
Yet, through it all, you’re still not satisfied. Not one bit. You like some of your work, but you don’t feel like you’ve hit your mark yet. And that’s OK. It pushes you to be better. Always better. Perfecting the smallest nuance of a character, like you do on Fox’s hit show Sleepy Hollow. That drive to be better also inspires you to create a character that you can fully possess, which you do in Tainted Love, one of your latest and perhaps most innovative projects to date. It’s a graphic novel–style, live-action drama that you wrote and star in, which you’re releasing free online in five-minute episodes. In that vein, you embrace new technology, whether it’s social media or online video, because even if the medium changes, the basic premise of entertainment does not. People want story. And that’s what you love.
And you realize that it’s all really just the same thing you did standing there with Paul Aaron in Shirley Moore’s class. You knew then – and know even better now – that when you get up in front of an audience and ask for their attention, you better deliver something worth their time. You don’t complicate it. You need to be compelling. You need to evoke emotion and just tell a good story. Lucky for everyone, you always do.