Pickens, James, Jr.
James Pickens, Jr.
After almost two decades as a fixture on the small screen in popular shows such as Roseanne and The X-Files, JamesPickens, Jr., found big-time fame with a role on the megahit Grey's Anatomy. The veteran actor became a familiar face in millions of American homes as Dr. Richard Webber. "It's been really exciting," Pickens told Jet. "You look for these roles and they come along once in your career. To combine such a great character with such a great show, it's been a blast."
Found His Theatrical Roots on Stage
James Pickens Jr. was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 26, 1954. He attended Cleveland's East High School before heading to Bowling Green State University just south of Toledo. Surprisingly, his initial interest was not acting at all. He enrolled in the art department with the intention of becoming a cartoonist or illustrator. However, fate intervened during his senior year when a directing student chose Pickens out of the blue to audition for a part in an upcoming play. "He walked over and introduced himself and said 'you look like an actor, and would you want to audition?'" Pickens told the on-line magazine, Pop Entertainment. "After kind of going back and forth, I said why not? One thing led to another, and the rest is history."
Pickens got some important early experience at Cleveland's Karamu Performing Arts Theatre in the mid-1970s. The historically black theater is well respected nationally and known for helping African-American actors, directors, and playwrights get their start onstage. After appearing in several Karamu productions, Pickens felt he was ready for the big lights and bright stages of Broadway and in 1978 he moved to New York. He immediately immersed himself in the world of theater, landing several important roles. In 1981, he appeared with the historic Negro Ensemble Company in a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Soldiers' Play. His co-stars included two up-and-comers-Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. In 1985 he appeared as "Walter Lee" in a 25th anniversary production of Raisin in the Sun. Produced by New York's prestigious Roundabout Theatre, the play went on to be featured in a PBS television edition of the show American Playhouse. Other notable perfor-mances included an appearance in Balm and Gilead as a member of the critically acclaimed Circle Rep/Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
It was an enriching time for Pickens. "Theater is my first love," he told Pop Entertainment. "You get an immediate response. It's always fresh. You come back the next day of the performance and do it again. With theater, I think the ultimate thing is that you feel like you have a little more control, as far as an artist is concerned. With TV and film, there are so many things that are kind of out of your control, as far as technical things and stuff. You may not feel like that was your best take, but they feel [since] the lighting was right and everything, it's fine." He concluded, "in a nutshell, the freedom of the creative process in theater is probably more to my liking."
Became a Familiar, if not Famous, Face
Though Pickens may have been more attracted to the stage, the small screen was attracted to him and in 1986 he was chosen as a cast member of the daytime soap Another World. He played the role of "Zack Edwards" for four years before deciding it was time to make the next big move in his career. In 1990, along with his wife Gina, daughter Gavyn, and son Carl, Pickens moved cross country to California. He soon landed a guest spot on the top show Roseanne. His character "Chuck Mitchell" turned out to be a hit with both the producers of the show and the audience, however, and Pickens found himself playing the recurring role off and on for six years.
Having a guest appearance lead to a recurring role soon became a theme for Pickens. Appearances on hit shows including NYPD Blue, Beverly Hills 90210, The Practice, and Six Feet Under all led to the character he played being written into more episodes. "I consider it an honor that a lot of times those roles weren't meant to be recurring," Pickens told Pop Entertainment. "They started out as just maybe one guest spot, or the infamous words you see on casting calls, 'possible reoccurring.' That's an incentive to get you to come in and read for them. But, I've been fortunate and blessed enough that they have turned into recurring. I was able to leave a small mark wherever I went."
Pickens also began appearing in films including a co-starring role on the made-for-TV movie A Slight Case of Murder written by acclaimed actor William H. Macy. Pickens had made his big screen film debut in 1986 with a bit part as an ambulance driver in F/X, however in Hollywood he soon landed juicier roles by big-time directors. He appeared in Oliver Stone's Nixon in 1995, Warren Beatty's Bulworth in 1998, and Steven Soderbergh's Traffic in 2000. One of his most notable roles was as the slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Rob Reiner's acclaimed film, Ghosts of Mississippi. Other credits included How Stella Got her Groove Back, Menace II Society, Sleepers, and Gridlock'd in which he co-starred with the murdered rap star Tupac Shakur.
Landed in the Long-Awaited Limelight
Despite appearing all over both the small and big screens throughout the 1990s, actual celebrity eluded Pickens. That changed somewhat when he landed a recurring role on the cult hit The X-Files in 1998. Playing FBI Deputy Director Alvin Kersh for six years, Pickens became a minor celebrity as Scully and Mulder's boss. However, as Pickens pointed out to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "[It] was a huge genre hit, so you got recognized by a particular type of fan." Pickens revised his role in the television movie, The X-Files: The Truth and even lent his voice to the character of Kersh for the video game, The X Files: Resist or Serve.
Pickens took advantage of his low-key celebrity to indulge in his life-long passion for horses and became a certified cowboy. As a member of the United States Team Roping Championship, Pickens has traveled the country to rope cattle and ride horses in rodeos. As the owner of an American Quarter Horse named Smokey, Pickens told CTVglobemedia, "It's a great escape from the craziness of Hollywood. It's a nice therapy for me. Even when I don't rope, just getting my horse outside is a great way to collect myself and be out in nature." This escape would prove invaluable once Pickens' next show hit the air.
At a Glance …
Born on October 26, 1936, in Cleveland, OH; married Gina Perkins; children: Carl, Gavyn. Education: Bowling Green State University, BA, art.
Career: stage actor, mid-1970s–; television and film actor, 1986–.
Awards: Nate Love Lifetime Achievement Award, The Western States Black Research Education Center (WSBREC), 2005; Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series (shared), Screen Actors Guild, 2007.
In March of 2005, Pickens appeared as the authoritarian chief of surgery, Dr. Richard Webber, on ABC's Grey's Anatomy. Aired as a mid-season replacement, no one quite expected the success the show about a group of surgical interns would have. "We knew we had a good show," Pickens said in the Akron Beacon Journal. "But it became this juggernaut that nobody had control of after a while, and the audience just really latched onto it like nobody's business." By 2005, the show was number one in the United States and a hit in dozens of countries worldwide. It brought Pickens some long-deserved recognition including several awards' nominations and a 2007 Screen Actors' Guild award for Outstanding Performance shared with his cast mates. Of course, the show also broke Pickens' long-held anonymity. "The downside of that—if there is one—is, you know, you come into 20 million households every night, now, walking down the street has a different flavor to it. Your privacy is not so private anymore," he told CTVglobemedia. "But it kind of goes with the territory."
Menace II Society, 1993.
Ghosts of Mississippi, 1996.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back, 1998.
Another World, 1986–90.
Beverly Hills 90210, 1991.
Something So Right, 1996–97.
The Practice, 1997–2000.
The X-Files, 1998–2002.
NYPD Blue, 2000.
Six Feet Under, 2002–03.
The Lyon's Den, 2003.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, 2005.
Grey's Anatomy, 2005–.
Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, OH), October 2, 2005, p. E1.
Call and Post (Cleveland, OH), September 14-20, 2006, p. S2.
Jet, April 24, 2006, p. 58.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland), October 19, 2006.
"James Pickens, Jr.: Into the Lyon's Den," Pop Entertainment, www.popentertainment.com/pickens.htm (January 9, 2007).
"Pickens Vows He Will Rein in 'Grey's Anatomy' Interns," CTVglobemedia, ww.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20060920/greys_pick-ens_060920?s_name=&no_ads= (January 9, 2007).
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