John Witherspoon, of ‘Boondocks’ and ‘Friday’ fame, was a singular type of on-screen father figure
“Oh, man. Your mother and I never would have moved into this neighborhood if we had known you’d need a gun to walk down the damn street,” Willie says. He holds up his fists. “When I was growing up this was all the protection we needed,” he tells Craig. “You win some, you lose some, but you live to fight another day.”
The crude bathroom line may be synonymous with Witherspoon, who died Tuesday at 77. But so, too, is the nurturing father figure behind the toilet humor. After Witherspoon’s family announced his death Wednesday in a tweet from the actor’s social media account, tributes came pouring in from co-stars and fans who remembered his signature roles, which often defied nefarious stereotypes about black fatherhood.
He was Robert Freeman, the gruff but loving Granddad on the animated series, “The Boondocks.” And he was “Pops” to many, following his beloved run as John “Pops” Williams on the 1990s sitcom “The Wayans Bros.” While many actors go to great lengths to shed previously defining roles, Witherspoon embraced each one, often resurfacing fan-favorite jokes from his past projects in his newer ventures.
A Detroit native, Witherspoon got his start in stand-up comedy, after a stint as a department store model. The comedy circuit introduced him to legendary entertainers including Robin Williams and David Letterman, who regularly hosted Witherspoon on his CBS late-night show. Witherspoon went on to star alongside other comedy legends on TV shows and films such as “The Richard Pryor Show,” Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” and the Eddie Murphy-led “Boomerang.” He and Murphy later co-starred in Wes Craven’s “Vampire in Brooklyn,” which Witherspoon often cited as one of his favorite projects.
Witherspoon, who grew up as one of 11 children, often recalled his family’s financial struggles in interviews. Though he and many of his siblings went on to be successful (his brother William worked for Motown and co-wrote Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”), Witherspoon never forgot the sting of poverty. The experience became central to his comedy — in recent years, he hosted a YouTube show, “Cooking for Poor People,” where he appeared shirtless under an apron bearing a picture of his own face and introduced each episode with the tagline: “Because when you’re hungry, everything tastes good.” (The show’s theme song is a riff on his indelible bathroom scene from “Friday.”)
Witherspoon’s childhood poverty also influenced the actor’s demanding work ethic. In a 2015 interview with “The Breakfast Club” radio show, he said that “working and getting this paper” was what kept him going well into his 70s. In an interview with Vlad TV last year, Witherspoon recalled the days he paid his rent six months in advance “so if I’m broke I still have a place to go home and sleep.” The most recent episode of “Cooking for Poor People,” published just Monday, opens with Witherspoon apologizing to fans for not posting a new video in a while, citing his involvement in the upcoming “Boondocks” reboot and “Last Friday,” the planned fourth installment of the “Friday” franchise.
As many fans lamented on social media Wednesday, Witherspoon’s death puts his beloved roles in those projects in flux. Ice Cube, who co-wrote “Friday” and penned the film’s two sequels, tweeted: “I’m devastated over the passing of John Witherspoon. Life won’t be as funny without him.” Aaron McGruder, who created “The Boondocks” series and the comic strip on which it was based, told The Washington Post that “John let me borrow his wonderful, magical voice … and now I’ve lost part of my own. I will miss him as both fan and friend.”
Regina King, who starred as Witherspoon’s daughter in “Friday” and later lent her voice to his grandsons, Riley and Huey, in “The Boondocks,” also honored the comedian on Twitter. “My dad, my grandpa, my comedic inspiration,” she wrote above a GIF of the actor licking his fingers in a classic “Boomerang” scene. “I love you Spoons! Rest In Paradise, King.”
One of the most poignant tributes came from Witherspoon’s real-life son, J.D., who followed his father into the entertainment business. The pair appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast earlier this year, where J.D. recalled that his dad’s only advice for his foray into the industry that made him famous was that he “better be funny.”
“We’d roast each other like homies more than Father & Son, and I really liked that,” J.D. Witherspoon tweeted Wednesday. “He was my best friend & my idol.”
Marlon Wayans, who played Witherspoon’s on-screen son for several years, posted a tribute of his own to social media, accompanied by a clip from their WB show. “These episodes allow us to live forever through laughter,” Wayans wrote. “Love you Pops.”