THE LEADING MEN: David Alan Grier, the Tony-Nominated Sporting Life of Porgy and Bess

By Harry Haun
05 Jun 2012

David Alan Grier
David Alan Grier
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

It has only taken David Alan Grier 31 years and five Broadway shows to go from a pennant-winning sports legend to a dope-peddling Sporting Life. It's called a career.

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Straight out of Yale Drama School — and first in line to audition for The First — he Broadway-bowed as the man who broke the baseball color line in 1947, Jackie Robinson. Now, in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, he's in his jovial-menace mode as the light-footed low-life who hustles drugs, sex and so forth to the dirt-poor denizens of South Carolina's Catfish Row. That macho magic he makes moving from stage left to stage right is a little something he picked up from the pimps and pushers he observed in his Detroit boyhood and simply converted to music.

Both musicals earned him Tony nominations, but he didn't even have to tune up for his third Tony bid — a straight dramatic part in David Mamet's Race where he played the black lawyer locking horns with his white law-partner (James Spader).



In his other two jobs on Broadway, he stepped into roles that won Tonys for Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls) and Nathan Lane (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).

Most of his career has been spent on the West Coast in sketch-comedy television and in the features as second-banana to Eddie Murphy and Damon Wayans. He also developed considerable dramatic chops out there, but he gets to wear both theatrical masks as Sporting Life. He counts Porgy and Bess as a happy homecoming.

There's a movie before the cameras now called "42." Do you know what that's about?
David Alan Grier: I have no idea. What's it about?

Jackie Robinson. Chadwick Boseman is playing him. Harrison Ford is Branch Rickey, Christopher Meloni is Leo Durocher, Lucas Black is Pee Wee Reese, John C. McGinley is Red Barber — it's a great cast. DAG: Ahhh — of course, "42" was his number! You know, I still have two jerseys from The First. I was able to get them about 20 years ago. They were in storage and going to be auctioned, and someone from The First called me and said, "Would you like something?" I took the Kansas City Monarchs jersey, the Brooklyn Dodgers jersey and this great suit that this tailor, Vincent, made. That was the longest fitting in my life — like three and a half hours, but the suit's beautiful. It used to fit me.

 

Grier (right) with Court Miller in The First.
photo by Martha Swpoe

I remember Jackie's widow, Rachel, was at the opening night of The First.
DAG: Uh-huh. I think the last time I saw her they created a commemorative stamp for Jackie Robinson at the Brooklyn post office. I went and sang the title song from The First at the ceremony. She was very nice — a wonderful woman.

What was it like to play Jackie Robinson?
DAG: It was amazing. My memory of Jackie Robinson is nil. I was actually too young to experience that time. In doing my research, I realized The First wasn't just about Jackie Robinson. It was also so much about Brooklyn and New York — this time in New York City history when Ebbets Field was a gathering place for, really, the flavor of Brooklyn. Ebbets Field was beloved. Our curtain was a replica of the back wall of Ebbets Field, and people who came to our show would start crying. A housing project was put up there when it was torn down, and they were still lamenting Ebbets Field, still lamenting the Dodgers leaving and going to Los Angeles.

You've done five roles on Broadway. You were a replacement twice [in Dreamgirls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum], but the three roles you created on Broadway and were eligible for Tony consideration got you nominated. Three for three. How does that feel?
DAG: It feels great, especially at this point in my life. I started on Broadway, then went out to Los Angeles, did a lot out there in movies and television, and was finally able to come back to New York. The first thing I heard when I came back to do Race was "Welcome back!" from people I worked with 30 years ago. [Producer] Jeffrey Richards saw me in The First and was instrumental in me joining the production of The First. It's great to continue that relationship, humbling and amazing. To be able to come back to New York and do these roles has started a whole new phase of my career. Even after Race, I didn't expect to come back so soon to do anything. I have a young daughter, and I expected to go back to Los Angeles for a while. Then, Porgy and Bess materialized, and I knew I really wanted to be a part of it.

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