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After 60 years in showbiz, Glynn Turman has seen it all. And he’s not done yet

"Fargo" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" actor Glynn Turman smoking a cigar in front of a yellow wall.
Glynn Turman, photographed at his home in Los Angeles, remains one of the busiest actors in Hollywood. He was featured in the latest season of “Fargo” and has a key supporting role in Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re wondering why Glynn Turman keeps popping up in high-profile projects, the veteran actor can break it down for you.

“My manager calls it ‘the Glynnaissance,’” said Turman in a Zoom interview, flashing a smile that lights up the computer screen like a Christmas tree.

More than six decades after his debut in the original Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and more than 40 years since his breakthrough in the nostalgic coming-of-age movie “Cooley High,” Turman is hard at work, scoring plum roles in prestigious films and TV series.

The 73-year-old actor is featured in Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the adaptation of August Wilson’s play that is almost certain to be an awards-season frontrunner. (Turman won the supporting actor prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. on Sunday for his performance.) He also was prominent in the most recent installment of FX’s “Fargo,” playing the no-nonsense consigliere of a 1950s Black crime syndicate with the head-turning name of Doctor Senator.

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In January, Turman starts work on a key role in ABC’s limited series “Women of the Movement,” focused on the civil rights movement and the brutal murder of teenager Emmett Till — the latest in a lengthy list of recent credits, including “black-ish,” “Power,” “Claws,” “Mr. Mercedes,” “House of Lies,” “American Gods,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “The Wire” and an Emmy-winning guest spot on “In Treatment” in 2008.

“I’m a lucky guy,” said Turman, who also has earned credits as a writer or director on such well-known TV series as “Peyton Place,” “A Different World” and “The Wayans Bros.” . “I’m on the back nine of my career and these iconic roles keep coming to me. ... I’m rejuvenated and energized and ready to go.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Turman, like many others in Hollywood, to cut back on his busy schedule. He’s unhappy that he’s not able to be around his children and grandchildren, including his eighth grandchild, who was born last week. Much of his time has been spent at his small horse ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Chadwick Boseman’s final performance concludes on a heartbreaking note meant to drive home the play’s point about the value, and ownership, of Black art.

Glynn Turman stands next to a piano in a room in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
Glynn Turman in a scene in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
(David Lee/Netflix)

“I’ve been getting back to riding,” he said. “Golf had moved the horses aside for a while. But when COVID hit, I put golf down and got back to the horses.

“When I came back, they said to me, ‘Oh, now you need us,’" he added, letting out a booming, infectious laugh.

Turman clearly enjoys his elder statesman status in Hollywood. He recalled a chat he had with Chris Rock, who played the head of the crime syndicate in “Fargo.”

“Chris talked about telling his mother he was doing this serious role, and how he was working with [“Fargo” creator] Noah Hawley and Glynn Turman. She said, ‘Glynn Turman? That’s when she got excited. I was really humbled. She told him, ‘If Glynn Turman is in it, you better get your s— together.’”

And he’s been around long enough to appreciate the dramatic changes that have taken place for Black people working in Hollywood: He’s seen the racism, the steps forward and the setbacks alike, and is now celebrating the growing number of Black-led projects in film and television.

“Before, Black stories lacked a certain depth and dimension — we had arguments with producers who were white and had no incentive to tell our stories,” he said. “We knew we had to tell our own stories. It’s taken all this time to get to this point. The necessity became clear to everyone who wanted to be in front of the camera. They finally realized that the real power was behind the camera. The narrative was what was important. These young people now were the ones we were waiting for.”

He added, “I’m so glad I’m still part of the business, and that these young people are reaching back and grabbing my old ass to be part of these stories. I feel special to be able to contribute to their gifts.”

Asked about his own career struggles, though, Turman is reluctant. “Yeah, I recall them, but I’d rather not.” The laugh booms again. “It ain’t been no crystal stair, baby!”

Glynn Turman standing before red barn doors
Glynn Turman, photographed at his home in Los Angeles, says starting his career opposite Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in “A Raisin in the Sun” was both a blessing and a curse.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Still, Turman has received unqualified praise from Hollywood’s elite creators and performers who have worked with him.

Said “Ma Rainey” director George C. Wolfe: “Glynn has a natural, effortless elegance to himself just as a human being. He’s such a brilliant craftsperson as an actor that you fall into his work. But it’s deep, powerful, complex and commanding. There’s an instant sense of trust that he has, which is extraordinary. He’s probably always had it as a young actor, but it’s become magnified with age.”

Don Cheadle, who played deceitful consultant Marty Kaan in Showtime’s “House of Lies,” said he was thrilled to have Turman play his father in the series. “He gave a center to the show that allowed Marty to be as unhinged as he was,” Cheadle said. “He’s also very funny. It could have been a stock character but the writers were smart enough to craft a character that could show all the colors that Glynn has.”

George Lucas even came close to casting Turman as Han Solo in the “Star Wars” franchise.

“Harrison Ford owes me a lot of money,” Turman said, beaming.

Much of Turman’s attention now is on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Viola Davis as the famed 1920s blues singer. The film captures the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer in August.

