A SOAP STAR OUT TO BREAK THE MOLD
By Steve Morse
July 31, 1982
Ever since the dawning of soap operas, black people have been cast in narrow, antiseptic roles, if cast at all.
Never, until a character named Jesse Hubbard was added last year to ALL MY CHILDREN (Channel 5, 1 p.m.), has there been an angry, streetwise black who does not strive for a safe, middle-class existence.
"I was never into soaps, so I didn't know that Jesse was the first, but that's what everyone tells me," says Darnell Williams, the 28-year-old actor who has become a daytime sensation by portraying the brooding, hotheaded Jesse.
Some blacks have taken issue with the role of Jesse - seeing him as a negative stereotype because he steals, cheats in school and rages with unfocused anger. But Williams, a pragmatist in real life, explains that the soaps had to start somewhere in dealing with black street culture.
"Jesse's a brat, but he's getting better. He's calming down and becoming a little more human, which is what I think people have been waiting for," Williams said during a recent break on the set. "I think it's a good positive step, a good beginning."
Jesse turned up on ALL MY CHILDREN after his mother died of cancer. He was taken in by his uncle, a doctor who removed him from ghetto life and brought him to live in the sleepy hamlet of Pine Valley. There he disrupted his uncle's family life and became a troublemaker at school. Yet slowly he has softened, thanks to a girlfriend, Angie, and a corps of school friends.
The problem for Williams has been to separate the role of Jesse Hubbardfrom his own life. After toiling in obscure musicals and stage plays for nearly a decade, Williams is now accosted almost everywhere he goes - even in Trinidad, where he was taking in a steel drum festival last spring.
"A lot of people actually ask me if my name is Jesse," he snaps. "I say, No, I'm an actor just playing Jesse.' It's not like I'm complaining, but they don't even take that split second to think about who I am."
As he sits in a quiet corner apart from the frantic ALL MY CHILDREN set (where directors, carpenters, actors, wardrobe personnel and hangers-on mill in a large, warehouse-like building near Lincoln Center), and later over lunch at the unpretentious Dimitri's restaurant, Williams shows none of Jesse's short-fused anger. Instead, he's soft-spoken, thoughtful and seemingly untouched by celebrity conceit.
As the second-oldest of eight children fathered by a career Air Force sergeant, the slender Williams traveled around the world as a youth, living in London, Okinawa, New York, Las Vegas and St. Louis. His family was a close-knit unit, and he declares, "There's a lot of love between us all. It's a large family, and we moved around a lot, but we ended up being each other's best friends because we had to leave other, outside friends behind every two or three years."
Asked whether he could relate to Jesse's poverty-stricken roots, he says, "Oh, we were poor. Uncle Sam doesn't really take good care of you. He does what he can, I guess, but we were a very poor family. There are a lot of poorfamilies in the service. We were just about as poor as Jesse, except there were eight of us. I'm sure it was hard for my mother and father because they just had too many kids to deal with on his salary."
As for any parallels with Jesse's stealing and cheating, Williams adds, "Are you kidding? Yeah, I used to steal as a kid. I did all that little-boy stuff. I used to cheat in school, steal things and shoplift - you know, the regular stuff. I wasn't an angel, but I was basically a good kid."
There was never any doubt, though, that he wanted to pursue an acting career. He used to win public speaking contests in school and appeared in numerous school plays.
"I've always been the artistic child," he says with a measured coolness that pervades his speech. "If any of my brothers or sisters needed something to be drawn, or any kind of art, they came to me.
"But I was shy up until the seventh or eighth grade. I remember making an effort then to break out of it, and I basically did. By the 11th grade I was pretty popular . . . It's not that I was ever really confident, but my confidence was being built through learning how to deal with the nervousness of presenting yourself in front of people. It was hard for me, but I worked at it."
After high school, Williams left home for Los Angeles, where he bagged groceries in a supermarket before landing a TV commercial for Cheer detergent. "I played a young high school basketball player cleaning my uniform and socks," he recalls with a laugh.
So began a long span of hustling for work while living on residuals and unemployment. "Being an actor is not an easy job, because the job is basically being out of work. That's what the job is, unless you luck into it like some people. But being black is always a double burden. A lot of white actors aren't working, and when you get around to talking about black actors, you get double jeopardy."
Unlike some black actors, Williams was never radicalized politically by such frustrations. "Not as much as I probably need to be," he says sheepishly. "But I just want to work and do a good job. I was never that deeply involved in the fact that blacks weren't working. I was always aware of it, but it never turned me off enough to say, The hell with this business. It's too racial.' "
He concedes, however, that "seven out of 10 times I've gone for auditions, it's been for negative-type things. Not negative in the pure sense of the word, but just underclassed. If it's a TV audition, they stick a basketball in your hand. If it's for stage, they make you hoof and dance and grin. It's basically like that."
And if it's been hard for black actors, it's been harder for black writers, he notes, adding that there are no black writers working on daytime television. Perplexed by this, he says, "I don't know why there aren't any black writers out there. It's because of the whole racial thing, I guess. I'm sure there are capable writers out there who are black and could do it, but obviously the people who do the hiring don't think that black people are equipped."
For the moment, Williams is just glad to be where he is. He got the role of Jesse after acting in "The Care and Feeding of Lenny Drover" last year at the Carter Theater on 43d street in New York. "It was pretty much a role like Jesse - an angry young kid."
Ambitious despite his laid-back surface, Williams has eventual goals of starring on a nighttime program, shedding any typecasting as a Jesse Hubbard figure. He also hopes to make an album - he sings contemporary jazz, has taken voice lessons for years, and sang on the "Selma" musical soundtrack album.
"I'm not going to do anything like Jesse for a while, unless somebody's going to offer me a million dollars. I'd like to play a young professional, or a young hopeless romantic, or a law or medical student."
He'd love to become wealthy doing it, he admits. And yet, in a final difference between himself and Jesse, he'd like the money for his family first and his personal use second.
"I'd really like to buy a house for my mother and father,," he says, reaffirming his family bond. "If I had the money, I'd give them the world."