Congrats to my pal film, television and theater veteran Ed Wheeler who is receiving the “Living Legend” award at the opening gala for the 2017 National Black Theatre Festival in the Salem Ballroom – The Benton Convention Center 301 West Fifth Street, Winston Salem, NC. tonight.
Wheeler, a native Brooklynite, has been a New York City character actor ever since appearing in the Henry Street Settlement’s theatre production of Imamu Baraka’s A Recent Killing in 1973. His theater credits include Stops and Nat Turner (Billie Holiday Theatre), Melody in Search of a Base Note (a Brooklyn Production) Charles Fuller’s WE series of plays (The Negro Ensemble Company), The Little Tommy Parker’s Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show (Negro Ensemble Company), Gang on the Roof (Kennedy Center & Capitol Rep), East Texas Hot Links (The Public Theater), The Death of Papa (Hartford Stage), Zooman and the Sign (Second Stage), Dance on Widow’s Row (New Federal Theatre), Cuttin’ Up (Arena Stage), The Waiting Room (Negro Ensemble Company), Two Trains Running (Signature Theatre).
These productions allowed him to work with wonderful actors, directors and playwrights like Adolph Caesar, Samuel L Jackson, Anna Marie Horsford, Denzel Washington, Hattie Winston, Obba Babatunde, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Barbara Montgomery, Arthur French, Eugene Lee, Steve McKinley Henderson, Ebony Jo-Ann, Elain Graham, Charles Weldon, Loretta Devine, Earle Hyman, Roger Robinson, Graham Brown, Peggy Alston, Adam Wade, Joyce Sylvester, Carl Gordon, Sandra McClain, OL Duke, Michelle Shay, Marcella Lowry, Curtis McClarin, Helmar Augustus Cooper, Bea Richards, Jean Stapleton, Frankie Muniz, Andrew McCarthy, Tony Todd, Oni Faida Lampley, Lawrence Gilliard Jr, Peter Jay Fernandez, Marva Hicks, Ron Cephas Jones, Frankie Faison, Douglass Turner Ward, Charles Fuller, Samm-Art Williams, Seret Scott, Carlyle Brown, Charles Randolph Wright, Dan Owens, Horton Foote, Messeret Stroman,Lee Kenneth Richardson and Judy Tate.
Wheeler was one of the first black men used by Madison Avenue to have started the trend towards mustache acceptance in the Commercial Ad world in the 70s. His success opened possibilities for more black men to be employed in commercials. He has appeared in the films Mickey Blue Eyes, Broadcast News, Head Of State, The Good Heart, Thinner, Presumed Innocent, Uncertainty, Godzilla, and on television in “The Cosby Show,” “Soul Food” and “Law and Order.”
I can’t be at the party tonight to celebrate Ed and all of the other honorees, but I caught up with him via email prior to the big night.
Lia: Set the scene for the kind of jobs that you booked then and now in print.
Ed: I had the distinction of being on the cover of TIME magazine in 1989. However, my earlier bookings were primarily theatre and commercial work right up until films like Broadcast News, Presumed Innocent, Head of State, Salt and The Good Heart.
Lia: You have been working as character actor since appearing in the Henry Street Settlement’s theatre production of Imamu Baraka’s A Recent Killing in 1973. How did you navigate your career path in New York at that time?
Ed: After my job ended at United Airlines I was fortunate enough to begin booking national tv commercials which allowed me to save for a rainy day and pursue work in the theatre which was not as lucrative.
Lia: What does it mean to you be honored with a Living Legend Award by The National Black Theatre Festival?
Ed: When I first heard that I was to be given a Living Legend Award, I said to myself “Who me? What have I done in this life that would make someone think of me as a Living Legend? Maybe it’s when my mother used to tell me back in the early 80s how proud the entire congregation at Zion Baptist Church in Brooklyn was of me…they used to come up to her and say Wheeler, I saw your son on tv!” Does that count? I am truly grateful that this historic black theatre festival would remember me from the times that I’ve performed there and to make me part of their history. To be thought of as a Living Legend is a tremendous honor.
Lia: Have you every performed at NBTF?
Ed: Yes, twice. I performed Last Night at Ace High with NEC and Samm-Art Williams’ play The Dance on Widow’s Row.
Lia: When was the last time you attended the festival?
Lia: What drew you to have a life in the performing arts?
Ed: I started off as an athlete (baseball, basketball, track) at the YMCA and the entertainment came straight from the playing field.
Lia: What have been your three favorite projects in film, television and theater?
Ed: I am a proud member of SAG-AFTRA and The Actors’ Equity Association.
My favorites have been…
THEATRE- Leonard Malone’s Melody in Search of a Base Note, Samm-Art Williams’ The Dance on Widow’s Row and The Waiting Room, CHARLES FULLER’s WE Series and Zooman and The Sign and Carlyle Brown’s The Little Tommy Parker’s Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show
TV- “Law and Order, “The Cosby Show”
FILM- Core of the Apple, (on-camera Narrator), Broadcast News, Head of State, Bleach, The Good Heart
VOICE-OVER RECORDING- The World According to John Coltrane
Lia: What inspires you?
Ed: My inspiration came from my mother. She worked hard all of her life as the owner of a small ‘Mom & Pop’ employment agency and sought to encourage young college students through summer work.
Lia: Who were your role models in your formative years?
Ed: My role models were mostly athletes. My young life was highly influenced by my involvement with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
Lia: What have you been up to lately?
Ed: I’ve been away from the business since 2013. After surviving Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and most recently a total hip replacement and now my total focus is trying to live a healthy, stress-free lifestyle.
Lia: What kinds of projects do you produce?
Ed: My wife, Messeret Stroman & I have been incorporated for 15 years. Our production company primarily centers around producing ourselves and contributing to new and established black theatrical groups.
For more information, visit www.nbtf.org.
Louis Gossett, Jr., Ed Wheeler, Timothy Douglas, Dominique Morisseau, Ron Himes, Ron Simons, Thelma Pollard, Mabel Robinson, Gregory Horton, Allie Woods, Antoinette Tynes, Ed De Shae, Stephen Byrd, Alia Jones-Harvey, Corey Mitchell, Cleopatra Solomon, Wilbert T. Jenkins and More to be honored at the Opening Night Gala of the 2017 National Black Theatre Festival on July 31
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.