getTV Talks AMEN— An Interview with Clifton Davis
At an age when many actors slow down — either by choice or by circumstance — Clifton Davis is more in-demand than ever. The 74-year-old has recurring roles on two TV shows: Madam Secretary on CBS and Godfather of Harlem on Epix. He recently completed a four-year run as the Sultan in Disney’s Aladdin, his eighth Broadway show. And he has a role in Jane Austen’s Pride, a musical version of Pride And Prejudice that he hopes is destined for Broadway.
That’s a long way of saying Clifton Davis is busy. But the veteran actor, singer, and songwriter — he wrote “Never Can Say Goodbye” for the Jackson 5 — recently spared some time to talk with us about Amen, seen weekday mornings at 6a and 9a ET on getTV!
Created by nine-time Emmy winner Ed. Weinberger, Amen was designed as a starring vehicle for Sherman Hemsley after 12 years as George Jefferson on All In The Family and The Jeffersons. While the focus remained on Hemsley’s Philadelphia church deacon Ernie Frye for the entire five-season run, Amen’s writers found endless story possibilities in two other characters: Ernie’s single daughter Thelma (Anna Maria Horsford) and Rev. Reuben Gregory (Davis), the First Community Church’s pastor.
From their meet-cute in the pilot to the birth of their baby in the finale, Thelma and Reuben’s courtship is the heart and soul of Amen. Horsford and Davis, both gifted physical comedians, mixed broad slapstick with relatable dating dramas, culminating in a brilliantly bifurcated wedding that remains one of the most memorable in sitcom history.
We recently chatted on the phone with Davis about Amen and Thelma and Reuben, who are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary in 2020! The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
AMEN Anna Maria Horsford, Clifton Davis
Your rise was rapid, from Broadway to Motown songwriter to headliner of your own variety show, and then the sitcom That’s My Mama, in just six or seven years.
It was a wonderful time. I was growing by leaps and bounds on a regular basis.
Then you stepped away. Did you consider Amen a comeback?
Yes, I did. I had left the business to pursue a college degree, and I had been gone since 1981. In 1984, I got my Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology with a minor in Biblical Languages. I then went straight on to the seminary for a Master of Divinity degree, which is the practical pastor’s degree.
And while you were pursuing that calling, Amen called.
It was like art imitating life! Because there I was, a graduate school master's degree minister, getting a job on television as a minister! [LAUGH].
Amen was created by Ed. Weinberger, writer and producer of Mary Tyler Moore and co-creator of Taxi. Did you know of his work when you got the call?
I knew exactly who Ed. Weinberger was. He had called me when he started Taxi and asked my availability. Problem was, I had signed up to do Pal Joey starring Lena Horne and myself for a nine-month run and was unavailable.
But he remembered you.
It was a lot of years after that, but someone recommended me for the role of the pastor. And God blessed me to go in there, do the screen test, and win the part.
Did you know that your That's My Mama co-star Jester Hairston had also been cast on Amen?
I had no idea until we started filming and I saw him there. It just was mind-boggling and so wonderful to see him after all those years, because he wasn't a young fella when we did That's My Mama! Jester Hairston was a very, very special human being.
Amen gave all of you who had musical talents an opportunity to demonstrate those talents, but not in a way that broke the narrative.
Well said. Ed. Weinberger had a way of planning those sorts of things and wrapping them into the fabric of our lives as those characters.
AMEN Jester Hairston, Anna Maria Horsford, Sherman Hemlsey, Roz Ryan, Barbara Montgomery, Clifton Davis
Were you aware that Thelma and Reuben were going to be so important to the show?
I had no inkling of where they were going with a relationship or the lack of a relationship. However, by the middle of the first season, I began to see the light. They were having so much fun with Thelma chasing the Reverend, I began to figure at some point she's going to catch him [LAUGH].
Which she did!
The wonderful thing about that is that Anna Maria and I got along so well and we enjoyed playing off of and with one another so much. We fully understood each other's acting style and craft, and we melded well together.
Was Sherman Hemsley supportive of all the screen time you guys got?
Sherman always wanted what was best for the show. He was a consummate professional, hilariously funny on camera, very quiet off camera. But buddy, when he got in front of that camera and the red light went on, there was no holding him back. When we lost him, we lost a treasure.
AMEN Sherman Hemsley and Clifton Davis
Did you know how long they were going to keep the will-they-or-won't-they going with Thelma and Reuben?
We never knew. Ed.'s insight was profoundly good, and his instincts were all correct. And he was able to bring truth to the wildest of stories. So, when it popped up in the fourth season that a marriage was going to take place, we embraced it.
There are two weddings. In the first one, in November of 1989, you take quite a beating. You faint, fall, get slapped, shaken, and dragged around.
[LAUGH] I have to tell you the truth. I fought tooth and nail not to do that. I begged Ed. Weinberger. I said, "Ed., you're going to make my character look like a punk. You’re gonna make him look like a wussy! Come on. He's much stronger than that." And he said, "Clifton, you have to just trust me. This is going to work." And finally, I said, "All right, I'll go all in with this."
Was that really you falling over or a stuntman? Because that was some serious falling!
[LAUGH] We rehearsed this thing, and they put a little pad down. And believe me, when we shot this in front of the audience, I fell flat out. Boom! [LAUGH]. It was so much fun. It was some of the best sitcom acting I'd ever been a part of. And thank God for Anna Maria, 'cause she rode that horse until it couldn't ride no more. She played that out so well. She was wonderful. [LAUGH]
Did you wake up sore the next day?
Actually yes [LAUGH].
AMEN Anna Maria Horsford and Clifton Davis
And then, a few months later, Thelma and Reuben get married for real.
Anna Maria was a glorious bride. She was radiant, absolutely beautiful woman, and it was so fulfilling. Her character arc had come so far from those rollers and that bathrobe in the first episode to this wedding gown in the fourth season. It was amazing transformation, and I was so thrilled just to be a part of it.
That episode is everything that’s great about Amen: slapstick one moment and resonant the next.
I totally agree. It felt that way while we were doing it. It just felt real, which is what all of these things should be. And the little flower girl in the wedding was my five-year-old daughter. She’s 35 years old now and has given me two wonderful grandchildren who are 11 and nine. Life has really been a blessing.
Congratulations! What do you think Reuben and Thelma are up to 30 years later?
I think Reuben and Thelma are about to retire and pass off the church to one of their children. And I would love to see that on the air.
Did this interview just turn into a pitch, Clifton?
Yeah, it may have! [LAUGH]