Morton, Joe 1947–
Joe Morton 1947–
A Turn in the Director’s Chair
Joe Morton has been working steadily—very steadily— as an actor since the late 1960s. At one point in his career, he estimated that he had been out of work for perhaps 12 months out of 20 years. Of his many stage, screen, and television performances, he is perhaps best remembered as the Brother in The Brother From Another Pìanet, a 1984 John Sayles film. This is Morton’s favorite role, as a mute black alien who appears in Harlem. More typically, however, the actor is cast as “smart men with stability to spare,” as Felicia R. Lee remarked in the New York Times. Morton’s professional interests also include producing films and directing for stage and television.
Morton spent his early childhood in Europe where his father was stationed as an army intelligence officer. His father was killed in Germany under suspicious circumstances while working on an assignment to integrate U.S. armed forces in Europe. In a Premiere interview Morton theorized that “he was causing too many waves in terms of trying to put forward this idea of black officers. He just got to be a burr under somebody’s saddle, and they shot him.” Morton returned to the United States with his mother, to live in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem. The children in his new neighborhood picked on the serious boy with a foreign accent. The experience led Morton to comment in the New York Times, “Race prejudice has nothing to do with color. It has to do with being the stranger.”
Unhappy in Harlem, Morton went to school at a military academy in Newburgh, New York; he continued his education at Hofstra University where he was the only black student in the Drama Department. After beginning his acting career in off-Broadway productions, Morton was cast in several Broadway musicals. In 1974 he appeared in Raisin, a performance that garnered him a Tony nomination and a Theatre World award. Morton then began working on soap operas—including twin parts on Another World.
Landed Notable Film Role
A film role, however, gave Morton his greatest public exposure when he starred in The Brother from Another Planet. This quirky, low-budget, independent film by director John Sayles gave Morton the part of a lifetime, as a dread-locked, three-toed, black alien who lands in Harlem while trying to flee bounty hunters from his home planet where he was a slave. Commenting on his appearance in the film, the actor said in Essence, “I’d love to keep my hair in dreads, but I’d be sitting home unemployed.” But if Morton’s hair style has changed since the 1984 film, his fine acting has been a constant. Reviewer Vincent Canby noted in the New York Times, “Among the good things in [the film] is Joe Morton’s sweet, wise, unaggressive performance as the often bewildered Brother.” Likewise, Peter Travers said in People that “the star spot belongs to Morton. He
At a Glance…
Born October 18, 1947 in New York City; son of: Joseph T. (a captain in the U.S. Army) and Evelyn: Morton; married Nora Chavooshian (a sculptor and production designer); children: Hopi, Ara, and Seta. Education: studied drama at Hofstra University. Personal interests: magic, singing, and playing blues guitar.
Career: Actor and director. Stage appearances include off-Broadway A Month of Sundays, 1968; on Broadway Hair and Salvation, 1969; Charlie Was Here and Now He’s Gone, 1971; Two If By Sea, 1972; Honky Tonk Nights, 1986; King John, 1988; Elektra, 1988; Crumbs from the Table of Joy, 1995; film appearances include Between the Lines, 1977; And Justice for All, 1979; the ; Killing Hour, 1981; The Brother From Another Planet, 1984; The Good Mother, 1988; Tap, 1989; City of A Hope, 1991; Of Mice and Men, 1992; Forever Young, 1992; Terminator 2, 1992; The Inkwell, 1994; in the Hands of the Enemy, 1994; Speech 1994; Executive Decision, 1996; Lone Star, 1996; Blues Brothers 2000, 1998; television appearances include Feeling Good, J 1974-75; Watch Watch Your Mouth, 1978; Equal Justice 1990; A Different World, 1991-92; Tribeca, 1993; NewYork News, 1995; Under One Roof, 1995; Dellaventura, 1997; Prince Street, 1997; daytime television appearances include Another World and Search for Tomorrow; television movies This Man Stands Atone, 1979; Death Penalty, 1980; A Good Sport, 1984; Alone in the Neon Jungle, 1988; Burnout, 1988; Terrorist on ;4 Trial: The United States versus Salim Ajami, 1988; Howard Beach: Making the Case for Murder, 1989; Legacy of Lies, 1992; In the Shadow of Evi1, 1995; Miss E vers’ Boys, 1997; director of stage plays including The Heliotrope Bouquet and Crumbs from the Table of Joy.
Awards: Theatre World Award, Best Actor in a Musical, for Raisin, 1974; nomination for Antoinette Perry Award, Best Actor in a Musical, for Raisin 1974.
Addresses: Home—Essex County, New Jersey. Agents ; c/oCindy Alexander, Select Artists, 337 W. 43rd St. Suite 1B, New York, NY 10036.
wordlessly provides the film with its center and its remarkable poignancy. Brother lacks special effects, but it has real voltage, the kind that keeps you energized long after you’ve left the theater.”
Subsequently, Morton acted in two other Sayles projects, City of Hope (1991) and Lone Star (1996). While the second of these films offered the actor a far smaller role as army general Delmore Payne, it was a notable contribution to an ensemble performance. A subplot concerning Payne’s long-standing estrangement with his father and his inability to explain the situation to his own son, are woven into a larger story concerning racism and abuse of power in a small Texas town. Morton was included in Richard Alleva’s praise for Lone Star in Commonweal, when the reviewer commented, “there has never been a better acted John Sayles movie.” He also remarked, “Joe Morton gives [his character] just proportions of resentment, vulnerability, and military spruceness, all underpinned by irreducible decency.” As Morton noted in the New York Amsterdam News, the role of a military man who had an excellent career but a rocky family life was familiar to him. “I could understand exactly where his son in the film was coming from because I knew these career military guys,” he said.
