AMEN – getTV Interview with Clifton Davis
Clifton Davis has had a multi-faceted career, not only playing Reverend Reuben Gregory on getTV’s show Amen but also as a songwriter for musical giants such as The Jackson 5 and The Supremes. Inspired to pursue acting after seeing his first Broadway show, Davis went on to star in the hit TV show That’s My Mama before deciding to become a pastor. Coincidently, it was at this time he was asked to play the part of Reverend Reuben Gregory on Amen, which was a full circle moment that Davis describes as “divine intervention”.
We recently sat down with Davis to chat about his career, his role on Amen and working with comedic legend Sherman Hemsley.
getTV: Let’s start with your gifts as a singer and songwriter. Were you always working toward that as a career, even when you were young?
Clifton Davis: No not at all, in fact, I had an older brother whose ambition was to be a professional singer and I didn’t have that same ambition until much, much later. I was in high school before it dawned on me that I could sing and perform and that I was funny. I started winning contests in high school and that gave me a sense that maybe there was something there in the future for me in that area. But no, I didn’t pursue it professionally.
And do you remember the first song you wrote?
Yes, I wrote my class song at graduation. It was for my high school. I wrote my high school class song along with another class friend of mine.
I read that you were inspired to go into acting after seeing your first Broadway play, is that true and can you tell me how your career evolved into one as an actor?
That is absolutely true. The first show I ever saw on Broadway was called The Apple Tree starring Barbara Harris and Alan Alda and I thought it was so funny and captivating and interesting and engaging and I was blown away that it looked like a movie live on stage. At 21 years old, I had never seen a Broadway show and I was simply struck. I was working as a video engineer at ABC and I said I’ve got to pursue this. I was bitten by the bug and I loved it so much that I decided to leave my wonderful job and pursue a career in the entertainment industry. And they were kind enough at my job to offer me a six month leave of absence so I could pursue it and if I wanted to, I could come back and have my job back. But six months after I started, I got my first job on Broadway and I never looked back.
You are naturally gifted when it comes to comedy. How did you first hear about the show and the role of Reverend Reuben Gregory on Amen?
I had already done That’s My Mama in the 70’s, I had my own sitcom and variety show, so when Amen came around I was experienced, and the fact is, that I had left the business to pursue a degree in ministry and I had just finished my finals at the seminary when Reuben Cannon, the casting director for Amen reached out to me. He found me through friends in Michigan where I was studying and I received a phone call inviting me to screen test for the role of the minister. The irony of course, was that I had just finished my master’s degree as a minister.
Did they know that when they cast you?
No, they didn’t! They didn’t know until I arrived in Hollywood for the screen test. So, it was a wonderful blessing. I don’t think it was a coincidence, I think it was divine intervention.
You were a barber on That’s My Mama. How was it playing a reverend on Amen? Did it feel more natural?
Well, lets put it this way, playing the reverend was natural for who I was at that moment and what my personal experience was at the time and so I was very comfortable playing the reverend and it was frankly a thrill.
How much of Reuben was written and how much did you create?
Well I brought that character to life. They wrote him, but I put breadth on him and brought him to life. I loved the way they wrote him. They had a sensitivity for the African American church, and they were funny. These writers were hilariously funny, so it made it a whole lot easier to perform and play the character because it was written so funny. I was supporting one of the best comic actors around. Sherman Helmsley was phenomenal.
He was just coming off of The Jeffersons at the time. What do you remember about the initial response to Amen?
He was! And it had a tremendous buzz around it! Everyone was excited to see Sherman Hemsley back on television and they had surrounded him with a supporting cast that not only loved him but worked well with him. We bounced well off of each other. We played well with each other. We had a tremendous amount of respect for each other and quite frankly, I developed a friendship with Anna Maria that lives to this very day. We’re very close and we’re proud of it. We had an awful lot of fun on that show.
You just answered my next question. I was going to say that the cast had such amazing chemistry - were you all close when the cameras weren’t rolling? Seems you certainly were and are.
Well certainly Anna and I were and others of the cast, we felt like brothers and sisters and though we lived in different places, we’d get together from time to time and it was always fun and exciting. Let’s face it, we worked together for five years, five days a week, for 26-weeks a year so we were very close and found a way to get along all the time. It was really a blessing to get to know all those wonderful, talented actors and still be friends with those who are alive.
What is your favorite episode(s) of the show?
Of course – I love the wedding, not the one where I pass out, but the real wedding we had on TV. That was a very special show. But my favorite of all was called “Sermon from a Cell” in which I was protesting and was locked up and while in jail, I met a convict and he was a cellmate and since it was Sunday and I was locked up and didn’t have congregation, I preached to my cellmate and it was one of the most powerful, and moving and funny episodes we had and that became my favorite.
You are still so busy! You’ve been on Madam Secretary recently, in addition to other projects. What is it that interests you in choosing your projects?
I do filter projects. I can’t accept everything that comes my way because while most actors are willing to say and do anything, I draw the line a little bit. I’m not mad at anyone else for their choices, but I’ve made choices for my life not to go too far when it comes to using expletives and that kind of thing. I’m a little choosey about what I do. My preferred character has similar values to me.
People really love this series on getTV. I know it still resonates for fans - it was important to them when it was first on TV and it continues to be important to them. Why do you think Amen has had such a lasting legacy?
Well first, I believe it touches other lives. People can relate to the folks in this show, and why is that so? It was brilliantly written that show. The writers and producers. It was cast perfectly. The people who played these characters were totally believable and it was hilariously funny. We laughed day and night for five solid years. I think that’s one of the reasons we still have youthful looks – we had so many laughs and so much fun together that we will never ever forget. Memorable moments - and I believe it resonates with audiences because of the values of church, family, friendship, and devotion. Also, the value of comedy, because that’s important in everyone’s life.
Watch Amen every weekday starting at 6a ET - for more, visit the getTV schedule.