John Witherspoon — the versatile actor and comedian known for his turns in movies like Friday and House Party and The Wayans Bros. sitcom — died Tuesday. He was 77.
Witherspoon’s family confirmed the actor’s death on his Twitter account, writing, “It is with deep sadness we have to tweet this, but our husband & father John Witherspoon has passed away. He was a Legend in the entertainment industry, and a father figure to all who watched him over the years. We love you ‘POPS’ always & forever.” A cause of death was not given.
It is with deep sadness we have to tweet this, but our husband & father John Witherspoon has passed away. He was a Legend in the entertainment industry, and a father figure to all who watched him over the years. We love you “POPS” always & forever.
– The Witherspoon Family pic.twitter.com/ov9P34kaMn
— John Witherspoon (@John_POPS_Spoon) October 30, 2019
Witherspoon’s son, the standup comic J.D. Witherspoon, also shared a tribute to his father, saying, “So…my Dad died today & honestly I’m not sure how to feel. I’m sad, but I’m also happy 4 all the great times we had together. We’d roast each other like homies more than Father & Son, and I really liked that. He was my best friend & my idol. Love U Dad…I’ll miss u.”
The characters Witherspoon played were often big and brash in the most delightful ways, qualities best embodied by the two famous patriarchs he portrayed: Willie Jones, the father of Ice Cube’s character, Craig, in the Friday movies, and John “Pops” Williams, dad to Shawn and Marlon Wayans’ characters on their WB sitcom, The Wayans Bros.
On Instagram, Marlon Wayans wrote of Witherspoon, “[E]xtremely 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 you were my tv dad and my mentor and my friend… Anytime I want to laugh or to see you I’m gonna put on a episode of Wayans Bros. and laugh until I cry.”
Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1942, Witherspoon got his start as a standup comic before moving into film and television. He got a big boost from Richard Pryor, who cast him on a few episodes of his short-lived sketch show, The Richard Pryor Show, although the majority of his earliest roles were one-offs in comedies like Good Times, What’s Happening!! and WKRP in Cincinnati. He also booked the occasional drama, such as Hill Street Blues and Barnaby Jones.
Witherspoon began taking more film roles in the mid-Eighties, and by the Nineties he was a comedy staple. He famously played the cantankerous neighbor Mr. Strickland in Kid and Play’s House Party, while he also appeared alongside Eddie Murphy in several films, including Boomerang, Vampire in Brooklyn and Dr. Doolittle 2. In Boomerang, Witherspoon played the father of David Alan Grier’s character, Gerard, delivering a masterclass in paternal embarrassment. “RIP my brother,” Grier wrote on Twitter. “You will be missed. Mannnnnnn this is a hard one.”
Starting in the early 2000s, Witherspoon also became a regular fixture in music videos for a variety of hip-hop artists. He appeared in clips for Field Mob’s “Sick of Being Lonely,” Goodie Mob’s “They Don’t Dance No Mo” and LL Cool J’s “Ain’t No Body.” He also starred in Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” in which he played a grumpy neighbor, not unlike his House Party character, though, in the clip he ultimately can’t resist sneaking over and joining the festivities.
Witherspoon continued to rack up movie and TV credits in the new millennium, while also adding voice over work to his already extensive resume. In 2004, he was cast as yet another over-the-top TV patriarch, Robert “Grandad” Freeman, in Aaron McGruder’s animated series, The Boondocks, a role that solidified his status as a generation-spanning talent. Witherspoon was also expected to reprise his role as Grandad after The Boondocks was picked up for two more seasons that are scheduled to start airing on HBO Max in 2020.
In recent years, Witherspoon continued to tour regularly as a stand-up, while he also began to ply his trade on YouTube. He launched the series, “Cooking for Poor People,” making dishes like pasta and meatballs, meatloaf and biscuits and gravy while wearing a chef’s hat and an apron with his face plastered on it. The most recent episode, in which Witherspoon made gumbo, was posted Monday, the day before his death.
Witherspoon was reportedly set to reprise his role as Willie Jones in Ice Cube’s next Friday film, Last Friday, but the project had yet to start filming at the time of his death. On Twitter, Ice Cube expressed his grief, saying, “I’m devastated over the passing of John Witherspoon. Life won’t be as funny without him.”
I’m devastated over the passing of John Witherspoon. Life won’t be as funny without him. pic.twitter.com/gtmiZiEppP
— Ice Cube (@icecube) October 30, 2019
Last Thursday, Witherspoon gave what turned out to be his last TV interview, speaking with D.L Hughley on his TV One show. During the chat, Witherspoon spoke about how he adapted as a performer in order to keep working for so long: When I was young, I played young peoples’ parts; when I was middle-aged, I played middle-aged peoples’ parts; when I got old, I played old parts. And I accepted them, and it was great for me to do that. Be funny wherever you are, try to be as funny as you can in that character. You can’t be an old dude trying to be young, trying to talk hip-hop — I don’t know hip-hop, I don’t even know how to turn my phone off!”
— TV One (@tvonetv) October 30, 2019