John Witherspoon, Black Hollywood’s Wisecracking ‘Pops’

The late actor, who died at the age of 77, was best known for his singular ability to convey fatherly frustration with comedic flair.

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One of John Witherspoon’s defining roles evolved, in part, because the late comic actor needed rent money. Born in 1942 in Detroit, Witherspoon died suddenly yesterday in his home after a long career of playing crotchety yet lovable men whose working-class roots mirrored his own. The actor, who worked until the day before his death, had a remarkable fluency with the hardships his characters faced and the humor they derived from those situations. He had been on the stand-up circuit for years when the director Reginald Hudlin approached him for a cameo in House Party, the 1990 comedy starring the hip-hop duo Kid ’n Play. Though Witherspoon had been acting since the late ’70s, House Party effectively marked the birth of his image as Hollywood’s cantankerous black dad.

He took to his job for House Party—shouting at unruly teenagers—with melodrama and crass humor. “When I saw the kids coming out I said, ‘Hey, stop making all that noise! Hey, I pay $15,000 for this house and I ain’t paying that kind of money to hear all this noise!’” Witherspoon recalled in a 2012 interview. “‘Who’s over there! Who’s throwing that party? Who’s giving a public enema? What’s a public enema?” Riffing on the name of the notorious rap group, Witherspoon stretched the scene not just for comedic value but also for his own purposes: Improvising a scene with his onscreen wife led to more screen time—and a bigger paycheck. “It was a smart move,” he said. “So I get some more money to pay my rent.”

Financial motives aside, Witherspoon knew his verbose condemnation of the rowdy House Party teens was a highlight of the film. The actor’s ability to convey paternal irritation with comedic flair became a hallmark of nearly all his performances. Whether playing the kitchen-supervising father of Ice Cube’s shiftless protagonist, Craig, in the cult hit Friday, or the working-class dad of David Alan Grier’s white-collar nerd, Gerard, in Boomerang, Witherspoon channeled the weariness and candor of community elders. Now, as family, former co-stars, and fans react to the news of his death, it’s that same combination of hilarity and wisdom that many are citing as they reflect on Witherspoon’s life and career. To them, he wasn’t just a comic; he was “Pops,” the nickname that stuck long after he stopped playing that character on the sitcom The Wayans Bros.

Witherspoon died just one day after posting a new video to his YouTube series, “Cooking for Poor People.” “It is with deepest sorrow that we can confirm our beloved husband and father, John Witherspoon, one of the hardest working men in show business, died today at his home in Sherman Oaks at the age of 77,” his family said yesterday in a statement to Deadline. In a tweet posted to Witherspoon’s account, the family also said, “He was a Legend in the entertainment industry, and a father figure to all who watched him over the years. We love you ‘POPS’ always & forever.”

Many of the actors who worked with Witherspoon also included nods to his fatherly wisdom in their tributes. “My dad, my grandpa, my comedic inspiration! I love you Spoons! Rest In Paradise, King,” the actor Regina King, who starred alongside him in Friday and The Boondocks, tweeted. Marlon Wayans, who played Witherspoon’s son on The Wayans Bros., wrote on Instagram that he is “extremely grateful to God that i got to spend 5 years of my life working with one of the funniest sweetest wisest humblest loving [men] ... my tv dad and my mentor and my friend.”

The Roots drummer and DJ Questlove summarized the familiarity of Witherspoon’s comedic repertoire in heartfelt prose: “John Witherspoon resonated with every last one of us because he represented someone in our family: embarrassing us at gatherings (Boomerang), misrepresenting our generation’s heroes (“Public Enema”?!), making a jingle about pretty much everything (Grandpa on Boondocks), the neighborhood wino (Black Jesus—or better yet Hollywood Shuffle)—the list is endless.”

House Party gave audiences “Public Enema,” but Witherspoon’s breakout role came a few years later, in Friday. The F. Gary Gray–directed film went on to inspire two sequels, Next Friday and Friday After Next. (In May, Ice Cube said the final installment of the series, Last Friday, would be released next year.) As Mr. Jones, Witherspoon often conveyed his frustration with his son’s antics via physical humor. After catching Craig snacking in the kitchen despite not contributing anything to the household, Mr. Jones delivered a fervent lecture while chewing grapes loudly. When he ushered Craig into the bathroom to offer some advice, he created a dramatic production of spraying air freshener to cover the scent while ignoring his son’s visible discomfort.

Witherspoon’s bombastic comedy and protective instincts translated across formats. The actor’s dynamic voice later lent itself well to a role on The Boondocks, the animated Adult Swim series based on Aaron McGruder’s comic strip. Throughout the show’s four seasons, Witherspoon played the irascible Granddad, the patriarch of the Freemans, a black family that moves into a relatively affluent, mostly white suburb. As the legal guardian of the rambunctious and opinionated kids Huey and Riley (both voiced by Regina King), Granddad was both stern and loving; he warned them to stay out of trouble but still took care of them when they needed it. Speaking last year about his role on the series, which he’d been expected to reprise in the forthcoming reboot, Witherspoon said that much of his dialogue was ad-libbed: “That’s what we would do—we would tape it, and then tape it my way.” Indeed, the gift of Witherspoon’s performances was how often he elevated productions when he got to do things his way.