Boseman, whose work in “Black Panther” and other films had turned him into one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors, plays Levee, the cocky trumpeter of Rainey’s band, who continually butts heads with Rainey and the other musicians — including Toledo, the world-weary pianist portrayed by Turman. As Times film critic Justin Chang wrote of the performance, “Turman ... nails the gorgeous wistfulness of Toledo’s lament for an African diaspora in tatters: Likening all of history to a richly flavored stew, he sadly concludes that ‘the colored man is the leftovers.’”

We sat down to a virtual dinner with creator Noah Hawley and the cast of “Fargo” to discuss Season 4 and America’s enduring affection for criminals and crooks.

Glynn Turman in character in "Fargo" sits at a restaurant table with light streaming in the window behind him.
Glynn Turman says his performance in Season 4 of “Fargo” was partly inspired by his father, who wore a similar hat to Turman’s character in the FX series, Doctor Senator.
(FX)

The film marks a return to the role Turman played in a 2016 production of “Ma Rainey” at the Mark Taper Forum. Following one performance, he was visited backstage by Denzel Washington, who had been entrusted by Wilson’s widow to adapt Wilson’s plays for the screen.

“He told me to stand by and stay ready,” said Turman, praising Washington and producing partner Todd Black. “They put together a heck of a team to bring the best. If you had asked me if I thought ‘Cooley High’ would be regarded as the iconic film it became, I would have had no idea. But I do not see how this film could not become an iconic piece.”

He added that Boseman’s work “would be regarded as great even if tragedy had not happened.” Turman had no idea during filming that the actor had serious health problems.

“There were a group of people who were always there with him, and I just thought they were his entourage,” he said. “But we later found out that they all had specific roles to keep him healthy enough to do the movie. There was a nutritionist, a physical therapist, others. They played their part perfectly without letting anyone know they were there to keep him in working order.”

By the end of the film, Levee and Toledo‘s prickly repartee escalates into a volcanic conflict with devastating consequences.

“It came after a week of monumental work by the guys in that band room. Emotional fatigue had set in. Then there were the stakes of the scene, which is so important,” Wolfe said of the scene in question, the last of the film to be shot. “Nobody had any skin left, if you know what I mean. There’s no armor to protect vulnerability. There’s just vulnerability.”

Added Turman: “There were 15 takes from different angles, which shows the stamina Chadwick had considering what he was going through. We were all raw, wiped out and exhausted. We were open as artists to let flow whatever came through, and that’s what happened. It was a hell of a day, I’ll tell you that. A hell of a day.”

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VIDEO | 00:52
‘Fargo’s’ Glynn Turman on his inspiration for Doctor Senator

The veteran actor describes the personal connection that helped him find his Season 4 character.

His tone lightened when the subject turned to “Fargo.” His excitement about being involved grew when he saw his stylish gangster wardrobe, including a hat with a formidable brim.

“He reminded me of so many people in my family,” he said of Doctor Senator. “My father lived in Chicago back in the day and I’ve got a picture of him wearing that very same hat. Once I put that hat on, I knew what I was playing and where I was going.”

Hawley had long been a fan of Turman: “I’ve been watching him my whole life,” he said. “What I needed for Chris was a mentor, and he took on that elder statesman role of the set. He immediately came to mind as someone who has something to teach all of us.”

Turman began his acting career as a 12-year-old when he was cast as the son of a struggling Black couple played by Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in the first Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“It was a blessing and a curse,” Turman said of the experience. “I started in a play that broke down barriers in so many categories. It set my standards so high, working at the age of 12 with Sidney, Ruby, Lou Gossett, telling this story by Lorraine Hansberry that had no buffoonery and receiving all those accolades. So there I was, trying to start a career going forward and that’s the standard you’re judging other works by?”

On some subsequent projects, he felt the themes, stories and settings were not realistic or respectful of the Black experience. “You have to learn to pick your battles. But there were times when I felt I had to speak up and that’s never a good thing. That can cut a career short.”

One experience that transcended those obstacles was “Cooley High,” a low-budget film about the shenanigans of a group of high schoolers in Chicago during the 1960s. Flavored with a soundtrack of Motown hits, the film, which featured Turman in his first lead role, was a sharp contrast to the blaxploitation films popular in the mid-1970s.

Turman said rarely a day goes by without him being approached about “Cooley High”: “It’s one of the few films at that time that presented our community to the world in a light that was palpable and well-rounded. It’s still around and being watched after four generations.” He even remains close with some of his costars on the film, including Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (“Welcome Back Kotter”) and Garrett Morris (“Saturday Night Live”).

The ‘Your Honor’ star says his senses of taste and smell are still at just 70% since coming down with COVID-19 in March. And he knows many suffered far worse.

Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, Glynn Turman and Corin Rogers stand together outside in a scene in "Cooley High."
Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, left, Glynn Turman and Corin Rogers in “Cooley High.”
(AMPAS)

Another fond memory is his six-year-marriage to “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin. Although the union ended in divorce in 1984, the two remained close friends. He visited her the day before she died in August 2018.

“We really liked each other,” he said. “We had time as lovers together but I liked her as a human being and she liked me the same. We had a mutual respect for each other.”

As for the future, Turman has a few things he’d like to try. “I’m still a cowboy at heart, so there are a few westerns I’d like to get done before I’m too old to put my leg over a horse.” He also points to a Netflix film, “Justine,” about a single mother who becomes caretaker of a young girl with spina bifida, which he executive produced: “I’d like to do more of that.”

But he suspects he will never give up acting. “I’m like Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather.’ Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”

Cue booming laugh.


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