“Television has decided that it will actually try to, as much as possible, make the world that it creates look like what the world actually looks like” – Joe Morton
While actor Joe Morton currently plays a major role on TV’s Scandal, the 69 year-old actor has had a long, successful career in film and television that you might recognize him from — whether it’s playing Miles Dyson in Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Captain McMahon in Speed, or major roles on TV’s Eureka and The Good Wife. Yet Morton’s career had several ups and downs and was turned down for many opportunities because of his race. In an interview with Vulture, Morton talks about the challenges he faced as a black actor and how molds are being broken in the industry today.
While John Sayles’ cult favorite 1984 science fiction film The Brother From Another Planet was Morton’s first significant lead film role, the lack of opportunities for black actors in the following meant that follow-up success was slow to come. He says, “A film like Brother From Another Planet definitely put me in people’s vision, if you will, but it didn’t necessarily make life any easier, because the problem — which in those days was a lack of material — still existed.” Morton credits his continued success to three factors: “The fact that Brother did very well, and I continued on in my career, was a number of different things happening all at once. One, was my own ability to prove to someone, No, this character can be played by a black man. Two, I had agents who believed in me who would push that kind of thing. And then, three, the world, slowly enough, began to change.”
As an example of how much difficulty he has faced in his career, Morton recalls an unfortunate decision made by network executives that stymied his casting in a now-popular show. He reveals, “One story in particular: I won’t give you any names, but I came into Hollywood, it was pilot season. I got an audition for what is now a very popular procedural TV show. The producer of that show said, ‘Oh, this will be perfect for you,’ and actually offered me the gig. When he went back to the network and told them that he wanted me to be the lead in this series, they told him that the only thing they would give him was to put that show in a graveyard spot so it would never succeed, if he put a black man in the lead. This was maybe 20 years ago.”
Morton points to some examples of how the landscape is changing — especially in television. He explains, “The difficulty for African-American actors in film is that most of that star system is based on good-looking, young white folks. And it’s just hard; it’s harder to break into the film world, whereas television has now changed its parameters. Television has decided that it will actually try to, as much as possible, make the world that it creates look like what the world actually looks like. I think that’s one reason why TV these days seems to be doing so well. So, yeah, I think many of the problems still exist today. People like Viola Davis are breaking the mold. People even like Kerry Washington. Kerry Washington is the first black woman to be a lead in a dramatic series in over 45 years. So, as all of those molds get broken, it makes it easier for the younger actors who are coming up behind us.”