You probably noticed his outfits first (how could you not?), but John Witherspoon made his presence felt in everything he appeared in.
To simply call Witherspoon, who died at the age of 77 Tuesday, a legend undersells his legacy. The actor connected generations of black comedy and black Hollywood, from The Richard Pryor Show to Black Jesus. There’s a 10-year stretch in which he appeared in numerous classic films, including 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle, 1990’s House Party, 1992’s Boomerang, and 1995’s Friday. In Witherspoon’s most notable roles, he shined as a paternal figure: someone just as eager to offer guidance as he was to roast whoever—and someone who might do both in the same sentence. That sense of responsibility was resonant and necessary. It was about guiding the next generation along the right path with the understanding that, sometimes, a little levity was necessary to accomplish that. And for that reason, Witherspoon’s fatherly presence went well beyond the characters he portrayed. He wasn’t just Pops on The Wayans Bros.—he was a father figure to many.
Witherspoon always made the most of limited screen time. He stole the show during Boomerang’s famous Thanksgiving scene, appearing with Bebe Drake as the outrageous parents of David Alan Grier’s tightly wound Gerard. From the moment his Mr. Jackson steps in the door, it’s clear that Marcus, played by Eddie Murphy, and Tyler, played by Martin Lawrence, view him in a paternal light. But just as quickly as he takes the time to explain the importance of outfit coordination to Marcus (whose savoir faire he clearly respects) or embarrass Gerard, yet again, during dinner, he abruptly puts Marcus in his crosshairs—in his own house.
It’s all id and rooted in impulse, which Witherspoon—who says he ad-libbed everything—captured perfectly given the time he had to convey the dynamic. Mr. Jackson saw all three of them as his sons, meaning none of them was above mild slander regardless of the circumstances. That quality became a hallmark of Witherspoon’s best performances. Take Friday, for example.
“I smelled your shit for 22 years, now you can’t smell mine for five minutes?!” “Anybody drop a stinkin’ load, it’s gonna be me.” “Everytime I come in the kitchen, you in the kitchen.” A number of the lines Witherspoon delivered as Mr. Willie Jones are blunt, carrying his muted frustration and an abundance of condescension that grates the nerves, as intended. It’s a distinct—and familiar—brand of older-black-man-soapboxing. The method and anecdotal stories may have been annoying, but, in his mind, they were character-building exercises for Ice Cube’s Craig and, occasionally, Chris Tucker’s Smokey. The approach didn’t matter as long as the message left an impact. His speech to Craig about using his fists for protection rather than a gun are rooted in the moral code he was raised on. The bulk of his lectures were about preparing his kids for the world based on that code; he taught Craig how to defend himself the honorable way. Mr. Jones made a living catching dogs, but protecting his children—and, haphazardly, their friends—was the more important job. And for the majority of the Friday series, that was his reason for being.
Portraying the protective, wise elder became another defining arc of Witherspoon’s career. On The Wayans Bros., he played a man, white shoes and all, whose fond memories of his glory days were outshone by his desire to see his sons, Shawn and Marlon, be the best versions of themselves. On The Boondocks, he voiced the often irascible Grandad, a wealth of knowledge and lessons whose patience was frequently tested by the precocious grandchildren whose well-being he was entrusted with. There was a direct correlation between how much Huey and Riley pissed him off and how much he loved them. The concept of family was integral to many of Witherspoon’s defining roles, but it was also key to his bond with many of his fellow cast members.
Witherspoon worked with the same people frequently: Robert Townsend. Bebe Drake. Ice Cube. DJ Pooh. Anna Maria Horsford. Regina King. Various members of the Wayans family. Those are just a few names, but they’re among the many collaborators who regarded him as family.
No matter the setting, Witherspoon helped foster an invaluable sense of community as black Hollywood expanded. The warmth, wisdom, and humor endeared him to generations of talent, but it also jumped off the screen and enraptured audiences for decades. Witherspoon was a familiar and necessary figure, especially in the black community: the person who loved you like one of their own. The person who treated you like family. The person who understood that roasting is a love language.
That’s why #RIPPOPS is trending on Twitter today: Legends like John Witherspoon are fathers to us all, in a sense, regardless of whether we know them personally.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.