‘Abbott Elementary’ Star William Stanford Davis Unpacks Mr. Johnson’s Epic Backstory: ‘He’s an Enigma’

The actor teases the Season 3 finale will spotlight an “evolution” for his character

Abbott-Elementary
William Stanford Davis in "Abbott Elementary"(Disney/Gilles Mingasson)

One of “Abbott Elementary’s” longest-running gags surrounds the epic backstory behind how beloved janitor Mr. Johnson ended up at the Philly school — which star William Stanford Davis utilizes as his own acting playground.

“He’s very mysterious — he’s worked all over the world,” Davis told TheWrap of his character, pointing to hints that Mr. Johnson has competed in the Olympics and spent time in the mafia. “He’s a bit of an enigma — you don’t know what he’s going to do or say next.”

With bits and pieces of Mr. Johnson’s backstory coming together over the ABC sitcom’s three seasons, Davis noted the insights into his characters’ personal history give him more material with which to play — even if he’s just stepping in to a classroom to say “hi.”

“It’s like being a kid on the playground,” Davis said. “It gives me a lot of room to play — I might go to monkey bars … then [go to] the merry-go-round … It’s all part of it, and I’m gonna have fun with it.”

Davis credited series creator Quinta Brunson and the show’s writers’ room for crafting Mr. Johnson’s elaborate history as they became acquainted with the 72-year-old actor, saying “they’ve gotten to know me, Stan as a human being, and they really got to know me as this character.”

While Davis applauded the writers’ creativity, he also admitted he has unsuccessfully pitched them a couple times.

“When I give them my ideas, they laugh at me, like ‘yeah, right’ because I tell them all kinds of things I think I’ve done or should do,” Davis said. “We’ll see, some of them I think they may keep, we may see next season but when I tell them my thoughts, they’re like ‘yeah, okay, just go and act.’”

Below, Davis reacts to the outpouring of love from fans, teases revealing a new side of Mr. Johnson in the Season 3 finale and his hopes for Season 4.

TheWrap: Mr. Johnson has been a beloved character since Season 1. Did you expect this sort of reaction to him, and what has this support felt like for you?

After Season 1, the fans really let us know how much they, not only love the show, but how much they enjoy Mr. Johnson. I am sometimes surprised what they have this man do, but I’ve always tried to keep him as a real three-dimensional character who stands his ground on everything. Sometimes I’ve very surprised but I’m enjoying every minute.

How has your relationship with Quinta evolved over the years? What does your collaboration on episodes and character development look like?

She’s changed my life and I tell her that quite a bit — what she’s written for this character, the fact that she welcomed me from Day 1 into the fold, especially coming in as a guest star. She’s the one that told me she was thinking about making me a regular, so I have nothing but love for her.

In the field trip episode that aired Wednesday, Mr. Johnson has some of his own moments to shine. How did that storyline come about and how did you help contribute to it?

You can see a little bit more Mr. Johnson, how he behaves in the school when no one’s looking over his shoulder. They let me play, they let me try things.

We are soon gearing up for the Abbott Season 3 finale, what can you tease about it?

We have maybe one or two scenes in the school and everything else is away from the school, and everyone in the show was in every single scene of this particular episode. You’re going to see a bit of an evolution in my character in terms of who you think he is. Not a big deal, but I think people will think differently about him. I think you’re going to see [Janine and Mr. Johnson’s] relationship, especially in the final episode, coming full circle.

The show has already been renewed for a Season 4. What do you hope to see for your character next season?

I’m hoping that you’ll see more of my personal life, I’m hoping that you’ll see if I have family, or if I have someone that I’m interested in — a love interest. I think you’re going to see more of an evolution in Mr. Johnson in terms of the person that he is — he’s a three-dimensional real character, he will give you the shirt off his back, but he [stands] his ground.

One thing he wants to do is to make the school the best possible place for the young kids to to get an education and that’s what I tried to concentrate on in a very comedic way — to make the [school] the best place to be when I talk about “The school is no place for trash.” I tried to use my own personal experiences in elementary school, the relationships I’ve created with janitors and the Mr. Johnson’s — I really got to know them.

Who do you want Mr. Johnson to have a big scene with next season?

Janine — Quinta’s character. We don’t have a lot together — I have a lot with Jacob [and] Gregory. I’ve had a lot of interactions with Melissa. With Barbara and Janine, I haven’t had a lot of other interactions, but I would like to have a little more juicy work with Quinta and Sheryl Lee Ralph.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Abbott Elementary” premieres Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC and streams the next day on Hulu.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.