From Shakespeare to sitcoms, actor Frankie Faison has done it all. He has appeared in hundreds of roles from college stage productions to Hollywood blockbusters, from small parts to co-starring roles. "As an actor I live a life of ups and downs, highs and lows, feast or famine," he told graduates at the 2002 commencement of his alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan University. "But when you remember who you are and where you came from, you are prepared to live in dignity as you experience [life's] ups and downs."
Faison came from Newport News, Virginia, where he was born in 1949. He always loved to entertain an audience, and at the city's Huntington High School he became known as the "most boisterous and class clown," a role, he said in his IWU commencement speech, that he would "learn to cherish." He began seriously to develop his performance talents at Illinois Wesleyan, where he earned a B.F.A. in 1971. There he appeared in several plays, remembering with particular fondness his portrayal of Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Faison went on to study acting at the graduate level at New York University, obtaining an M.F.A. in 1974.
While a graduate student, Faison began to appear in small roles on stage, taking his first role with the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1972. He went on to work with the company for several seasons through the 1970s. He also appeared in productions of the Negro Ensemble Company at St. Mark's Playhouse, as well as in several other off-Broadway productions. In 1986 he was cast as Gabriel in August Wilson's acclaimed drama, Fences, which was produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and then on Broadway in New York City. The experience, he explained in his commencement speech, was often difficult because he disagreed with many changes that the producer wanted to make concerning his character. Though he almost quit, Faison "fought and stood behind my convictions." In the end, he received a Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for his performance in the Broadway production.
In 1979 Faison landed his first television role in Hot Hero Sandwich, which aired for one season on NBC. Film roles followed, starting with the part of a gang member in the 1981 movie Ragtime. After appearing in small parts in several unremarkable films through the 19980s, Faison was cast as Coconut Sid in Spike Lee's landmark feature, Do The Right Thing, in 1989. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby hailed the film as "one terrific movie" that was unafraid to explore a "bitter racial confrontation" without any evasive posturing. The film tells the story of what happens on a hot summer day when a Brooklyn man decides to boycott the local pizzeria because, while it features numerous photos of Italian American celebrities, it does not include any photographs of African Americans—who comprise most of the neighborhood population—on its walls. As Coconut Sid, Faison sits on a corner with two friends, commenting on the people and events around them in the manner of a Greek chorus. Though Faison's role was not prominent, it gave him the opportunity to work not only with Lee, but also with such esteemed actors as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
In 1991 Faison took his first co-starring role in television, playing one of the leads in Fox's True Colors. The sitcom, about a widowed black dentist married to a divorced white kindergarten teacher, was seen as a groundbreaking project because of its straightforward treatment of race. "I thought it was certainly about time that they started dealing with this subject," Faison commented to Los Angeles Times writer David Nicholson about his interest in the project. Though the program had the opportunity to dismantle stereotypes, it failed to achieve these goals and was not a critical success. Nicholson felt that True Colors "soft-pedaled" racial issues much of the time, and Boston Globe critic Ed Seigel panned the show, though he added that Faison "know[s] how to get the best out of [his] lines." The actor acknowledged to Nicholson that "we have sort of shied away from my vision of what this show was about" by making the characters just a typical sitcom family instead of confronting issues relating to race. Despite the show's emphasis on the normality of its family, however, it generated some controversy: Faison's co-star, Stephanie Faracy, even received a few death threats. True Colors ran for one season. Faison's other notable TV roles include Deputy Commissioner of Operations Ervin H. Burrell in HBO's edgy crime series The Wire.
While enjoying a busy television career, Faison also continued to appear regularly in films, including Coming to America, Mississippi Burning, City of Hope, The Thomas Crown Affair, Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, and more recently, White Chicks and The Cookout. He holds the distinction of having appeared in all three Hannibal Lecter movies: The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon. Though his films have sometimes failed to make a favorable impression on critics, several reviewers have noted that Faison brings his best to even minor roles: Boston Globe reviewer Michael Blowen, for example, dismissed Exterminator II as "just another urban psycho movie" but pointed out that Faison's "fine supporting performance" was the only worthy piece of acting in the film.
Commenting on his career in his IWU speech, Faison stated that "Far too often have I been accepted or rejected for work because of the color of my skin." Nevertheless, he has remained determined to seek the roles he wants despite such obstacles. "I have never thought of myself as a BLACK ACTOR," he insisted. "I have always thought of myself as an ACTOR first, BLACK second. In the same way I think of myself as a HUMAN BEING who happens to be black." Acknowledging to graduates that they, too, would encounter "this same kind of prejudice and ignorance," he encouraged them to "Judge fairly as you move through life…. Treat all people with the same respect with which you would want them to treat you."
The father of three daughters, Faison is married to Jane Mandel Faison and has served as a local spokesperson for the Organization for the Prevention of Child Abuse. In 2002 he received an honorary doctorate from Illinois Wesleyan University.
The Corner, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1972.
As You Like It, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1973.
Welcome to Black River, The Negro Ensemble Company, 1975.
Black Body Blues, The Negro Ensemble Company, 1978.
Coriolanus, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1978.
District Line, The Negro Ensemble Company, 1984.
Fences, The Negro Ensemble Company, 1986 and 1987.
The Shadow Box, Circle in the Square, 1994.
At a Glance …
Born Frank Russell Faison on June 10, 1949, in Newport News, VA; married Jane Mandel Faison, November 26, 1988; children: Blake, Amanda, Rachel. Education: Illinois Wesleyan University, BFA, 1971; New York University, MFA, 1974.
Career: Actor, 1972–.
Memberships: Screen Actors Guild; American Federation of TV and Radio, Actors Equity Association.
Awards: Audelco Award, 1989; honorary doctorate, Illinois Wesleyan University, 2002.
Addresses: Office—c/o Innovative Artists, Actor, 235 Park Ave S, New York, NY 10003.
Ragtime, Paramount, 1981.
Cat People, RKO Radio Pictures, 1982.
Exterminator II, Cannon, 1984.
Coming to America, Paramount, 1998.
Mississippi Burning, Orion, 1988.
Do the Right Thing, Universal, 1989.
City of Hope, Samuel Goldwyn, 1991.
The Thomas Crown Affair, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1999.
Hannibal, MCA/Universal, 2001.
Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, Sony Pictures Classics, 2001.
Gods and Generals, Warner Bros., 2003.
White Chicks, 2004.
The Cookout, 2004.
In Good Company, 2004.
Hot Hero Sandwich, NCB, 1979–1980.
True Colors, Fox, 1990–1991.
New York Undercover, Fox, 1995–1996.
The Wire, HBO, 2002.
Boston Globe, September 1, 1990, p. 9; April 17, 1996; February 21, 2003, p. C1; September 4, 2004, p. C4.
Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1991, p. 5; February 21, 2003, p. E6.
News From Illinois Wesleyan, May 5, 2002.
New York Times, September 4, 2004.
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