John Amos looks back on The West Wing: 'I don't think I could have enjoyed myself more'
For 50 years, John Amos has been gracing screens big and small, toggling between comedy and drama with an admired aplomb. His gallery of characters is varied and deep: Lovable weatherman Gordy Howard on the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show; hard-working but financially struggling dad James Evans on Good Times; the adult version of captured slave Kunta Kinte in Roots; and McDowell’s owner Cleo McDowell in Coming to America, among many others.
One character continues to stand out for the beloved actor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, or Fitz, on The West Wing. Amos appeared in 22 episodes of the NBC drama giving straight shooter advice to President Barlet (Martin Sheen) and Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and sparring with National Security Adviser Nancy McNally (Anna Deavere Smith).
Amos, 80, recalls that one of the best perks of his West Wing tenure was meeting former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “When I went into his office, his secretary came up and said, ‘You know, Mr. Powell is a big fan of yours, he enjoys the program very much,’” he recalls. “And that was gratifying to know. But when I walked into his office, he said, ‘Let me call up my wife. She’s not going to believe who’s here.’ I was just taken aback. I didn’t believe I could have that much impact on somebody of his stature. It was a wonderful meeting. And I got to really, really appreciate the man.”
We caught up with the Emmy-nominated Newark native for a chat as part of our West Wing reunion and chatted about his love of his costars, his return in the Coming to America sequel, and his short-lived country music career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your experience like on The West Wing?
JOHN AMOS: I don't think I could have enjoyed myself more on any show, including the series that I was a regular on. This was probably some of the finest writing that I'd ever had a chance to participate in, or have words to say. Aaron Sorkin was a superb, superb producer. And he gave us scripts and storylines that I never thought, as an actor, I'd have an opportunity to do. They were magnificent. And then the cast was just incredible with Martin Sheen and so many other wonderful actors. The entire project was quality top to bottom. So, I immensely enjoyed that.
Fitz was normally involved in very serious storylines in the Situation Room but he also got to have his moments of levity, since Sorkin was so good at recognizing that there's humor even in tense situations. Is there a particular episode or scene that has stuck with you over the years?
Well, they were all so good. It'd be hard to separate one from the other, but yeah, there were a couple that had a little bit more gravitas. I guess it would be when the president ordered a hit on some of our adversaries in other countries. It was a very serious moment. And I acknowledged it for what it was, he was making a life or death decision on some of our nation’s enemies.
Aaron Sorkin is probably the best writer that's ever come across the tube in terms of television drama. Norman Lear holds that place in my heart for the sitcoms [like Good Times] that he developed because of the serious subject matter.
And Mr. Sheen was often a scene partner for you, and you guys are truly contemporaries, the same age with long and varied careers…
I enjoyed working with him immensely. And I had the chance to share with him that I had seen just about every project he'd ever been involved with as an actor. And I recalled some of the scenes I'd seen in some of his earlier movies and he was taken aback. He said, "You even remember the dialogue?" And I said, "Of course I do." I mean, I was sitting there in the movie theater watching Martin Sheen, how could I help but remember it? So we had a wonderful relationship as well.
You’ve played many memorable characters do you find that fans bring up Fitz when they talk to you?
Some people who are a little more politically astute than others, will ask me about The West Wing and then everybody's got their favorites as regards to some of the work I've done through the course of my career. But I'm always overjoyed when people do ask me.
I know it sounds superficial, but I loved the uniform. I was a member of the New Jersey state National Guard at a very early age. I've always had a great deal of admiration for those men and women that serve. So, to play the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and to wear all that brass, it was like heaven.
Finally, my most important question for you: Are you still a hippie?
Am I still a hippie?
You recorded a country album in the mid-2000s and on that album’s title song “We Were Hippies” you proclaimed “When I get to be 93, you can bet I'm still going to be a hippie."
Oh. Oh. [Laughs. Hard.] That recording. I'm surprised you were able to get through it. I haven't hit 93 yet, so we'll have to wait a few years for that. So far, so good.
What was the inspiration for your country music career?
Well, I like to sing for my own amusement and I was able to meet Gene Cash, who is the cousin of the late Johnny Cash and we got to talking and I said, "Well, why don't I try a couple of songs?" And I did. And he arranged for it at his studio. And that's what came out of it. It didn't go platinum. I don’t even think it went cardboard. [Laughs] But I enjoyed it, that's the main thing.
Finally, will you be involved with the Coming to America sequel?
Most definitely. I shot down in Atlanta at the Tyler Perry Studios. To work with Eddie Murphy again, as well as Arsenio [Hall] and so many other younger, unknown faces. It was a joy. It was like my career had come full circle just to work with Eddie again, in what was an incredibly successful film. Whether or not Coming 2 America will be as successful remains to be seen, but we've got some wonderful actors in it and some interesting storyline twists.
Do you ever look back on your career and think, “Damn, I did that!”?
Yeah. I look back sometimes, but I don't want to look too far back because something might be gaining on you. [Laughs]
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