Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine

July 8, 1990
The avenging actor
Joe Morton's role as a TV prosecutor is only the latest in a line that goes back to a mysterious death in 1958.

THE RACIALLY MOTIVATED KILLING of a black teenager convulses a gritty Eastern city. The district attorney, lacking evidence to prosecute for murder, is tempted to negotiate a plea of manslaughter. His lead prosecutor is incensed at the D.A.'s willingness to compromise.

"That could have been me!" he shouts, his eyes burning with fury. "That could be any African American."

That could have been real. But it was a scene from an episode of Equal Justice, the ABC-TV series whose timely exploration of racial issues helped win it critical acclaim in its premiere season last spring. That also could have been a white prosecutor in the script - and, consequently, a radically different script - but for the man playing the part, Joe Morton.

As originally written, the character's name was Michael Corelli, and only white actors were invited to read for the role. Morton, who was invited to audition for the role of an Al Sharpton-like minister, persuaded the show's producers to let him try out for the role of Corelli instead. Morton won it, and the character's name was changed to Michael James.

It wasn't the first time he took a risk for a role. He dropped out of college because there were few roles for black actors there, and ended up in Broadway musicals. He left Broadway when it seemed like the musicals would never stop, and sought dramatic parts in regional theater. From there, he edged slowly into movies - and made his breakthrough starring in John Sayles' The Brother from Another Planet, a role in which he never spoke. Along the way, his first marriage dissolved and he raised his teenage daughter alone, on the road.

"One of the things I've learned about Joe is that, unlike most actors, he's actually lived a life," says Carey Perloff, the artistic director of the CSC Repertory Company in New York, where Morton has appeared in several classical productions.

That life left him well-suited for the part of the avenger in a series called Equal Justice.

JOE MORTON WAS BORN 42 YEARS AGO IN NEW York, but grew up around the United States. And in Okinawa, and in West Germany. It was there that Morton's father, a career officer assigned to help integrate the Army, died in 1958 under mysterious circumstances.

Joseph Morton Sr. had joined up during World War II, when the troops were segregated. In the '50s, he was asked to participate in Operation Breakthrough, a program to integrate the Army. As a captain, he was assigned to a series of bases.

Sometimes Capt. Morton arrived at a new base to discover that nobody had been informed that the new officer was black. "They set up these nice quarters for us," says Evelyn Morton, the actor's mother, "and when they saw who we were, things changed."

The Mortons were ostracized and cursed. Underlings challenged the new captain's orders. After about six months, the family would pack and go to a new base - and new troubles. "Little Joe knew all these terrible things we were going through," she says.

While assigned to a base in Dachau, Capt. Morgan and a commanding officer heatedly argued over a racial matter. "It really bothered my husband a great deal," says Evelyn Morton, a semi-retired secretary who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She is speaking now in the kind of measured, dispassionate voice that shields pain. "I said to him, 'You know, I think maybe you should back off. You just can't fight this war by yourself. It just doesn't make any kind of sense.' "

Early the next morning, as Capt. Morton was leaving home to go on bivouac, he woke up his wife. "He hugged and kissed me and hugged and kissed me, and I said to him - 'Oh, this is so unusual. Why are you doing this?' He said - you know, his last words to me were - 'You wouldn't forgive me if you never saw me again, if I never came back.' And I said, 'Don't be silly.'

"And with that he went off and never came back."

The official report said Capt. Morton's jeep veered off the road and down an embankment, killing him. But the Mortons saw several different death certificates and obituaries, including one that reported he died in an airplane. The soldier who normally drove Capt. Morton was not working the day of the crash. He told Evelyn Morton he could not answer any questions.

The captain's death still haunts his family.

"The assumption, or the suspicion, is that he had been assassinated in some way," says his son. "But because my mother was alone, and I was young, it was never pursued."

Yet his father was a tremendous influence. In the 10 years that Joe Morton Sr.'s life overlapped with his son's, he imparted to his only child his ideals about African Americans' struggle to achieve equality. "I think Joe is serious because he knows what happened to his dad," says Evelyn Morton. "He knows that his dad was trying to make life better - better for black people."

Morton, who now lives in Brooklyn, says his father's death has affected his choice of roles as an actor. "I spend a lot of time doing characters like Mike James, who go around avenging everyone else's wrongs - or characters like I play in classical theater, who are always avenging their father's deaths."

Ironically, his father's death eventually liberated Joe Morton to pursue an acting career. For a time, he was planning a military career of his own.

FATHERLESS, MORTON RETURNED WITH HIS mother to the United States and moved in with relatives in Harlem. Morton felt as out of place among urban blacks as he had on military bases.

"I was the stranger," he says. "I was the one who was the oddball. I didn't speak like anybody else. I wasn't interested in sports. So I got in fights every day."

Morton harkened back to his childhood decades later, when John Sayles selected him for The Brother from Another Planet. The film is about an alien who lands at Ellis Island and wanders into Harlem and ends up fighting drug dealers. The alien looks like anybody else on the street ( except for clawed toes), but everything he experiences is foreign. With no speaking lines, Morton had to use his face, and his body, to communicate. But from his childhood, he already knew how to act like an outsider.

"I think the Brother came out of that age," he says. "I knew what it was like to be black and be in a situation where you should know what's going on, and you don't. You simply don't know."

What Morton understood as an adolescent was the discipline of the military. He went to military school in upstate New York and finished high school in Queens. Still under the spell of his father, he sought admission to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He failed the eye test, which precluded his becoming a pilot.

