Ice Cube Says Hollywood Let John Witherspoon Down, In A Powerful Tribute
Late last month, comedian and actor John Witherspoon passed away at the age of 77. The man affectionately known as “Pops” had a career that dated back to the 1970s. After working with Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, and David Letterman on stage and screen, Witherspoon (born John Weatherspoon) experienced a career renaissance in the mid-1990s. That blossomed out of playing “Willie Jones” in 1995’s Friday. In the film, he played “Craig Jones'” father. That role was taken by Ice Cube, who co-wrote the movie with then-musical partner, DJ Pooh. The character became a launchpad for not only two more Friday films, but starring roles in film and television that lasted into recent years.
This week, Witherspoon was laid to rest. At a celebration in the man’s honor, Ice Cube was among those who spoke. The rapper-turned-Hollywood mogul talked at length and from the heart about his friend.
Early in the eulogy, Cube said, “I remember sitting in front of the TV and watching some of the old Richard Pryor shows. John would pop up. Whatever you gave him, he would kill it. Then I would see him in Robert Townend [films]; we all loved The Hollywood Shuffle. There would be no Friday if there was no Hollywood Shuffle,” Cube says of Townend’s 1987 film, where Witherspoon played a hot dog vendor (“Mr. Jones”) alongside Keenen Ivory Wayans (“Donald”). That film addressed the limited and stereotypical roles available to talented Black actors in Hollywood at the time. Cube also recalled seeing Witherspoon on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam (embedded below). “I saw John in one of the [acts]. He had one line, and [right then], I knew I wanted him to [play] my father in Friday. His one line was ‘Why the hell they ain’t playin’ no Al Green in here?’ [Laughs] I said, ‘This is the funniest man alive.'”
Continuing, Cube explained why the on-screen chemistry between “Craig” and “Pops” seemed so palpable in Friday. “I wrote Friday—we had no idea we were even gonna make that movie. Me and DJ Pooh was just fans of Hollywood Shuffle, we was fans of In Living Color, and we was like, ‘Yo, let’s do a movie about our neighborhood.’ Boyz N The Hood was out, and Menace II Society. Everybody thought that our neighborhoods was just riddled with crime and no happiness, and no fun. [So] we wanted to do a movie about how much fun we had, growing up, even though it was crazy around there.” He expanded, “John Witherspoon, when I’m writing Friday, is in my head, as my father. The reason I wanted him to be my father in that movie is because he reminds me of my real father. But my real father isn’t as funny.”
Witherspoon, who reportedly was paid $5,000 for the role in the first film, signed on before comedian Christ Tucker. Cube said, “We knew if we got John Witherspoon in the movie, the movie would be funny no matter who else we got in it. When he [agreed to the role], it was one of the happiest moments that we had making the movie.” The agreement stood for something. “We knew that we had somebody 10 times funnier than us, and the movie could possibly work.”
Cube stated, “Some people are just born funny. They ain’t gotta work on nothin’. That just get up, and they’re funny. That was John Witherspoon—born funny. I do hardcore records, but I do funny movies. Because laughter is the medicine for our mind, body, and soul. It helps us get through this crazy world, and God bless the ones who make us laugh. John was naturally funny, no matter how bad a script was.” Cube said that his cast-mate made the pages of script turn magical on screen. “That was his true gift.” Listing some of John Witherspoon’s friends and admirers, Cube notes, “Some of the funniest people that ever walked the earth, they looked to John make them laugh.” The legendary MC and actor also acknowledged Witherspoon for talking rappers and comedians out of petty beefs in competitive spaces. For John, it was always about staying active and working.
Ice Cube powerfully stated, “John Witherspoon was funny as hell, but he wasn’t no joke. Serious man. Great man. He always wanted to the right thing.” Moments later, he summarized, “It’s a sad day today. I know [this is supposed] to be a celebration. But the world is just not as funny without John Witherspoon. It just ain’t.”
Although the moment was a tribute, Ice Cube was not afraid to call out a new Hollywood shuffle in letting down his friend. “I really apologize to my friend for not getting the next Friday movie made; it’s not my fault. [Chuckles] It’s some dumb-ass people in Hollywood, at New Line Cinema, if you want to [be angry at somebody].” Cube boldly speaks the names of the executives that he feels are responsible for Last Friday not happening, something that was widely discussed since early 2017 by Cube, Pooh, and others. “I gave y’all punks two scripts, and y’all didn’t want to do ’em. That’s the real. But we got the other three, and we got our memories, and we got our love.”
Cube also spoke of a Big 3 promo commercial he was able to make with John Witherspoon in recent years, with Mike Epps. He admitted that he recently learned that clip won an award and vowed to give the trophy to John’s widow, Angela.
#BonusBeat: John Witherspoon on Def Comedy Jam: