Morris, Garrett 1937–
Garrett Morris 1937–
He has been both reviled and revered by African-American audiences and artists alike. He both shined and shamed on the small and big screens. During the sixties he led a black consciousness raising theater group, and in the seventies as an original cast member of Saturday Night Live, he personified black stereotypes. In the eighties he almost lost himself to drugs, and in the nineties he almost lost his life to a bullet. Though his nearly half-centuy in the limelight has not always been bright, through it all—as an actor, comedian, and singer—Garrett Morris has survived.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on February 1, 1937 and raised by his grandfather, a Southern Baptist minister, Morris discovered a passion for music at an early age. Just five, Morris began singing with the church choir. “[My grandfather] heard me singing in the bathroom, and said ’Brothers, sisters, this boy can sing,” he told The Kansas City; Star, “…. and I haven’t really stopped singing since.”
As a young adult, Morris gained a degree from New Orleans’s Dillard University and pursued formal musical training, including a stint at Julliard, New York City’s famed performing arts school. In 1956 he received a scholarship to attend a music workshop at prestigious Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts and received the Tanglewood Conductors Award. Then in 1958 on the way home from a National Association of Negro Musicians’ music competition, Morris took a detour to New York City. There, Morris branched out into theater, joining the Harlem YMCA Drama Club, which counted among its members actress Cicely Tyson. Soon after arriving in New York, Morris received his first big career break when he auditioned for the Harry Belafonte Singers and was hired as a soloist. Though he spent the next ten years singing with Belafonte, Morris continued pursuing theater.
By the late sixties Morris was working as an actor, singer and playwright in New York. He appeared in such famed musicals as Show Boat and Porgy and Bess and dozens of smaller off-screen plays, many with black political themes. Proving his diversity, Morris also penned and produced his own plays. In 1970 he made the leap to screen actor with an appearance in Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?. Other mostly forgettable parts followed, both in
At a Glance…
Born February 10, 1937 in New Orleans, LA; wife, Freda; Education: Dilliard University, BA; attended Julliard School and Manhattan School of Music; Religion: raised Southern Baptist.
Career: Actor, comedian, and singer. Soloist with Harry Belafonte Singers, 1958-68; cast member: Saturday Night Live, 1975-80; Martin, 1992-94; The Jamie Foxx Show, 1996; Films include: Where’s Poppa?, 1970; Cooley High, 1975; Car Wash, 1976, How to Beat the High Cost of Living, 1980; Children of the Night, 1992; Twin Falls Idaho, 1999; Little Richard, 2000; and Jackpot, 2001. Stage credits include: Porgy and Bess, 1961,1964; Showboat, 1966. Worked steadily in film and on stage from the early sixties into 2001.
Awards: Tanglewood Conductors Award, 1956.
film and television. The one exception was 1975’s Cooley High. Cast as a high school principal, Morris and the film were well received by the critics.
As Morris added theater and singing credits to his professional resume, he added the role of activist to his personal accomplishments. With a group of like-minded performers, Morris formed a theater group designed to raise black consciousness and confront racial problems. Though the group endured political threats and police harassment, Morris, recalling the era, told The Kansas City Star, “I was in seventh heaven because this was my idea of what you should and could do with your talent…. There were problems out there in the country, and we had acting and writing talent to write plays that would demonstrate this.” Sadly, his professional career would soon not only stifle his activist beliefs, but it would mock them.
By 1975, despite nearly twenty years of performing credits, Morris was still struggling. Like many working actors, he belonged to various professional associations. However, it was his membership in the Writer’s Guild that propelled Morris from bit parts in films and off-Broadway plays to national celebrity and a permanent place in television culture. NBC was putting together the comedy show, Saturday Night Live. The show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, had appealed to the Writer’s Guild for apprentice writers that could be hired at a discounted rate. The Guild sent Morris. Though he had proven skills as a playwright, his comedy writing ability did not impress Michaels. Rather than let Morris go, Michaels decided to make him a member of the cast largely based on Morris’s Cooley High appearance. According to Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, it soon became apparent to the other actors and writers that Morris, despite his past acting history, did not have the skills for sketch comedy which requires an actor to quickly switch from one role to another. Still, had it not been for an unfortunate mix of factors, Morris may have overcome this.
At 38 Morris was over a decade older than the most of the other “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” which included Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd. Morris was also the only seasoned stage veteran. Finally, Morris was the only black actor on the show. As a result, Morris was often ignored by the other actors and writers. When they weren’t ignoring him, they were often criticizing him. The authors wrote in Saturday Night, “Since Garrett was not a strong enough performer or writer to impose his own sensibilities on Saturday Night, Saturday Night imposed its sensibilities on him, and they were at best cruel, at worst racist.”
With the exception of a few notable roles, especially that of ex-baseball player Chico Escuela, whose tag line “Bazboll’s bin berry, berry good to me” became Morris’s most famous line from the show, Morris had few roles in the sketches and many of those were as stereotypical black characters. By the third season, after an electrifying appearance as Tina Turner, Morris became the resident drag queen. In high heels and skirts, Morris finally got regular airtime on the show. However, some close to the show saw these roles as demeaning to Morris. “It was, said one observer, as if the show actually enjoyed making Garrett ’participate in his own degradation’,” wrote the authors of Saturday Night. Never was this more obvious than in a show hosted by Cicely Tyson.
Morris, dressed as Tyson, had begun the opening monologue, when the real Tyson appeared on stage demanding to know what was happening. “I was hired by this show under terms of the Token Minority Window Dressing Act of 1968,” Morris replied. Tyson went on to scold him, “Garrett, what is happening to you?” Referring to their work together in the sixties, she went on to say, “I expected something really big from you.” She continued, “Where’s your integrity?” Morris’s response was a blithe, “Well, it doesn’t look bad on my resume… and I get to keep the dresses.” SNL writers had written the entire exchange, yet it illustrated what black audiences and performers had already been complaining about Morris.
Whether it was due to the isolation and racism that Morris suffered on the show, the criticism he received from black audiences and performers, or even the complications arising from national celebrity, by his third season with the show Morris had turned to cocaine. Saturday Night reported that his drug problem soon became a problem for the show: Morris began to miss rehearsals, spent hours locked in his dressing room, and avoided the rest of the crew. The book also detailed Morris’s growing paranoia and his belief that a “hypnotist robot” was watching him. Of that time, Morris says little, though he did admit to People Weekly, “I was smoking a lot of cocaine.” In 1980, after five seasons with the groundbreaking show, Morris left Saturday Night Live. Morris still doesn’t discuss why he left. However, he did confess to The Kansas City Star, “By the time I left, I didn’t have a lot of friends at NBC.”
While his fellow SNL alums went on to major films, comedy tours, and fame, Morris received bit parts in short-lived television shows and regrettable films. He did, however, get his life in order. He quit drugs soon after leaving the show; “I ceased around 1981, 1982, just stopped,” he told People Weekly. He also quit smoking and, in a move back to his activist nature, became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society. Morris replaced his smoking habit with a jogging habit and in his fifties kept up a regimen of three mile runs every day. As his body and spirit improved, so did his career. He had memorable recurring roles on the popular television shows, Hunter and Roc, appeared in dozens of films, and wrote and produced another play. Finally, in 1992 he landed a part on the wildly popular Martin. Playing a womanizing radio manager given to polyester suits and hilarious antics, Morris was redeemed. Martin, aimed at black audiences, gave Morris a new chance with the black community, and they embraced him.
On February 24, 1994, Morris’s renewed career—and his life—almost came to an end. Leaving a friend’s shop in South Central Los Angeles, he was shot by two men in a botched robbery attempt. The bullet penetrated his arm, ripped through his abdomen, and lodged near his spine. He told People Weekly, “[I thought] ‘I’m going to die.’ I was only mad because someone else had chosen the time.” Though the wound was serious and he would remain in the hospital for over a month, Morris amazed his doctors with an astounding recovery. He was moving about with a walker within a week of the shooting. He even filmed an episode of Martin from his hospital bed.
