In a way, actor Mykelti Williamson owes his interest in his profession to the television show “Leave It to Beaver.”
As a child growing up in Memphis, Tenn., he thought that because he could see Beaver and the Cleaver family on television, someone could see his family.
“I started walking like Beaver, talking like Beaver, dressing like Beaver, and my oldest brother, Jerry--one day I called him Wally,” Williamson, 35, says during a mid-afternoon interview in his publicist’s office.
“Come on, Wally,” he squeaks in a surprisingly good Beaver imitation.
“Jerry sat me down and explained that that’s the television set and this is reality,” Williamson continues. “It was sort of like my calling, I just misinterpreted it. It was kind of wild how it worked out, because right after that, I started doing theater in church.”
Williamson started performing professionally at age 13 with the Lockers, a disco dance troupe, and won a guest role on “Starsky and Hutch” at 17 in his first professional audition.
Since then, Williamson has accumulated a list of film and television credits that might almost measure up to his 6-foot, 3 1/2-inch frame, including a recurring role on “Hill Street Blues” and a guest-star spot on two episodes of “China Beach.” Recently, he has moved away from television for roles in “Free Willy” and the Los Angeles play “Distant Fires,” but his powerful performance in director Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” seems sure to win him greater recognition.
In the film, Williamson plays Bubba, a country-boy-type from Louisiana who befriends Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump in the Army. The two are sent to fight in the Vietnam War, where Bubba continues to look out for Gump and teaches him about the shrimping business, which Gump pursues after leaving the Army.
Williamson’s given name, Mykelti, means “spirit” or “silent friend” in the language of the Blackfoot Indians, of which his mother is a descendant, but he’s hardly silent in person. Instead, he talks good-naturedly about the writing projects he’s working on, how he’s spending his time off and a summer trip to Oregon to reprise his role as a social worker in “Free Willy II.”
“I restore cars, listen to jazz and play golf,” says Williamson, who’s single and lives near Marina del Rey, and is finishing work on a 1967 Mercedes convertible.
“We’re trying to figure out which project we’re going to do after (the sequel to) ‘Free Willy,’ ” Williamson says. “I’ve (also) got some other projects that I’m writing right now for myself.”
Besides writing screenplays, Williamson is busy negotiating the sale of a television show he created called “The Legends of Big Mama,” a “Twilight Zone"-style anthology of stories based on tales told to him by his grandmother.
Williamson also directs, and he’s done videos for jazz guitarist Craig T. Cooper, one of his close friends, and rap artists Movement Ex. But although he’s multitalented, don’t expect to see him take complete control of a project by writing, acting and directing.
“This is such a collaborative art that I think it’s kind of silly to do it all,” Williamson says. “It’s not about me .”
Williamson knows his part in “Gump” could be his breakthrough, but though he enjoyed working with Hanks and Zemeckis, the work he did for the film wasn’t all pure fun.
“It was very intense,” says Williamson of the South Carolina filming of the Vietnam War sequences of the movie. “We lived in the jungle for a week. We had two weeks basic training. We were locked up in a room with this guy who’s, like, happy to be a soldier, and we’re civilians.
“The first day out there I suffered heat exhaustion; then I ended up getting poison ivy on my face; then I got chased by a snake, a 6-foot-long water moccasin. . . . The snake was gaining on me, it was right behind me, and then all of a sudden it just took a left turn and took off.”
But despite the harsh conditions and nature-related mishaps, Williamson found time for improvised humor. In a scene where his shrimp-obsessed character was required to name some of his favorite ways to cook shrimp, the director kept rolling. “He didn’t cut, so I just kept on improvising more ways to fix shrimp,” says Williamson, who came up with some fairly obscure dishes.
That natural humor is one of the reasons Williamson was chosen for the part, according to Zemeckis. “He brought the right tone to the character,” Zemeckis said in a separate interview. “He can do comedy, he can do drama, he can convey emotion. He’s got a real leading man quality.”