getTV talks AMEN — An Interview with Roz Ryan
Can we get an Amen for Amen? The 1980s sitcom starring Sherman Hemsley as a Philadelphia church deacon quickly became a showcase for a powerhouse supporting cast: Anna Maria Horsford as daughter Thelma, Clifton Davis as pastor Reuben, Jester Hairston as sage Rolly, and Roz Ryan and Barbara Montgomery as the Hetebrink sisters. Nearly thirty-five years later, this ensemble comedy from creator Ed. Weinberger remains a blessing for fans old and new.
And you can see for yourself every weekday on getTV as Deacon Ernie Frye and the congregants of the First Community Church kick off our Funny Side Up morning comedy lineup starting at 9 a.m. ET!
For some true confessions about this TV classic, we recently chatted with Roz Ryan, best known to Amen fans as church secretary Amelia Hetebrink. Ryan first achieved fame in the Tony-winning musicals Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Dreamgirls and has since become a Broadway legend, with more than 3,000 performances as “Mama” Morton in Chicago around the globe! She’s also a prolific animation voice actress, a career that began with Thalia in Disney’s Hercules (1997) and continues today on shows like Adventure Time and Summer Camp Island.
In short, Roz Ryan is busy. But this living legend took some time out of her schedule to talk with getTV. The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
getTV: How did you get your start?
ROZ RYAN: I was a night club singer in Detroit for 13 years and Ain't Misbehavin' came to town. A friend called me and said, “There's a part in this for you.” I auditioned and they gave me the job the next day. Ten days later, I was on Broadway.
That’s not the typical “coming to New York with five dollars and a dream” story!
That's why I call it the “Cinderella slipper.” I was very content doing what I was doing. I was working clubs and making a lot of money. I had no dreams of Broadway, but I went. And the rest is history.
How did you transition to TV?
I went to audition for Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, the Richard Pryor story, and I met Reuben Cannon, one of the top black casting directors in the country. He told me I was too young for the role, but he said, “I’m gonna find something for you.” He called back one day, and I auditioned for Ed. Weinberger.
Were you aware that Ed. Weinberger was the creator of Taxi and had been a writer and producer on Mary Tyler Moore?
No knowledge whatsoever.
Which was probably for the best, because you didn’t get nervous.
I think so.
Do you recall the audition process for Amen?
They flew me to California to audition for NBC. In the beginning, Amelia and Casietta were not sisters. They were two church ladies. Then Barbara Montgomery and I got in the room together. Before we went in she said to me, “Follow my lead.” She started being very prudish about the reverend, so I decided to be very flirtatious with the reverend. I realized that Barbara was going be the straight person and I was gonna be the comic relief. And Ed. said, “Okay, you’re sisters.”
Did anyone express concern about your lack of TV experience?
Only me. Barbara was a tremendous help. And when I did the first pilot, I remember Sherman Hemsley telling me I was a natural.
Did Ed. share his vision for your character before you began?
He just let us be. He let us develop these characters because Barbara and I were so close. We became sisters on-camera and off. She still tells me what to do.
You mentioned Barbara Montgomery. Let’s talk about the rest of the cast. First: Jester Hairston as Rolly: the secret weapon of Amen.
Wasn't he, though? What a beautiful spirit. God, I talk about him and get verklempt. He was so sweet, but he was stern, old school. He told stories and we sat and listened. We called Jester “Poppy.” We were like his girls, and that’s how he treated us.
Clifton and I are very close. I got divorced during Amen, and Clifton helped me through it. He held me up for about six months to help me get my emotions intact. He was like my brother. Clifton and I talk often. I just went on a cruise last January, and Clifton was the minister of music.
You could’ve promoted it as an Amen Reunion Cruise!
[LAUGH] He didn't know I was coming! I got on the cruise and I texted him. I call him Duncan, which is his middle name. I said “Duncan, I need to talk to you.” So, he called me and I said, “Where are you?” And he said, “Baby, I'm on a cruise!” And then I looked up and said, “Hey Dunc!” He screamed. [LAUGH]
Anna Maria Horsford?
Anna's my sister girlfriend. She never misses. We did Two Sisters Talking, a piece that Ed. Weinberger wrote, last year at the Matrix Theater here in L.A. It was a hit and Ed. was very proud.
Creator Ed. Weinberger?
We’re still very good friends. We're more family than friends. We've been to his kids' bar mitzvahs. He's my Jewish godfather. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.
And last but not least, Sherman Hemsley?
That's a tender one. [CRIES] That's a tender one. [LAUGH] We'd be on the set, nobody but me and him. And he would say, “You’re the prettiest woman in the room.” And I’d say, “Ain't nobody else in the room, Sherm.”
Amen was a star vehicle for him, but it became a love story between Reuben and Thelma. A less generous performer might not have shared the spotlight.
Generous is the perfect word. Barbara left the show in the last year, and they started to put me and Sherman together. Usually Barbara and I were in the office or in the church. But when Barbara left, I wound up in the house a lot. And he was so kind and so giving and very supportive. He was so generous to me. We had so much fun. That’s why it's a tender one for me.
Do you think Amen gets the props it deserves?
Absolutely not. I think it was one of the most important shows at that time.
We agree, obviously.
I believe it should also be on a box set. I don’t understand why it's not. People should be able to buy the hundred episodes we did. I talk to thousands of people I don’t even know on the Internet and they always ask, “Is there any possibility of getting it?” And I'm like, “You can get it on getTV!”
Thanks for the shout out!
I've been taping them because I don't have copies. I'm so happy that getTV got it.
And we’re happy to have it! How does it feel that people still want to talk about this show 35 years later?
I feel good about it 99 percent of the time. The one percent is when they say, “My grandmama used to make me sit down and watch that show.” I'm like, “Shut up!” [LAUGH] It's great that it has this longevity, even though it's underrated.
Speaking of longevity, what’s your secret?
Just taking care and being kind. Kindness keeps wrinkles away. I'm happy. I love my life.
The trend nowadays is to revive classic shows. If you got a call to revisit Amen, what would you say?
I would say, “Help me understand how it can be done without Sherman.” I'm not saying I would say no, but there would have to be constant tributes to him in everything.