The Lessons I Learned From John Witherspoon

The actor's physical humor often gave way to important life lessons, like how to succeed in a world that doesn’t hand anything to you

John Witherspoon was the dad I idolized growing up.

After dinner, I'd sit on the couch and watch his seminal works — Friday, The Wayans Bros., and Soul Plane — while my spaghetti and meatballs digested, captivated by his performances. He was goofy, charming, and knew how to masterfully use his body for the butt of a joke (pun intended). But when things were serious, he always returned to a central place of zen, where self-assuredness coincided with learned wisdom and a firm delivery. I came for the laughs and tacky suits and stayed for the realness.

In F. Gary Gray's Friday, Witherspoon's degree of not-give-a-fuckness-because-I’m-your-dad always stuck out to me as something that couldn’t be authentically translated in a script; it's something you're born with, a form of charisma marinated to the ultimate, seasoned, sauce. The way he holds his finger down on the air freshener while on the toilet, his forehead creasing in disgust, you could smell it too. You could imagine him embarrassing Craig in public, pulling up to his school with his dog-catching truck and listening to “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire with chili running down his face. He was every dad in that way.

Witherspoon's breakthrough role — following a successful career in standup alongside future stars like David Letterman and Jay Leno — was a memorable supporting part in 1990's House Party. He played Mr. Strickland, the easily annoyed enemy of teenage fun who was determined to shut down this party as if his life depended on it. He turned that into a small, but important, role in 1995's Friday as Willie Jones, a loud-talking, financially petty father who valued hard work and hated slackers.

But Witherspoon wasn’t just Craig’s father, he was mine by proxy. When he scolded Craig for refusing to eat his cereal without milk, I felt the heat too. Willie checked his son on his privilege; after all, he's pretty lucky — at least he has food to eat, dry or not. He made Craig eat the cereal. But before he even thought about taking a single bite, he had to take out the trash first.

My parents divorced when I was in fourth grade, so seeing a father figure on my television screen was something I never quite forgot. He didn't just tell Craig what to do; he taught him how to do it. Sometimes through sheer fear, but it always brought about understanding. I got accustomed to Friday reruns in the early aughts and learned the cereal scene word for word. The smack of grape skin popping between gums while talking was something I incorporated into early middle school jokes. And at home, I stopped complaining about the food on our table. Because at least we had food to eat. (Though, I could never make myself stoop to milkless cereal.)

It wouldn’t be until years later that another one of Witherspoon's lessons would impact my life: use your fists, not weapons. After Willie catches Craig with a gun — one that he had procured to protect himself from a probable confrontation with a local drug dealer — he shows his son that his fists are the only real weapons that he needs. "You win some and you lose some," he says, holding up his fists, "but at least you live to see another day." Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, I knew people who lost their lives to senseless gun violence and saw how quick situations could escalate from simple disagreements to life-or-death circumstances. This wasn't just another scene in a movie; it felt like real life. And Craig's words — "I'm a man without it" — lingered.

Afterward, Craig gets into a fight with the neighborhood bully, Deebo, and pulls the gun from his waistband like King Arthur withdrawing Excalibur from the stone. When Craig contemplates shooting Deebo, he thinks about his father's words. At the same time, just a few feet away, his father stands on the sidelines watching it unfold in real-time. He gives Craig space to make his own decision, to be a man and live with the consequences. It's a test, and Craig, lowering the gun, passes.

I saw my dad again in sixth grade. To this day, we'll sit on the couch and watch Friday together. We laugh the loudest when Witherspoon's on-screen — the way he crunches, smacks, and spits as he nibbles on food, licking his fingers afterward as if he never has to shake another hand in his life.

But his genius as an actor wasn't in the physical comedy and exaggerations that made his roles in Friday and The Wayans Bros. so unforgettable. It was in the smaller moments between jokes, when his subtle, worldly wisdom seeps through quiet conversations. He spoke to generations, particularly Black men, about how to succeed in a world that doesn’t hand anything to you. A world that gives you cereal without milk. He walked me through my childhood without even realizing it.

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