With the help of his wife, Freda, Morris undertook a rigorous exercise regimen to regain his strength, and with the help of comedy he has regained his early passion— using his art to help others. Barely four months after the shooting, he did a stand-up comedy routine for Los Angeles-based charity Kids Against Guns. “One thing the shooting has taught me is that humor is what it’s really all about,” Morris told People Weekly, “From the second night on, Freda and I were laughing about this thing. It’s like something else inside me was causing me to see the bright side in everything.” With a co-starring role in the 2001 film Jackpot, a new series in the works, and Freda by his side, the limelight is finally shining bright for Morris.
Hill, Doug and Jeff Weingard, Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Beech Tree Books, New York, 1986.
Entertainment Weekly, March 26, 1993.
The Kansas City Star, May 7, 1997.
People Weekly, July 11, 1994.
USA Today, November 16, 2000.
Morris, Garrett 1937–
MORRIS, Garrett 1937–
Born February 1 (some sources cite February 10), 1937, in New Orleans, LA; married Freda, 1981. Education: Dillard University, B.A.; studied music with Bernard U. Taylor at the Juilliard School; also studied at Manhattan School of Music and at Tanglewood Workshop. Avocational Interests: Jogging.
Addresses: Agent—Stone Manners Talent and Literary Agency, Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Career: Actor and writer. Singer and musical arranger with the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers; performer in the Harlem YMCA Drama Club; also worked as a conductor. Kids against Guns, volunteer stand–up comedian, 1994. Military service: U.S. Army, X–ray technician, c. 1961–62.
Member: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Screen Actors Guild, Actors' Equity Association.
Awards, Honors: Tanglewood Conductors Award, 1956; Emmy Award nomination (with others), outstanding comedy–variety or music program, 1979, for Saturday Night Live; Independent Spirit Award nomination, Independent Features Project/West, best supporting actor, 2002, for Jackpot.
Television Appearances; Series:
"Wheels" Dawson, Roll Out!, CBS, 1973–1974.
Member of the ensemble cast, Saturday Night Live (also known as NBC's Saturday Night, Saturday Night, and SNL), NBC, 1975–1980.
Jimmy, a recurring role, The Jeffersons, CBS, 1983–1984.
Arnold "Sporty" James, Hunter, NBC, 1986–c. 1992.
Wiz, Roc (also known as Roc Live), Fox, 1991–1992.
Stan Winters, Martin, Fox, 1992–1994.
Sidney Carlson, Cleghorne!, The WB, 1995–1996.
Uncle Junior King, The Jamie Foxx Show (also known as Good to Go), The WB, 1996.
Appeared as Mouth, General Hospital, ABC.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Joey, Earth Angel, ABC, 1991.
Harold Brown, Maid for Each Other, NBC, 1992.
Argyle, Black Scorpion (also known as Of Unknown Origins and Roger Corman Presents "Black Scorpion"), Showtime, 1995.
Argyle, Black Scorpion II: Aftershock (also known as Black Scorpion: Ground Zero), Showtime, 1996.
Carl Rainey, Little Richard, NBC, 2000.
Mr. Cobble, Maniac Magee, Nickelodeon, 2003.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Frank, The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody, ABC, 1978.
Things We Did Last Summer, NBC, 1978.
Voice of Jack, Easter Fever (animated), [Canada], 1980.
Conehead, E.T. and Friends: Magical Movie Visitors, CBS, 1982.
Saturday Night Live 15th Anniversary, NBC, 1989.
Baseball Relief: An All–Star Comedy Salute, Fox, 1993.
Saturday Night Live: 25th Anniversary, NBC, 1999.
Saturday Night Live: 25th Anniversary Primetime Special, NBC, 1999.
Oscar, Graham's Diner, PBS, 2000.
Presenter, The 35th Annual Victor Awards, Fox Sports, 2001.
Inside TV Land: African Americans in Television, TV Land, 2002.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Santa Claus/Mr. Jones, "Santa's Helper," Diff'rent Strokes, NBC, 1982.
