Days before he passed away, John Witherspoon appeared on DL Hughley’s radio show to explain why he’s still drawing crowds and working in this business. “Try to be as funny as you can as that character. You can’t be an old dude trying to act young, talking hip hop. I don’t know hip hop. I don’t even know how to turn my phone off.” Witherspoon stayed true to his characters no matter whom he played or how old he got, and the audience resonated with that. Here are some of the great character actor’s finest moments on screen.
“Hollywood Shuffle” (1987) –
One of Witherspoon’s first, most memorable movie roles was as Eddie Murphy’s boss in “Hollywood Shuffle,” about a struggling actor working at a hot dog stand who can’t get a break because of his skin color. But this ain’t no ordinary hot dog stand, Witherspoon explains. “This is Winky Dinky Dog! Say it with me!”
“Boomerang” (1992) –
Witherspoon, who worked with Richard Pryor early in his career, also collaborated with the next generation of black comics as Eddie Murphy was at the top of his game. The romantic comedy “Boomerang” allowed him to sneak in some of his old stand-up and gave him one of his more memorable catch phrases in this iconic dinner scene, “Bang Bang Bang!”
“Def Comedy Jam” (1993) –
Though his stand-up dated back to the ’70s and ’80s and found him roasting Richard Pryor and going toe to toe with the other comedy greats, Witherspoon was in the room with all the young hot comics when he appeared on the Def Comedy Jam in 1993. And he didn’t hide his age, joking about inadvertently flashing gang signs and the perils of doing cocaine. In 2008, he would get his own stand-up special titled ‘You Got to Coordinate.”
“Friday” (1995) –
Witherspoon was a small but important part of the endlessly quotable and influential indie film “Friday.” He seems to be the one guy who can make Ice Cube look small, berating him in the kitchen for wasting money, eating all the food in the house and forgetting to take out the trash. “Every time I come in the kitchen, you’re in the kitchen,” he says between imposing and pronounced lip smacks. It’s a phenomenal scene.
“The Wayans Bros.” (1995) –
Among his many iconic characters and sitcom appearances, his longest was as the smooth-talking “Pops” opposite Damon and Marlon Wayans in a sitcom that lasted 100-plus episodes. Here’s a scene where one of the brothers thinks that his mother has passed away, all as his father strolls out talking about wrapping up his supposedly dead wife in butcher paper.
“The Boondocks” (2005) –
As Robert “Granddad” Freeman on the cult animated series “The Boondocks,” Witherspoon gave sage, often foul-mouthed advice across 55 episodes and became the heart of the show. From the very start he knew when to speak the truth and when to keep it to yourself. “How many times have I told you you better not even dream of telling white people the truth?” he says. “I’m going to find a white person and lie to him right now.”
“Black Jesus” (2014) –
In one of his last roles as a homeless man named Lloyd Adult Swim series “Black Jesus,” Witherspoon frequently argued with Jesus himself — showing he was still in touch with the popular culture of the day.