Any time the late, great John Witherspoon appeared in a movie, or in a music video, you knew you were going to laugh before he opened his mouth—some people are just downright funny and he was one of those people.
You’ve got to “coooordinaate” Witherspoon told Eddie Murphy’s character in “Boomerang” as he proceeded to upstage the main star with his famous “bang bang bang bang bang” line referring to his sex life with his wife. And he went on to steal the dinner scene when he gave his onscreen son, David Allen Grier, absolutely hilarious bedroom advice.
Witherspoon was the annoying neighbor in “House Party” and the comical dad in the “Friday” franchise: “Friday,” Next Friday” and “Friday after Next.”
The actor/comedian was affectionately referred to as “Pops” by his friends, primarily because of his role as John “Pops” Williams on the “The Wayans Bros” sitcom for five seasons. He was well-known of late as the voice of Robert “Granddad” Freeman on, “The Boondocks,” which ran for over nine seasons.
Witherspoon provided one of the laugh tracks for the lives of many Black folks over age 30. However, his scene in the first “Friday” movie was one of the most memorable and potent. His character tells his son, played by Ice Cube, that “kids today are nothing but punks, so sissified … scared to take an a—whipping.” He related that in his day, men fought with their fists. “You win some and you lose some,” he advised, “but you lived to fight another day.”
The line was social commentary on the gang violence that had begun to plague inner-city USA, which was exacerbated by easy access to guns. Living not dying should be the priority is what the scriptwriter was saying through Witherspoon.
What the Black press had to say about the comedian
“When it comes to Black Hollywood, there are actors who belong to everyone, and there are our peoples. Will Smith, Denzel Washington and the like belong to everyone. But our peoples are those actors and comedians whom Black folks adore, but the mainstream might only have a passing interest in, like ‘Oh, that’s that guy from that one thing.’ John Witherspoon was a shining example of our peoples,” wrote Dustin Seibert of thegrio.com.
“He was your favorite uncle who always had a funny story to tell and, when you were younger, let you take a sip of whatever was in his red cup as long as you didn’t tell your mama,” is how Justin Tinsley of The Undefeated described the comedy legend.
In a New York Times opinion piece titled “John Witherspoon made every scene better,” Rembert Browne wrote:
“So, was every movie and television show a classic? Absolutely not. Some were outright bad. But his presence in any project ensured a moment so memorable and singular, it routinely became ‘That movie with John Witherspoon.’
“There are films that feature him in a small role that, in my mind, he was a star of—because his parts were the only ones I remembered. And there are episodes of television in which he’d cameo, and the only way to describe that episode going forward was ‘The John Witherspoon episode.’ He was both a scene-stealer and saver.”
Friends and fellow actors
Ice Cube tweeted, “I’m devastated over the passing of John Witherspoon. Life won’t be as funny without him.”
Regina King tweeted, “My dad, my grandpa, my comedic inspiration! I love you Spoons! Rest in Paradise, King.”
“I’m sad. Broken. Hurt. Yet extremely grateful to God that I got to spend five years of my life working with one of the funniest, sweetest, wisest, humblest loving [men]. You were my TV dad and my mentor and my friend. I miss you dearly,” wrote his fellow co-star Marlon Wayans on Instagram.
Witherspoon gone, but clearly not forgotten.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.