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How ‘Abbott Elementary’ Changed William Stanford Davis’ Life

How ‘Abbott Elementary’ Changed William Stanford Davis’ Life

Abbott Elementary’s Mr. Johnson typically makes you laugh. This time, he made folks cry.

In the season three finale of the Emmy-winning series, the janitor and Quinta Brunson’s Janine Teagues have a short but serious talk about pursuing life and living with regrets. “It’ll be all right, trust me,” he reassures her.

“I got a lot of compliments from not only Quinta but from the producers and the writers, and some of them even got a little teary and got a little emotional about it,” William Stanford Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You got to see a different side of [Mr. Johnson]. He’s a three-dimensional character. Every time we shot it, [Quinta and I] were like, ‘Wow.’ I’m hoping it affected the audience in the same way.”

Quinta Brunson and Willian Stanford Davis in ‘Abbott Elementary’

Gilles Mingasson/Disney

The moment for Davis, 72, was emotional for another reason: He says Brunson, who created the ABC hit, has had a profound impact on his career — and life. “Quinta, not only have you changed my life, you changed the future of my family. And I get emotional talking about that now because it really did — it changed the future of everybody connected to me in a more personal way.”

He adds: “I don’t like to use the word ‘blessing’ because I think it’s overused. I think it’s something bigger than that.”

Davis has appeared in a number of TV shows and films — from Ally McBeal to Ray Donovan — and he moved to Los Angeles in his 30s to fully pursue acting, landing his first role on The Bold and the Beautiful, on which he, funnily enough, played a janitor. “The janitor on The Bold and the Beautiful and Mr. Johnson are light-years apart,” he explains with a laugh.

But Brunson’s show has put him in a new bright spotlight, and in an interview from the same room where he filmed his audition tape for Abbott, Davis talks about loving his job and how a bad audition for Friends changed his trajectory for the better.

You are clearly so grateful for Quinta. Does it make it even more special that it was a Black woman who created an opportunity that you were able to benefit from?

My God, man. How many ways can I say “yes”? God bless this woman. She’s created something for all of us. And specifically, me going to an HBCU [Lincoln University], put me in their Hall of Fame only because of my participation in Abbott Elementary. It’s changed my life in so many ways. 

When did you know you wanted to be an actor? 

My grandmother would get me and tell the teacher she was taking me to the doctor and I would go to the movies. When I saw The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier, I was in awe because I’d never seen that, and it kind of stuck with me. In high school, I got a chance to be in a program called Upward Bound, and I saw the Negro Ensemble Company, and I had never seen that many Black people onstage in my life. The work they were doing made such an impression on me. At that moment, I decided that’s what I’m going to do. 

Willian Stanford Davis

Rowan Daly

What words can you offer those pursuing acting in their 30s, 40s and 50s?

In Sheryl [Lee Ralph]’s speech when she won her Emmy, she said, “It may not happen in your 20s, your 30s, your 40s, your 50s, your 60s.” And in my case, my 70s. I felt like I had a good run as an actor. I worked quite a bit. But this is the greatest thing that has ever happened. I would tell them, “Learn your craft and don’t quit.” John Coltrane’s mom said he would be asleep with the horn on his chest, and that’s how much you couldn’t take it out of his hand. Kobe Bryant, they said he was going to sleep with the basketball. So if this is something that you love, you have to do it with that passion. It’s never linear. It wasn’t linear for Denzel or Morgan Freeman or Robert De Niro. There were stops and starts, detours and you’ve got to go around them.

What do you remember most about your elementary school experience?

Up until the fifth grade, I went to an all African-American school. And what I remember the most was their love. The teachers, they cared and made sure that you had what you needed. What I remember most about them is that they haven’t changed much from the schools that we represent on Abbott Elementary — underfunded, hand-me-down books, hand-me-down supplies. And I have a saying: “We got all of those hand-me-down things, but we didn’t have hand-me-down teachers.”

I transferred to a school where I had my first Caucasian teacher and it was a good experience and I made my lifelong friends at that particular school, guys that I know now that I hang out with when I go back home. But it wasn’t the same experience that I had when I was in an all-Black school.

Was there ever a role that you really wanted that you didn’t get?

Oh my God, several, man. Where to start? I auditioned for Friends, and the casting director called my agent and told him that they thought I needed to quit, that I needed to go back to doing something else. And that’s the way it was told to me. I thought they had me confused with someone else. I said, “My audition couldn’t have been as bad as the one they’re describing.” That was the best thing that happened to me. It made me decide that no one was going to have those kinds of remarks or comments about my work. I’m not going to book the gig, but no one is going to ever say, “Boy, he sucked.” I was on the road doing stand-up comedy, and I put all of that on the back burner and concentrated on being the best actor I could possibly be. 

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William Stanford Davis

Pamela Littky/Disney

Do you remember what the role was on Friends?

Man, I just remember he was supposed to act like he was ice skating on the floor. I don’t know if it was a coffee shop or wherever. It’s been so long ago. And once I didn’t get the gig, it’s like everything else, you kind of forget about it.

With a lot of the attention that you’ve gotten from Abbott, have more calls been coming in?

I can’t tell you what they were, but I got a couple of calls yesterday. My own manager and my agent both told me about them, so we’ll see if those come through. I was booking jobs but Abbott has opened up a plethora of opportunities.

Have you run into real life janitors and have they said they appreciate that your character shines some light on them?

I run into janitors, I run into a lot of teachers. I run into school clerks and principals. I had dinner with a principal in New York last week, and they love the show. They love the fact that this light has been shined on what they do. And I get real serious about this point. Teachers need to be paid. They need to be paid in a major way. I have a saying that doctors save lives and teachers save lives. Teachers change lives, so they should be paid like doctors. 

I was in London last year at a play and I had a little hack and with COVID going around people are like, “Oh my God.” This guy kept looking back at me and I thought at intermission he was going to say, “Could you move or quit coughing in the back of my head?” He asked me if I was Mr. Johnson from Abbott Elementary. He’s a teacher in Belgium. He and his wife watch the show every week, and that was very moving to me. So I get it from not just teachers, but I get it from janitors, I get it from school clerks, I get it from principals, how much this show means to them.

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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