"That was the first time I had to face the fact that I had to do what I wanted to do, rather than what my father would have wanted," he said. He chose to study psychology at Hofstra University on Long Island.

While he was enrolling at Hofstra, he saw a play and realized that theater was a better medium for him to explore the human mind than psychology. He enrolled in the drama department, whose most famous graduate is Francis Ford Coppola.

Morton stood out at Hofstra not for being outlandish - as drama students are wont to be - but for being hard-working and well-adjusted.

"I think he knew what he wanted and went about getting it," says Tom Morgan, a classmate who now builds theater sets in New York City. "I don't mean that in a bad way, but just that he had a very good self-concept of knowing who he was and where he was."

Richard Mason, a professor in the drama program, recalls Morton as "a very intelligent young man and very passionate about his calling." When Morton decided to drop out of school one year shy of graduating, Mason says, he was disappointed - "but maybe his instincts were quite right."

MORTON LEFT COLlege because of the lack of roles for blacks, but he found that being black was an asset on Broadway.

"Because I was black and I had certain talents as a singer and as an actor, I had a way in," he says. "So I could start to work almost immediately. I also hustled a lot. I would go out there and do anything and everything just to get the next job."

He had a role in Hair, toured with a band playing music from Jesus Christ Superstar and, in 1974, was nominated for a Tony award for the lead role in the musical Raisin.

"Nothing ever happens the way you think it's going to happen," he says. "I left school wanting to do Shakespeare and the Greeks, and I ended up doing musicals because I could sing. It moved me very quickly. . . . But it was never anything I wanted to do. It looked like a dead-end situation unless I was going to be a recording artist or go on to do musicals."

He wanted to act in movies. And the only way to be taken seriously for film was to build up a resume of dramatic roles. So he left Broadway musicals for the seemingly more obscure venue of regional theater.

While he was on the road, Morton was also being a single father to his daughter, Hopi, as she went through junior high school. She lived with him in hotels, where he arranged to have her taught by tutors, and they forged a close relationship. "I thought, well, if I could travel around the way I did when I was a kid and seemingly come out without too much damage, then maybe she could do the same," he says. She just finished her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College.

While Morton was raising his daughter, he began landing film roles - though they weren't the sort of parts that reviewers noticed.

In 1979, he played a physician in . . . And Justice for All, appearing for about 15 seconds opposite Al Pacino. In his second film, he also played a physician opposite heavyweight stars - Dudley Moore and John Gielgud in the 1981 hit Arthur. You may not recall Morton. The scene was edited out of the movie.

One of the problems that Morton faced - particularly with popular media such as television and movies - was the reluctance of directors to cast blacks in nontraditional roles.

"I think for many years Joe had a hard time being an actor and being the kind of person he is because he's not street," says Perloff, the New York director. "At the period where black actors are only supposed to be jive, Joe isn't that. He's a very well-educated, well-spoken actor."

That began to change somewhat after The Brother from Another Planet, where he gained widespread recognition and also his second wife (he married Nora Chavooshian, the movie's production designer, and they had a son, Ara, in 1988).

He appeared in the movies Trouble in Mind, Crossroads, Zelly and Me and Tap. He played a lawyer in the Leonard Nimoy film The Good Mother. He also played in several television movies, including Howard Beach: Making a Case for Murder, in which he played Cedric Sandiford, one of two men who were beaten in that notorious incident; and Challenger, in which he played astronaut Ron McNair.

Other roles he turned down because they were not challenging or because they upheld black stereotypes.

Three years ago, for instance, he turned down a role of a psychotic Times Square pimp in the movie Street Smart. (The role went to Morgan Freeman, whose career it obviously did not impair.) But Morton had no second thoughts. "If life is about nothing else, it's about making choices," he says. "You just try to stick to what is right."

Last year, Morton faced a different choice when the producers of Equal Justice invited him to audition for the role the Rev. Marcus Calvin, a character who would appear only in the pilot.

When Morton read the script, he was instinctively attracted to the role of Corelli - not only because of the prosecutor's use of language, but also because he was a gourmet cook and an opera lover. "It's always nice," says Morton, "to see black people on the screen portrayed in yet a different way instead of the usual - he's black, he likes either rhythm and blues or jazz, he eats soul food or something."

The producers were reluctant to give him the part. "For whatever reason, they thought there wasn't much of a possibility of allowing me to do the role," Morton says. The producers actually offered him the role of the clergyman and were negotiating a salary when they reconsidered. A week before shooting began, Morton was offered the role of Michael James ne Corelli.

Since the series began, Morton can no longer travel incognito in New York. One night last spring, he was driving in Brooklyn when a teenage girl spotted him behind the wheel and went berserk. His mother, who was in the car with him, was stunned.

"I said, 'Joe, how could she recognize you? It's dark and you have on your glasses.' And he said to me, 'Mother, it happens to me all the time now.' "

More important, though Equal Justice will be only a replacement series next season, Morton is being offered more - and better - movie roles. "It's beginning to happen," he said. "You just sort of have to wait for your turn."

He will be in another Sayles film, scheduled to be shot this year. And shooting will start this summer on a film by Keith Gordon called In Deep, about a man whose parking ticket escalates into a bureaucratic snarl that leads to more serious charges.

It's a black comedy, in the traditional sense of the phrase.

"The character looks as though he were intended to be played by a white actor," says Morton. "Essentially, it's just a story. It has no racial overtones that will sort of pound you over the head. It's just the story of a guy coming through this horrendous set of circumstances." home page   
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