‘Abbott Elementary’ Scene Stealer William Stanford Davis on Auditions and Enjoying His First Series Regular Job at 71

·8-min read

According to William Stanford Davis, the Illuminati changed his life. In the pilot episode of “Abbott Elementary he appears as the mysterious janitor Mr. Johnson in front of a whiteboard with “ILLUMINATI” written on it in big letters, telling a group of children: “That’s who runs the world, kids.”

Proof of the adage there are no small parts, Davis would continue to steal scenes with minimal screen time as Mr. Johnson became a fan favorite. Less than 18 months after that first appearance, the 71-year-old actor finds himself with his first series regular gig, a SAG Award for his work in the show’s ensemble and a favorite meme thanks to all of Mr. Johnson’s random quotes.

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Davis isn’t nearly as gruff as Mr. Johnson, but he does share the character’s years of wisdom and has his own detailed history. He was the front man for the band The Fabulous Paramount Revue, studied at the acclaimed Actors Studio, did stand-up comedy on the road, and has been an acting teacher for years. He was in his 40s before he ever made his first TV appearance – ironically as a janitor in the daytime drama “The Bold and the Beautiful” but has certainly made up for a later start by seemingly working nonstop onscreen since then. Some of his more recognizable roles include a guest spot on “The Practice” to roles on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “Ray Donovan.”

Davis auditioned for the role entirely over Zoom during the COVID pandemic. And while in some ways it was just another audition, he was also immediately excited by the cast of the show. He knew star/creator Quinta Brunson’s work from both Buzzfeed and “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and has enjoyed Tyler James Williams’ work since he was a young actor on “Everybody Loves Chris.” He was even on “Ray Donovan” at the same time as Sheryl Lee Ralph, though they never shared scenes together.

Davis spoke to Variety about his long career, stealing scenes and the fun of playing a character when he doesn’t have all the answers to the questions yet.

Is it strange to play a character that in some ways we know so much about – he doesn’t believe in the moon, he counts Dorothy Hamill among his ex-lovers and he might be an Olympic athlete. But we don’t know his first name.

That’s the number one question I get all the time: what is his first name? I’m sure they’re going to come up with something really hilarious. But I tell people I’m playing my grandmother – she was a conspiracy theorist, and she had an opinion about everything and was the nosiest woman in the neighborhood. I take a lot of Mr. Johnson from her. But I also try to bring some humanity to him. Especially when I’m working in scenes with Tyler’s character. I understand him as a young Black man trying to make it in the world – especially as a teacher when you don’t see too many male teachers.

You’ve had so many TV appearances. You’re a pro. But did you get a sense this could be something special right away?

Well, because I’m in the background in so many scenes of the pilot, I was shooting almost every day. And there was something about it – the cast they put together, the jokes being so on point. I remember thinking, “This could be something really special.” I just couldn’t get over how excellent the writing was. But you know, there are things with excellent writing that never see the light of day.

At what point did they tell you that this was going to become a series regular?

During season one, maybe around the seventh episode, Quinta mentioned something about making me a regular and I walked away. Like, “I don’t want to hear that, you know. Sometimes they come to pass and sometimes they don’t and I don’t want to jinx it.” I just tried to keep it cool, keep my mouth shut and my fingers crossed. And towards the end of the season, I mentioned it to my agent and they ran with it from there. They called and told me, “Hey, man, they made you a series regular.” And everybody in the house, including my dog, started crying.

Why do you think everyone loves Mr. Johnson so much?

He’s honest, he says what’s on his mind. I think he’s the smartest guy in the school. He’s worked all over the world. He’s been a tastefully nude model. He’s had a lot of jobs. But I think this one gives him some satisfaction because of the kids. I think he went to a school like this. He’s a reflection of two janitors I’ve had in school. There was one, Mr. Glover, he used his own truck to bring desks and stuff to the school. That’s the way I see Mr. Johnson. He might be a little gruff on the outside but he’s there for you when you need it.

When he has these random lines about his past, do you think he’s being totally honest or is there any part that’s exaggerating or joking?

I think some of it is exaggeration, but I think he’s real about his conspiracy theories. I think he really believes, you know, there’s lizard people, and the Illuminati runs the world. But I think that a lot of times he’s trying to get a rise out of the teachers.

You didn’t start working in TV or film until 1995 but people might not realize you’ve always been performing.

My whole life has been in entertainment. I was in a band. I worked in radio. But I always wanted to be an actor. I came to Los Angeles when I was 33. The day I arrived, my car caught on fire and I took that as an omen: You can’t turn around and go back home, even if you wanted to.

I’m glad you took it as a positive sign. Many people would have taken it as a sign to leave.

No, I looked at it like, “Okay, you can’t turn around. You literally have no way of going home.” I look at all this as a test. And so far, I’ve gotten at least a B-plus.

Is there a part of you that’s glad this success is coming to you later in life. Do you think you would have handled things as well in your 20s?

In my 20s, definitely not. I was pretty wild. But I think in my 40s or 50s I would have been equipped. But I do think everything happens when it’s supposed to happen, and I’ve had time to really learn the craft and build a solid foundation.

I got frustrated quite a bit. There are times when you audition and you know you killed it, you get great feedback, but they go another way. And you have no power over it. But I just somehow knew I was on the right path. There were times I was eating ramen noodles for months or my car was being repossessed and my lights turned off – but something said, “Don’t give up. Something great is going to happen.”

What is your advice for actors in the audition or the rehearsal room – or even on set?

First of all, be prepared. One thing I like to do is ask questions when they ask me if I have any. I’ll ask, “Is there anything you want me to know that can help me make the best choices?” Or I’ll say, “I’d like to show you a couple different takes on it.” I keep it business, I let them know I’ll be a great person to work with, and I will know my lines, show up on time, and won’t knock over the furniture.

What I tell actors is: it’s not about getting the job, it’s about the work. Everybody wants the job, of course. Early in my career I would ask my teachers, “How did I do?” And nine out of 10 times they would say, “Why do you ask?” Mark Rydell, a teacher at the Actors Studio, used to say, “Do you want to be liked or do you want to be the best actor you can be? Quit worrying about how you just did the work and do the work.”

Another of my mentors was Martin Laudau and he would say, “Remember, guys, it’s a rehearsal.” And what he meant by that was: be willing to fall on your butt. Make a mistake, don’t worry about getting it right. Rehearsal gives you the freedom to make discoveries. Or mistakes. Or those mistakes can turn out to be great.

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