If you want to boil down the exact moment that captures the hilarious, joyful and sublime ridiculousness of veteran comedian and actor John Witherspoon, who passed away suddenly at the age of 77 at his Sherman Oaks home on October 29, look no further than his pop-up part in Eddie Murphy’s 1992 film Boomerang. When the Detroit native appeared in the classic romantic comedy alongside the equally talented Bebe Drake-Massey as the out-of-pocket parents of the perpetually square, all-heart Gerald Jackson (David Alan Grier), he delivered one of the quintessential laugh-inducing gems of that era.
“Well the secret is you got to cooooor--di--nate,” says Witherspoon’s no-filter Mr. Jackson, breaking down his questionable fashion philosophy to Murphy’s all-too amused playboy Marcus Graham. The visual gag is funny enough: a loud and wrong elder man wearing a matching, past-its-prime brown leisure suit from the 1970s. But the joke steadily elevates. “When you saw me, you saw the mushroom shirt… well see, you can’t stop with the mushroom shirt… you got to go on,” continues Witherspoon. He then flashes a mushroom belt and a mushroom jacket lining. Murphy howls. The punch line lands with aplomb.
“I wrote everything in Boomerang,” Witherspoon explained of his brief but iconic role during an October 24 interview on the D.L. Hughley Show that took place just days before his death. Indeed, if you were among the many fans that packed club venues nationwide for any of Witherspoon’s sold-out comedy gigs, chances are he was dressed up as one of his many characters that helped make him Hollywood’s the most ubiquitous comedic scene-stealer.
“I wear the same clothes I wear on Boomerang,” he continued. “I wear a bowtie like I’m Pops on The Wayans Bros. When they come see me I ain’t Witherspoon with Gucci and Louis Vuitton. I’m Jesse with Sears and Roebuck.”
Witherspoon’s career stretches back to his early stand-up comedy days in late ‘70s Los Angeles, where he shared the stage with soon-to-be legends like Robin Williams and hung out with iconic superstars like Richard Pryor and Red Foxx. One of 11 children, he first caught the showbiz bug when one of his brothers and wife started taking acting classes. But while Shakespeare was cool and all, Witherspoon found his calling during a comedy show hosted by his acting coach, who encouraged the young talent to break out of his comfort zone.
Wearing a cowboy hat, he launched into some of his favorite impersonations and received a standing ovation from his classmates. Witherspoon had found his calling. He made his small-screen debut in 1977 on the short-lived, groundbreaking The Richard Pryor Show followed by appearances in What’s Happening!!, Good Times, Barnaby Jones, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues and 227.
From there, Witherspoon’s 40-plus-year career can only be best described as an oddity; a run that was as prolific as it was genuinely unpredictable. He joins the ranks of George Wallace and Paul Mooney as the rare disco-era comedian who thrived in the ‘90s hip-hop age of Def Comedy Jam.
Witherspoon’s acting run was even more confounding. He may just be Hollywood’s first character actor to play the same character. And somehow it more than worked. To be more succinct, it was usually drop-dead funny. Whether he took on the role as the prototypical hard-ass boss (Hollywood Shuffle); a nosey neighbor (House Party), a gregarious uncle (Martin); a loving, but no-nonsense dad (Friday, Next Friday, and Friday After Next); the hardworking Pops (The Wayans Bros.); the belt-wielding granddad (The Boondocks); or as local Compton drunk Lloyd, Witherspoon reveled in playing the cantankerous assh*le.
If you can judge a man or a woman by the bonds they have made over the years, it could be said that Witherspoon has lived a deeply diverse life. He was a frequent guest on The David Letterman Show, a relationship that stretches back to the two unlikely friends' days as struggling comedians (Letterman is the godfather to Witherspoon’s two sons). And the outpouring of love from everyone from Ice Cube, Regina King, Chance the Rapper, Questlove and Jamie Foxx to Martin Lawrence, Samuel Jackson, Marsha Warfield Marc Maron and Judd Apatow is further proof of Witherspoon’s intergenerational and cross-racial reach.
“I’m sad. Broken. Hurt..yet extremely grateful to God that i got to spend 5 years of my life working with one of the funniest sweetest wisest humblest loving man @johnnywitherspoon,” posted an emotional Marlon Wayans, who starred alongside his brother in the aforementioned hit sitcom The Wayans Bros., a show elevated by the effortless comic timing of the Motor City funny man. “You were my tv dad and my mentor and my friend. I miss you already.”
But at heart, Witherspoon was a working comedian who never got too big for his craft. “They trying to give me too much work,” he mused to Hughley of his extensive show schedule that he kept to the very end. “Forty-five weeks a year…it ain’t but 52 weeks in the year!”
And, somehow, we still wanted more. Goodnight, Mr. Spoon.