“Once again, the gods of television had summoned me back,” Jenifer Lewis writes in her new memoir “The Mother of Black Hollywood” about joining the cast of “Black-ish” on ABC. “Back to bring the Jenifer Lewis magic. Back to deliver the take-no-prisoners attitude and deep, rich tone that made mine one of the most recognizable voices in Hollywood.”
That blazing confidence is one of her hallmarks. But the book goes deeper and she’s frank about working through some of her flaws: “That smile that I would leave on people’s faces as I left damn near any room that I entered? That’s just who I was; I entertain people,” Lewis said. “I wanted that same smile on my face when I left that room. I wanted to feel good and not go back into that deep dark depression. So I worked hard to find that human being that I authentically was inside.”
Embarrassment, she said, “is not a word that’s really attached to me, but hold on a minute, let me try to think. When I was doing the national tour of the musical ‘Eubie!’ — this was probably 1981 — we were somewhere like Rhode Island and my halter top fell while I was on stage and my breasts were exposed during that number. Yeah. Exposed. On stage. In the middle of a dance number. The wardrobe just came off. I was in my 20s so they were still very pretty. The audience was blessed, I assure you. The whole cast was laughing when I got off stage. The audience had a blast, I mean their eyes popped out of their heads and they were hiding the kids’ eyes. Let’s just say it caused a commotion for about four seconds.”
“Black-ish” has made her a household name, but before she landed the role she considered quitting show business altogether.
MY WORST MOMENT …
“I had gone to Europe on a cruise and before I left I was out in my garden pruning some roses — it was actually a Dolly Parton rose bush, to be exact — and I said to myself, that’s enough now. Nobody gets to tell me ‘Next!’ anymore. It was just enough.
“You know, I never really talk in my garden. It’s a very quiet, therapeutic wonderful time that I spend with myself. But out loud, I stood there and said, ‘You can retire, baby. You’ve saved all your money, come on now. Sit down somewhere and enjoy this.’ Well, the next thing out of my mouth — after I realized how full of (baloney) I was — ‘Not even I can stop me.’ That’s what I said out loud! To quit show business would be to quit breathing.
“So I ran off to Europe to contemplate and relax and think about if I really wanted to retire. And I realized I had just one more dream: A one-woman show on Broadway. So I said, ‘OK Jenny, you do your Broadway show, then you can sit down.’ But then of course, people love me but a lot of them didn’t know my name. So I was like, I gotta get more popular so somebody will invest in a show. How do I do that? I need to get on a network TV show. I just put the idea out there.
“Black-ish” has made her a household name
“So when I got back from Europe, my manager, Julia Walker, was the one who picked me up and I looked out of the car window as we were driving and saw the billboard for ‘Black-ish,’ which was already on the air by that point. And I just casually asked, ‘How’s that show doing?’ And she had this little smile on her face and she said, ‘They called!’ She didn’t even know that two nights before I had manifested a hit prime time show! By the way, I knew it had to be a prime time network show; cable’s one thing but prime time’s another.
“I hadn’t been on television on a consistent basis for a long time so I was a little scared. So I’m thinking, ‘Will I pick up their rhythm?’ I knew a lot of these people already so I worried, will they remember me? But who in God’s name is going to forget me once they meet me?
“So anyway, I had been eating my way through this cruise. So much cheese in Greece! The whole Norma Desmond fantasy — I was not ready for my close-up! I had two weeks to get in shape and only lost one pound. So I was nervous inside.
“I mean, there I am. The expectations were so high and I didn’t have time to prepare — is basically what I am telling you. I got off the plane; I was jet-lagged. All those things that happen coming off a vacation — you need a vacation from the vacation! And I was exhausted and basically I only had a week to prepare. I’m older. My knees are hurting. I’ve always been very athletic but I’m standing there on the set and I’m feeling fat — also because the camera adds 10 pounds — and I’m feeling old. And now everything is in high definition, so you see every crack and wrinkle! I wanted to look thin from every angle of the camera! I’m in good shape and I knock on wood as I say it, but unless you’re in your 20s and 30s, that camera has no mercy.
“They call places, ‘Ready Miss Lewis,’ and I have that Jenifer Lewis walk. You know, that walk that says, ‘I’m coming in the room … Jenifer Lewis is here!’ So the Red Sea parts, basically. And of course I’ve learned, with all that parting of the Red Sea, you better have a big smile on your face whether you mean it or not!
“So I walk on and everybody’s leaning forward: Here’s the great Jenifer Lewis, here she comes! And then I step on to the blue tape, my mark — and I can’t remember a single word. I just went, ‘Uhhhhh …’”
THE TAKEAWAY …
“I realized I didn’t have the line in my head and I said, ‘Hold on a second,’ because I am a perfectionist, come on! When I deliver, I have to deliver. I didn’t want to disappoint these people who believed in me. But I knew once I got it in my head, I was going to be OK.
“The thing is, you want to ‘show out’ on your first day and prove to everybody that they chose the right person.
And there I was, they didn’t even audition me, so they were counting on me to bring what they knew I could do, which was — hang on, I’m trying to be humble; I don’t want to come off as arrogant. I’m very comfortable in my skin, I’m very comfortable when I know my lines. When you don’t know your lines, that’s when you’re insecure and you blame everybody else.
“That’s why a lot of actors get in trouble, because they come ill-prepared. It wasn’t that I was unprepared; it was that I was standing on shaky ground because it was a new environment. And I wanted to please and show them that yes, you cast the right person here. The bottom line is, I wasn’t prepared physically or emotionally.
“But really, it was just some butterflies that morning. It was, ya’ know, trepidation. I wasn’t that scared, for crissake! This is what I do! I just couldn’t get the line and was a little nervous about everybody’s high expectations. And once I gave the line, there it was. Once I broke the ice, I was fine.
(Article written by Nina Metz)