When a photo of actor Geoffrey Owens bagging groceries at a New Jersey Trader Joe’s went viral over the weekend, the first thing Owens did was to reach out to his 18-year-old son.
“I texted him and I said, ‘I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,'” Owens told TheWrap, choking back tears. “His response was so beautiful about how proud he was of me for taking the job.”
“I was really quite touched,” he added.
It was his son’s reaction, he said, that gave him the strength to pull through.
“I knew it was going to be O.K.,” he said.
Owens, best known for playing the Huxtables’ son-in-law Elvin Tibideaux on “The Cosby Show,” was thrust into the limelight after a photo of him bagging groceries at a the Trader Joe’s surfaced on the Daily Mail and Fox News. Both were accused of shaming him for working at the grocery chain.
“From learning lines to serving the long line!” the Daily Mail headline read. Fox News went with: “‘Cosby Show’ actor Geoffrey Owens spotted bagging groceries at NJ Trader Joe’s”
The stories sparked outrage on social media, just as America was firing up its Labor Day Weekend barbecues. Owens’ fans pointed out that he deserved praise for taking the job, not snark.
Soon Hollywood came to Owens’ defense as actors, directors and other industry folk talked about the other jobs they had taken on when they didn’t have steady work in the industry. Tyler Perry offered him a job, which Owens accepted.
It was a Hollywood ending Owens couldn’t have anticipated.
“It was really generous of him to do that and to do that so publicly,” Owens said of Perry’s offer. “It was very bold and courageous and generous of him.”
The two have been talking, he said, but so far there’s no word on what character he’ll be playing. The last few days, he said, has been nothing short of “surreal.”
“Even when I was on ‘The Cosby Show,’ I never had a week like this,” he said, laughing. “This has been quite overwhelming. In a good way.”
Owens had worked at Trader Joe’s for 15 months before a woman snapped the now viral pictures of him. Karma Lawrence told NJ.com that she had taken the photos without thinking, and then sent them to celebrity websites. She was not prepared for the backlash that followed.
“I don’t know what possessed me. I just did it. I didn’t even think about it. I just kind of did it on impulse and it was a bad impulse,” Lawrence said, adding that she was “extremely, extremely apologetic about what has happened.”
Owens said he’s forgiven her. “I actually felt sorry for her,” he said.
“It is a blessing in disguise,” Owens went on. “Had you had said to me a week ago that a tabloid would take my picture and it would be all over the internet and I would get a job out of it I would have said no. I’m a private person. I don’t seek the limelight. But now that it happened I’m grateful.”
Owens’ IMDb page is packed with credits, including recent appearances on hit shows like “Blue Bloods,” “The Blacklist” and “The Affair.” He’s also starred on Broadway as recently as 2013 in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Like most working actors, he’s had his ebbs and flows. But Bill Cosby’s rape accusations had an unexpected downside for actors on the show.
“The Cosby Show,” which originally aired on NBC from 1984 to 1992, had been a staple on cable television. But after dozens of women accused Cosby of drugging their drinks, raping, coercing or sexually assaulting them, networks began pulling the show’s reruns. TV Land dropped reruns of the series in November 2014. Cable channels Bounce TV and Centric followed suit. The absence of “The Cosby Show” has meant fewer residual checks for the show’s cast.
“That was one of the many factors that contributed to my decision to take a job outside the entertainment industry,” Owens said. “It did not help me financially. The fact is, yeah, there was a certain amount of money that stopped coming in, and that made a difference.”
He said he took the job at Trader Joe’s at the recommendation of a friend, who said the company was known for its flexibility.
“I didn’t want to drop acting,” he said. “There would have been other things, more lucrative gigs, but they would have not allowed me to continue pursuing my career.”
Not only was his friend spot on, he said, but he managed to book four jobs while working there.
His hope now is that the conversation about job-shaming will continue, even if his grocery-bagging days are over. Owens quit the job because of the recent attention.
“People are re-evaluating the idea that some work is more important than other work,” he said.