David Alan Grier is an actor and comedian who became famous as a member of the cast of the groundbreaking TV series “In Living Color” from 1990-1994, and went on to land roles in a range of movies and TV shows. Born in Detroit in 1955, he started acting while attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the mid-1970s.
Grier has another Ann Arbor connection, too. In 2007, he hosted an NBC improv show, “Thank God You’re Here” – a cast member of that show, Nyima Funk, grew up in Ann Arbor and is the daughter of former city councilmember Wendy Woods.
Grier recently authored the book “Barack Like Me: The Chocolate-Covered Truth,” which he will be promoting at two appearances in Ann Arbor on Sunday, Oct. 18. From 10 a.m. to noon he’s scheduled to appear at the Arthur Miller Theatre in the Walgreen Drama Center on UM’s North Campus. From 2-3:30 p.m. he’ll be speaking and signing books at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch.
In a phone interview earlier this week, Grier talked about his experiences in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and reveals – among many things – which local icon inspired one of his “In Living Color” characters.
What was it like growing up in Detroit in the ’50s and ’60s?
I loved Detroit. We thought that we were big time – you know, that’s where cars were made! And Motown was from Detroit. I really was very proud of my city.
I don’t really remember the ’50s. I guess my first memory is from around 1960, like most kids, when I was around four years old. I remember going into my preschool, it was part of the church I went to, People’s Community Church. My teacher was like, “Who are you voting for?” And we’re like, “We’re all for Kennedy!” That was probably my first memory.
Were you particularly political during the ’60s?
I was a kid, but growing up in that time, I think I talk about it in the book – my family marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., when he did his march on poverty in Detroit in ’63, and being aware of all those things that were inherently political around us. I grew up in a politically-conscious family. Let me put it like that.
Do you remember anything in particular about marching with Dr. King?
I remember that I did not want to do it because I wanted to play football! And I remember ice cream. And lots of people. And having to dress in our Sunday clothes. You know, as a kid, at that age, it really was like, this is very important. All our family’s doing it, you have to do it, too. That was what my memory was.
Later on, with the march on Washington, I remember watching it on television in the living room. I knew something important was going on, when my parents put the television in the living room.
What do you remember about the riots in Detroit in the summer of 1967?
I grew up on West Boston Boulevard, so there was a huge field, it was Durfee, Roosevelt, and Central High School. And the National Guard just took over. We had our little Brownie cameras and we went up to the fence and took pictures of the troops.
I remember when my aunt called my mom early in the morning, and said that a blind pig had been raided and there was a riot. In ’67 I was only 12 years old, and I was thinking, “What is a blind pig?” “What is a riot?” I didn’t know what a riot was. Was it a big fight? What was it? I didn’t know.
My mom loaded us up and we went and drove a few blocks to take a look, which was really scary, and dangerous. That felt like a state of war, like civil war.
You also tried to join the Black Panthers?
Yes, but I do say that I was what I call a “blerd,” a black nerd. I remember that my best friend and I, we really wanted to join the Black Panther Party. You know what it was the closest to? I was watching this documentary on the N.W.A., and Gangsta rap, and the fascination was the same. It was rebellious – these dudes were loud, and profane, and yelling stuff. It was very exciting, very provocative. Yeah, man – and they dressed really cool. They had black berets and black leather jackets. It was awesome!
Of course we were rebuffed, and weren’t allowed to join. We were too young. They said you had to be 16, and we were only 15. So that was unsuccessful.
[Later Grier would play Black Panther Fred Hampton in a television mini-series about the 1960s.]
What are your thoughts about Detroit now?
Oh man, what can I say. I still have family there, and it’s great to go back and visit the family. But when I’m taking someone there for the first time, I feel like a guy from the Twilight Zone, trying to explain that this was a vibrant city. All these neighborhoods that we’re driving through, these were vibrant, middle-class neighborhoods that weren’t the best, but they were safe, and they were populated. It’s hard to even imagine now.
It saddens me. I grew up in Detroit, and I love Detroit. Hopefully, some day they can figure out a fix and a cure, but it really does sadden me.
What do you remember about Ann Arbor?
I loved going to school in Ann Arbor. I have nothing but fond memories. That’s when I started acting. I started everything there.
I think Ann Arbor’s changed a lot. I haven’t been there in a while. But when I went to school in Ann Arbor it was really a quaint, small town. It was awesome. They still had the Hash Bash!
Did you go to any Hash Bashes?
Um, I went to one or two. I didn’t actually go to it, you know – you went through it to get to class. Once a friend of mine smoked some suspect hash, and it was a long night. So after that, I was kind of off the Hash Bash.
What made you choose to go to the University of Michigan?
Well, I didn’t want to go to the University of Michigan. I wanted to go to the University of Colorado in Boulder. There used to be a catalog, like the Whole Earth Catalog for colleges. It named the coolest school, the best party school, like that. The University of Colorado was the number one party school, and that’s why I wanted to go. And my parents were like, “No, you’re not going there.”
The University of Michigan was the coolest alternative, and most economically viable, being that I was a resident of Michigan. And you know, it’s a great school. And it was within striking range of my mom. It was about 41 minutes, I think, from our front door to the college. That’s why I got to go there.
Do you draw on your experiences in Ann Arbor for any of your characters or routines?
Of course! The character I did on “In Living Color,” this old blues player, was based on a guy that used to hang out on the Diag. His name was Shakey Jake. Someone told me on Facebook that he recently passed away.
Yes, he did.
Yeah, I was sorry to hear that. But that was definitely Shakey Jake. And One-String Sam, who was a real musician from the Detroit area. He had this two-by-four, and he took two nails, two liquor bottles, and one string, and he would play slide. I think he recorded one song, called “All I Need Is a Hundred Dollars.” When I did Calhoun Tubbs on “In Living Color,” that was definitely an homage to those two guys.
In the ’60s and ’70s Ann Arbor had a reputation for being a hotbed of radicalism. Was that your experience when you were here?
Well, I would say it was a hotbed of apathy by the time I got there. I mean, the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and all that – we heard rumors of them, but of course the heyday of all that was gone. It was in the midst of the apathetic ’70s. I mean, we went to a couple of Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals, but basically that atmosphere – there was still smoke, but the fire was gone.
Do you remember any activism on campus among the black student body?
Well, there were things that I took for granted. I’ll give you an example. Two or three years ago, I did a production of “The Wiz” at San Diego State University, and a fellow classmate of mine, who now was the dean of a department there, asked me to speak, because they were just inaugurating an African Studies department.
I was shocked! Because in ’74 they had an African-American Studies department at the University of Michigan that was well established. That had to be a result of the activism of the students there. Black Studies – that was a major. Women’s Studies – that was a major. Back then, that was a radical step. But they had these departments, and they were rolling. By the time I got there, they felt like they were part of the university.
I took classes as a freshman, before I decided my major. Even black theater, which was the first acting class I ever took. My teacher, Dr. Vaughn Washington, would do Othello. I was in it, a lot of my friends were in it. It was a part of my education, and it was at the very beginning, too. That’s how I really got into acting.
Any other memories of Ann Arbor?
I saw Richard Pryor there…. Honestly, the fond memory of Ann Arbor is the cultural mix that was there. I could go to a medieval concert, and poetry readings, and Chinese opera – I mean, it was there. It was a place that was vibrant and alive, and there was so much access to so much knowledge and experience, it was great. I liked being there, and going to school there. It really helped open and expand my world.
About the writer: Alan Glenn is currently at work a documentary film about Ann Arbor in the ’60s. Visit the film’s website for more information.