Morton has had supporting roles in a number of box office smashes, including Speed and Terminator 2 In 1997, however, he took part in a rare lemon, Blues Brothers 2000 Made some 18 years after the classic John Belushi-Dan Ackroyd original Blues Brothers, the film was panned by critics such as Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly He commented, “In an unfortunate subplot, the talented Joe Morton is on hand as an uptight military officer who undergoes a heavenly conversion and becomes the band’s first black frontman. The movie seems to be saying that he’s not really black until he throws off his uniform and moves his happy feet.” But Morton seems to be philosophical about such episodes in his career. When he played a far smaller role in the Speed sequel he smirked in the Boston Herald, “I’m putting away money for college,” referring to his two young children.
A Relative Unknown
In 1990 Essence writer Deborah Gregory declared, “Morton is a mighty chameleon on the rise” but also noted that “with a dozen films… several soaps and more than 20 plays to his credit, Morton is still a virtual unknown.” Indeed, the actor has most often played smallish roles in films and has appeared in a number of ambitious but short-lived television series. Falling into this second category are credits for Equal Justice, Tribeca, and Under One Roof Morton’s strategy in trying to land plum roles is often to audition for parts that are not identified as black in the original script. As he explained in The New York Times, “My category is ’that guy who happens to be black.’”
For the 1990 series Equal Justice, Morton convinced producers to cast him in the part of the district attorney originally named “Michael Corelli” and who became “Michael James.” In 1993 he played a New York cop as one of two regular cast members in the drama Tribeca This series was described by Matt Roush in USA Today as “a rare showcase for bold personal vision and unfetered performances, harking back to a ’Golden Age’ of intimate TV drama.” In a departure from his “happens to be black” roles, the 1995 family drama Under One Roof found Morton playing a Marine who has returned to the United States to live in a duplex adjacent to his parents—with his father played by James Earl Jones. New York Times reviewer John J. O’Connor called the series “the best new family drama of the season” and noted “commercial television has rarely done this sort of family entertainment better.”
Also in the pursuit of the best roles, Morton has not hesitated to play an unsympathetic character. Jon Sil-berg noted in American Film: “[Morton] doesn’t mind playing a bad guy if the character has redeeming qualities … but he still wants to avoid the most obvious kind of typecasting.” In the 1997 HBO Film Miss Evers’ Boys, Morton played Dr. Brodus, a fictional physician who takes part in experiments on black men who have syphilis. The film dramatizes real events known as the Tuskegee experiments. Morton discussed common misconceptions about the experiments—the men were not purposefully given the disease but were allowed to suffer its affects untreated—and his approach to playing Brodus in Call and Post: “I think what you have to believe from an acting point of view, is that you can’t loath the character, you have to love the character. You have to find out why somebody would do this?”
A Turn in the Director’s Chair
The actor’s first opportunity to work as a director came with his Tribeca contract and, as of 1995, he had directed three stage plays. In 1993 he directed The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin, a fantastical play by Eric Overmyer that conjectures about the partnership of ragtime composers Joplin and Chauvin. Reviewer Greg Evans noted in Variety that “Overmyer has filled his short play with striking moments, and Joe Morton’s sensitive direction takes good advantage.” Evans also noted Morton’s directorial work on a 1995 off-Broadway production of Crumbs From the Table of Joy, a play about a black man and his daughters who move from the South to Brooklyn in 1950. Evans commented in Variety, “Director Joe Morton sets a leisurely pace that only adds to the meandering tone, leading to a too-quick wrap-up.”
Morton would also like to make his own films, as Felicia R. Lee noted in the New York Times: “He now aspires … to make films in which African Americans are as sophisticated, romantic and complex—and even as mundane—as they are in real life.” One such film project is “a straight black love story without any guns,” said Morton in the New York Times Titled “Adore,” he hopes to act in and direct the film. Morton also hopes to make a film exploring the circumstances of his father’s death.
Joe Morton lives in suburban New Jersey with his wife Nora Chavooshian—who was a production designer for The Brother from Another Planet —and their two children; he also has an adult daughter. Morton finds time to sing and play blues guitar for his own enjoyment, despite an exceptionally busy work schedule. The actor’s excellent reputation has ensured him the prospect of continued success, as he strives to realize a goal he identified in a 1988 American Film article: “Making it is never having to audition.”
Who’s Who Among African Americans, Gale, 1998.
American Film, April 1, 1988, p. 72.
Boston Herald, March 6, 1997, p. 46.
Call and Post, February 20, 1997, p. SH9.
Commonweal, August 16, 1996, p. 19.
Entertainment Weekly, February 20, 1998.
Essence, August 1990, p. 45.
New York Amsterdam News, June 22, 1996, p. 22.
New York Times, September 14, 1984, p. C6; May 18, 1995, p. C1.
People, September 17, 1984, p. 12.
Premiere, September 1991, p. 53.
USA Today, March 23, 1993, p. D3.
Variety, March 1, 1993, p. 65; June 26, 1995, p. 92.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
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