Leonard Jackson: Took Pride

Another post in celebration of Black History Month.

February 7 is the birthday of stage and screen actor Leonard Jackson (1928-2013), billed in his early years as L. Errol Jaye. From Jacksonville, Florida, Jackson’s early years were on the stage. His professional debut was in the Public Theater’s 1965 production of Troilus and Cressida. In 1968, he starred as the title character in The Electronic N—-r, a play by the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture Ed Bullins, at the American Place Theatre. His firs first Broadway show was The Great White Hope, which ran from 1968 to 1971. Then came Murderous Angels (1971) and a revival of Lost in the Stars (1972).

Next came an intermediate period where he mostly did films and television, including some groundbreaking work with African American directors like Bill Gunn and Oscar Williams. He was in Ganja and Hess (1973), Five on the Black Hand Side (1973), Super Spook (1975), Car Wash (1975) and The Baron (1977). He played Louise’s father in an 1981 episode of The Jeffersons. 

Finally, his late period, where he did some of his most significant, important and high profile work. In 1984 he was in the original production of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and in John Sayles’ film The Brother from Another Planet. The following year in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. In 1986 he was on The Cosby Show, in ’87 on Amen with Sherman Hemsley. Throughout 1989 he was a regular on the children’s TV show Shining Time Station. In 1991 he was in the Broadway premiere of Mule Bone by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and in the movie A Rage in Harlem, directed by Bill Duke, with whom Jackson had appeared in Car Wash. In ’93 he had a memorable turn as a grave digger in the premiere episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, directed by Barry Levinson. In 1996 he played the title character’s father in Julian Schnabel’s bio-pic Basquiat.

This is only some of his work, but one thing that quickly emerges is that he made good choices. He clearly only did projects he wanted to be proud of, for the most part. By the same token, many important directors clearly wanted to work with him. This 1973 interview with him by Ira H. Gallen, done at the time when he was starring in Five on the Black Hand Side, confirms our impression of him as a serious artist. Leonard Jackson produced a serious body of work well worth celebrating.