Principal Dwight Ellis, "Top Dog," It's Your Move, NBC, 1984.
Asam Ali Shamba, "The Wrong Way Home," Scarecrow and Mrs. King, CBS, 1985.
Derelict, "Davenport in a Storm," Hill Street Blues, NBC, 1985.
Derelict, "Dr. Hoof and Mouth," Hill Street Blues, NBC, 1985.
Derelict, "Passage to Libya," Hill Street Blues, NBC, 1985.
Jake, "Dealer's Choice," The Twilight Zone, CBS, 1985.
Lafayette Duquesne, "Murder to a Jazz Beat," Murder, She Wrote, CBS, 1985.
Principal Dwight Ellis, "The Experts," It's Your Move, NBC, 1985.
Principal Dwight Ellis, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," It's Your Move, NBC, 1985.
Gary Samuels, "The Will/Deja Vu/The Prediction," The Love Boat, ABC, 1986.
Bob Winslow, "The Working Game," 227, NBC, 1987.
Russ, "The Poker Game," Married ... with Children, Fox, 1987.
Officer Audette, "Sam's Car," Who's the Boss?, ABC, 1988.
Russ, "Requiem for a Dead Barber," Married ... with Children, Fox, 1989.
Edgar, "ER Confidential," ER (also known as Emergency Room), NBC, 1994.
Himself and Uncle Leon, "Goop Hair It Is," The Wayans Bros., The WB, 1995.
Stan, "C.R.E.A.M.," Martin, Fox, 1995.
Uncle Leon, "The Poppa–Cabana," The Wayans Bros., The WB, 1995.
Voice of Mr. Buzzard, "Pinocchio," Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child (animated), HBO, 1995.
Willie Mays impersonator, "The Ex–Files," Minor Adjustments, NBC, 1995.
Guest, The Howard Stern Show, E! Entertainment Television, 1995.
Sammy Sutherland, "I.D. Endow," Boston Common, NBC, 1997.
Himself, Gilda Radner: The E! True Hollywood Story, E! Entertainment Television, 1997.
Himself, "Cahill," Space Ghost Coast to Coast (live action and animated), The Cartoon Network, 1998.
Kentucky McQuaid, "Sunday Night Evil," GvsE (also known as G vs. E), USA Network, 1999.
Dr. Frank Hollister, "Prototype," City of Angels, CBS, 2000.
Voice of preacher, "Child's Play," Static Shock (animated), The WB, 2000.
Father Roberts, "I'm Dreaming of a Slight Christmas," The Hughleys, UPN, 2001.
Lewis, "The Turkey Bowl," According to Jim, ABC, 2001.
Voice of Al McGee, "In Blackest Night: Part 1," Justice League (animated; also known as JL, JLA, and Justice League of America), The Cartoon Network, 2001.
(Uncredited) Guest, Saturday Night Live (also known as NBC's Saturday Night, Saturday Night, and SNL), NBC, 2002.
"Saturday Night Live," TV Tales, E! Entertainment Television, 2002.
(Uncredited) Audience member, Saturday Night Live (also known as NBC's Saturday Night, Saturday Night, and SNL), NBC, 2003.
Himself, Jamie Foxx Presents Laffapalooza, Showtime, 2003.
Appeared as Stan, Daddy Dearest, Fox; appeared in Happy Hour, USA Network; appeared as guest in The Test, FX Network.
Television Appearances; Pilots:
Janitor, Change at 125th Street, CBS, 1974.
Lieutenant Greg Larkin, The Invisible Woman, NBC, 1983.
Dwayne, At Your Service, NBC, 1984.
Central Park mugger, Where's Poppa? (also known as Going Ape), United Artists, 1970.
Everson, The Anderson Tapes, Columbia, 1971.
Mr. Mason, Cooley High, American International Pictures, 1975.
Slide, Car Wash, Universal, 1976.
Power and light man, How to Beat the High Cost of Living (also known as How to Beat the High Co$t of Living), American International Pictures, 1980.
