John Witherspoon dies aged 77: his life in art

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By Leah Martindale, Film and TV Editor

Today, October 30th 2019, legendary African-American actor and stand-up comic John Witherspoon tragically died aged 77. To mark the end of Black History Month, Epigram Film & TV look back at his iconic life and career.

With an impressive 84 acting credits and 20 credits in which he performed as himself, John Witherspoon had an undoubtedly full career. Most notably recognisable for his performances as Ice Cube’s father in the Friday (1995) film series, as Spoon in The Tracy Morgan Show (2003-2004), and as the grumbling neighbour in House Party (1990), Witherspoon worked extensively in infamous African-American pieces.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s Witherspoon worked sporadically as a model, during which time he took a liking for comedy, and began to perform in stand-up circuits. As his cinematic appearances can attest, Witherspoon had a natural aptitude for comedy and over-the-top characters. His gut-busting performances have made him a staple in African-American comedies and from humble roots he eventually garnered the status he deserved.

Witherspoon’s first recorded television performances were two uncredited episodes of The Richard Pryor Show (1977), an American comedy show hosted by the titular controversial African-American comedian and performer Richard Pryor. He starred in individual episodes of multiple different shows in the following years, and made a small breakthrough into film in 1980 when he played M.C. Cinderella Club in The Jazz Singer (1980), a remake of the extremely controversial 1927 film of the same name.

Mike Epps, Witherspoon, and Ice Cube in Friday After Next (2002) | IMDb / New Line Cinema

From 1990, Witherspoon’s onscreen career skyrocketed. House Party helped to form entire tropes and traditions from the African-American subgenre of cinematic comedy. With an approximate gross return of ten times more than its budget, this R rated comedy surpassed expectations worldwide and aided the meteoric rise in the careers of other African-American icons such as Tisha Campbell and Martin Lawrence.

Witherspoon's loss will leave ripples in comedy, film, television, and the global black community

Friday, starring rapper Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, is a ‘stoner film’ so recognisable you have likely meme-d it without even realising. Alongside Nia Long - Will’s girlfriend Lisa in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-1996), ironically nicknamed Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, and Anna Maria Horsford, Witherspoon cemented his position as a household name and recognisable face for many.

Angela Bassett, Witherspoon, and Eddie Murphy in Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) | IMDb / Paramount Pictures

Witherspoon was rarely a leading man, but supported comedies and narratives with his recognisable charm and full-bodied characterisation. Not only a visual comedian, Witherspoon lent his voice to the likes of BoJack Horseman (2014-), The Proud Family (2001-2005), and The Boondocks (2005-2014).

He continually starred in pieces regarding blackness and championing black identities, like Black Dynamite (2011-2015), The Wayan Bros (1995-1999), Black-ish (2014-) and The First Family (2012-). With no known cause of death at this point besides old age, his loss will leave ripples in comedy, film, television, and the global black community.

Featured: IMDb / NBC


Which of Witherspoon's iconic roles will you be watching first to commemorate him?

AUTHOR

Leah Martindale

Part-time Film & Television MA student; full-time Instagram storier, and ABBA enthusiast; amateur film critic. Can always be found writing from bed.