Making WAVES For Black History Month: James Pickens Jr.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, James Pickens, Jr. started acting at the Karamu House, distinguished as the oldest African-American theater in the United States.

After moving to New York, he performed in the historic 1981 production of Charles Fullers’ “A Soldiers Play” at the Negro Ensemble Company with fellow cast members Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. He was a member of the famed Circle Rep/Steppenwolf Theatre Company co-production of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead,” and starred as Water Lee in the 25th anniversary revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Roundabout Theater.

On the big screen he has been directed by some of the film industries finest, including Steven Soderbergh in “Traffic,” Oliver Stone in “Nixon” and Warren Beatty in “Bulworth,” and he appeared in four Barry Levinson films — “Sleepers,” “Sphere,” “Jimmy Hollywood” and “Liberty Heights.” He portrayed slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers in “Ghosts of Mississippi” (directed by Rob Reiner), and played Angela Bassett’s ex-husband in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” Other films include “Menace II Society,” “Home Room,” “Gridlock’d” and “Just Wright,” starring Queen Latifah and Common. He has appeared in “42,” the feature about baseball legend Jackie Robinson, which starred Harrison Ford and was directed by Brian Helgeland.

Well known to television audiences for his recurring roles on such series as “NYPD Blue,” “The X-Files,” “The Practice,” “Philly,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Six Feet Under,” “The West Wing,” “Rosanne” and “Beverly Hills 90210,” Pickens also starred opposite Rob Lowe in “The Lyons Den” (NBC) and with William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman in “A Slight Case of Murder” (TNT).

For his role on “Grey’s Anatomy,” he received a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Drama Ensemble and won an NAACP Image Award.

He and his wife oversee the James Pickens, Jr. Foundation, whose mission is to enhance the lives of families and children in underserved communities. He hosts an annual charity roping event in Clovis, California which draws some of the best team ropers in the sport. He and his wife, Gina, a singer and restaurateur, have a son and a daughter.

James was the oldest of three children. His Dad was a steel worker and his Mother a stay-at-home Mom. At the age of 14, his Mom died of cancer. She was only 47. James and his brother and sister were raised the rest of the way by his  aunt and uncle.

James says he was a little shy and insecure in high school but playing football and being an honor student helped him to fit in. He was also a cartoonist for the school newspaper.  He loved to draw, and would take his Mom’s brown grocery bags, tear them open and draw all over them. After graduation, he attended Bowling Green State University where he was part of the largest group of African Americans that had ever been accepted to the school. It was at college that he fell in love with acting. He was majoring in art but when one of his classmates begged him to help him out by taking a role in a play he was producing. James did well enough that people began to encourage him to get serious about it.

James says that when he was introduced to acting it was love at first sight.  A local playwright encouraged him to consider going to a community arts center called The Karamu House. It is the oldest African American theater in the US. They recently celebrated their 100th anniversary. James enrolled in classes and became involved in every aspect of the theater. When he was told repeatedly that he needed to go to New York to pursue opportunities there, he went. While in New York he performed with the Negro ensemble Theater and other cultural organizations and began to bond with other up and coming actors like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. It was also in New York that he met his wife Gina, who was a talented singer in her own right.

James told me the story of how he and Gina met. She was from Cleveland too but he had never met her; he knew her sister but not Gina.  It’s funny that these two Ohio natives would have to go all the way to New York to find each other.  They married and in 1990 they moved to LA so that James could pursue TV and movie roles…

His first big LA gig was on the Roseanne show, playing John Goodman’s best friend Chuck. James did a myriad of guest spots, plus work on several Steven Bochco shows.  When he was given a guest spot on The X Files, they turned it into a role that he could sink his teeth into, as FBI Agent Kurtz. He remained there for the final three and a half years of the show.

He was asked to audition for a pilot called The Untitled Shonda Rimes Project. He got a call back which eventually led to his being hired to play the Chief on the show we all know today as Grey’s Anatomy. It has turned into an actor’s dream for James and all the other actors involved. He says Shonda Rimes isn’t an overnight success like everyone assumes. She had been writing for years and worked hard to convince the network to go along with her choices for casting and the direction of the show.

James says he’s like to think that he has maintained integrity in terms of the roles he has chosen and the ones he didn’t chose as well.  In addition to his exemplary work as an actor, he is loved by his peers and fans alike.  James is deeply grateful for the success he has achieved and does everything he can to pay it forward. With his James Pickens Jr Foundation, James and Gina are a blessing to numerous charitable organizations and causes.  Today the Pickens family is busy with their latest entrepreneurial venture, a new restaurant called The Black Bottom Southern Café. If it’s like everything else in James’ life, it will surely be a success.

More from Pat Prescott
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