Harvey McGraw, The Census Taker (also known as Husbands, Wives, Money & Murder), Seymour Borde, 1984.
Charlie W. "Chocolate Chip Charlie" Hobbs, The Stuff, New World, 1985.
Helicopter junkie, Critical Condition, Paramount, 1987.
Dummont, The Underachievers (also known as Night School), Lightning, 1988.
Con, Dance to Win (also known as City Rhythms, Dance Academy II, and War Dancing), Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer/United Artists, 1989.
Blackbird Fly, 1991.
Matty, Children of the Night, Columbia/TriStar, 1992.
Stripes, Severed Ties, Columbia/TriStar, 1992.
Andy, Motorama, Moon Releasing, 1993.
Captain Orecruiser, Coneheads, Paramount, 1993.
Charles, Almost Blue, LIVE Home Video, 1993.
Fry Wisdom, Black Rose of Harlem (also known as Machine Gun Blues and Pistol Blues), Concorde, 1995.
Clayton, Santa with Muscles, Legacy Releasing, 1996.
Jesus, Twin Falls Idaho, Sony Pictures Classics, 1999.
Tom, Palmer's Pick Up, Framework Entertainment Group, 1999.
Lester Irving, Jackpot, Sony Pictures Classics, 2001.
PCC agent, How High, Universal, 2001.
Henry, Connecting Dots, Fairfax Village Productions, 2003.
Beauty Shop, Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer/United Artists, 2005.
Porgy and Bess (musical), City Center Light Opera Company, City Center Theatre, New York City, 1961.
Peter, Porgy and Bess (musical), City Center Light Opera Company, 1964.
Second barker, Show Boat (musical), Lincoln Center, Music Theater of Lincoln Center, New York State Theater, New York City, 1966.
Finian's Rainbow (musical), City Center Light Opera Company, 1967.
Prover and member of ensemble, Hallelujah, Baby! (musical), Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, 1967–1968.
Aide to Ranor, I'm Solomon (musical), Mark Hellinger Theatre, New York City, 1968.
The Great White Hope, Alvin Theatre, New York City, 1968.
Lalu, Slave Ship, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, New York City, 1969–1970, then Chelsea Theatre Center, Theatre at Washington Square Methodist Church, New York City, 1970.
Blood, Operation Sidewinder, Lincoln Center, Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York City, 1970.
Mack, Transfers, Village South Theatre, New York City, 1970.
Ododo (Truth), Negro Ensemble Company, St. Mark's Playhouse, New York City, 1970.
Corporal Jones, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, New York City, 1971.
Crook, In New England Winter, Henry Street Playhouse, New York City, 1971.
Nigger Nightmare, New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, 1971.
Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (musical), Ethel Barrymore Theatre and Ambassador Theatre, New York City, both 1971–1972.
Police officer and understudy, What the Wine–Sellers Buy, New York Shakespeare Festival, Lincoln Center, Vivian Beaumont Theater, then Center Theatre Group, New Theatre for Now, Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, both 1974.
Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, Ford's Theatre, Washington, DC, 1974.
Sweet Talk, New York Shakespeare Festival, Public Theatre, 1974.
The World of Ben Caldwell, New Federal Theatre, New York City, 1982.
The Unvarnished Truth, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, 1985.
The Geography of Luck, Los Angeles Theatre Center, Los Angeles, 1989.
I'm Not Rappaport, 1990.
Dream on Monkey Mountain, Classical Theatre of Harlem, New York City, 2003.
Second barker, Show Boat, U.S. cities, 1966.
Radio Appearances; Episodic:
Guest, The Howard Stern Show, 1995.
(Uncredited) Saturday Night Live (also known as NBC's Saturday Night, Saturday Night, and SNL), NBC, 1975–1980.
The Secret Place, Playwrights' Horizons Theatre, New York City, 1972.
Daddy Picou and Marie Le Veau, 1982.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 31, Gale, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, March 26, 1993.
Jet, December 11, 2000, p. 30.
People Weekly, July 11, 1994, pp. 89–91.
USA Today, November 16, 2000.