Despite a late start, actor John Beasley realized stage and screen dreams whose foundations he laid in Omaha.
The television star and feature film supporting actor, who co-starred in the TV series “Everwood,” and appeared in HBO’s “Treme” and the beloved movie “Rudy,” died May 30 at an Omaha hospital. He was 79.
Beasley’s death sparked condolences and praise from well beyond his hometown. Oscar winner Robert Duvall, reached by phone, described Beasley as “a wonderful actor.”
He followed an unconventional route to get there.
The Omaha native only pursued acting professionally at age 45 once his two sons were raised. His wife Judy supported his dream. After years paying dues in local and regional theater, he broke into TV then Hollywood in the early 1990s.
Only death stopped him. This year, before his health failed, he was slated to make his Broadway debut as the older Noah in the new musical adaptation of “The Notebook.”
His appearance in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater preview run last fall got cut short due to a bout with COVID that landed him in the hospital. He was hospitalized again in Omaha earlier this year. More recently, liver complications forced him to undergo tests before his condition suddenly worsened.
He was preparing for a July workshop in New York in the musical’s lead-up to Broadway when he died.
“If you were lucky enough to catch his performance, you got a glimpse of the kind spirit and charming wit that made collaborating with him such a joy,” read a post on the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Facebook page. “We offer our condolences to John’s loved ones and join ‘The Notebook’ family in mourning his loss.”
“The Notebook” company is expected to dedicate its Broadway run in his memory.
The show, based on the best-selling Nicholas Sparks novel, excited Beasley not only because of where it was taking him, but because he felt in perfect sync with the role and his co-star Maryann Plunkett.
Plunkett, a Tony Award winner, felt his presence and said that Beasley was “magnificent in that role.”
“Just mind-blowing beautiful. I loved him. He was my friend. I looked forward to this friendship continuing. I’m going to miss him terribly,” she said by phone. “He’s a man worthy of honor. He was a great man. Exceptional. What a life, what a story.”
Beasley connected with his character. He drew from his life experience, including his 57 years of marriage, and was able to “imagine what if this were me and my wife — how would I react.” He suspected his turn in “The Notebook” could be “the role of my lifetime.”
“You think there are pieces written for you, and that’s how I feel about playing Noah.”
However, in a 2022 American Theatre interview Beasley made clear he’d already achieved what he’d set out to do all those years before. Being a working artist is the highest calling, he said, adding that he was both proud of and grateful for his career regardless of whether he made it to Broadway.
Industry legend Duvall, who cast Beasley as an earnest preacher to his fiery evangelist in the critically acclaimed 1997 movie “The Apostle,” remembered Beasley as “a great guy.”
Referring to the gritty naturalism Beasley conveyed, Duvall, who also wrote and directed the film, recalled, “Somebody said, ‘Where’d you get that non-actor to play the preacher?’ And I said, ‘That non-actor has his own (theater) company and did Shakespeare and everything.’”
Beasley often cited working with Duvall as confirmation he could act alongside anyone. It also put him on the radar of Hollywood producers.
“It was a special project and he certainly helped make it that way,” Duvall said of the late actor.
To Beasley’s surprise, Duvall was a Nebraska football fan, so much so he said, “I begged Bobby to stop talking football and to start talking acting.”
“The Apostle” helped Beasley land the WB dramatic series “Everwood” starring Treat Williams, who Tweeted: “My dear friend John Beasley has passed. His narration gave ‘Everwood’ its soul. His acting gave ‘Everwood’ its gravitas. His friendship gave me laughter and joy. I so loved this man.”
Beasley went on to be a regular cast member in the TV Land sitcom “The Soul Man” with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash. In separate statements, both noted Beasley’s prowess as an actor and that he was an even better person.
Paying It Forward
The Omaha actor enjoyed sharing what he knew about acting through his John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Beasley’s two sons followed in his footsteps. Tyrone, formerly with the Rose Theater, served as the theater’s artistic director. Mike, a film and TV actor based in Atlanta, appeared in productions there.
All three memorably appeared together in a mounting of August Wilson’s “Jitney.”
Beasley left a lasting impact on many of the Omaha performers who came through his theater company.
“I learned a lot from working with John. He poured into me,” Beasley Theater veteran TammyRa’ said.
Beasley encouraged many local talents to spread their wings, often with a phone call saying, “Why are you still in Omaha – what are you waiting for? It’s time to go.”
“His career inspired me in a way that showed me what was possible for me as a Black artist,” said Kathy Tyree, one of the actors who heeded Beasley’s challenge. “John was extremely faithful to his craft and gift. It sent a message to each of us actors of not only what it would take to move our careers forward, but also what the reward could look like.”
Andre McGraw, who now works in Chicago theater, said, “The biggest thing I took from John was that you have to get over the fear to just start. You have to commit to the commitment and just go do it, and everything you need will be available on your journey. He was right.”
Omaha native Gabrielle Union, whose career intersected with Beasley in the 2007 movie “Daddy’s Little Girls,” Tweeted, “John ALWAYS made sure I knew I had family, guidance and kindness in this industry that can make you feel incredibly lonely. Everytime we got to work together was a joy & we made it #NativeOmahaDay in every scene. Feeling lucky to have experienced his smile & laugh & his enormous talent.”
Though best known for his small and big screen work, Beasley’s home was storytelling and the stage.
It started with an uncle who regaled him and childhood friends with tales that inserted their names into the adventures. At Omaha Technical High School Beasley shined in speech and drama. Activism and athletics intervened in the ‘60s. At what was then Omaha University, Beasley played football with Marlin Briscoe, who eventually made history as the first Black starting quarterback in the NFL.
After Beasley spoke out against police brutality in Omaha , he received death threats. He moved his young family to Philadelphia, where his wife Judy was from. It was in Philly he acted in his first Shakespearean play.
He also talked himself into a television producer’s spot and worked as a longshoreman on the docks. He even briefly played semi-pro football.
Upon returning to Omaha in the early ‘70s he studied drama at Omaha University, where his next brush with The Bard came courtesy a Royal Shakespeare Company residency. Encouraged by future star David Suchet, he doubled-down on honing his craft by auditioning and winning roles at the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and other area stage venues. He helped break color barriers along the way.
All the while, he toiled away at day jobs, including a long stint at Union Pacific.
When he finally decided to pursue acting full time, he found traction at major regional theaters in Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta, and eventually in Boston and Washington, D.C.
Performing in August Wilson plays led to a friendship with the late playwright. Beasley credited Wilson with getting him into Chicago theater and the stock company of players who appeared in productions of his work.
At his own theater, Beasley produced Wilson’s entire 10-play cycle about the African American experience.
Beasley, whose penchant for performing extended to being a deacon and singer at Omaha’s Hope Lutheran Church, saw something sacred in the mission he felt led to. “I think through my work I can change souls.”
Unlike many other Omaha natives who achieved fame, Beasley continued living in his hometown. He remained approachable, never employing an entourage, gladly engaging with fans. He appeared in locally produced film shorts (“Tattoo”) and features (“For Love of Amy”).
Omaha-based Tim Christian produced and financed the 2020 Beasley film “Stoker Hills” through his Night Fox Entertainment. He’s a producer on a biopic about Briscoe that Beasley shepherded. Christian intends to still make it in honor of both Briscoe, who died in 2022, and Beasley.
Beasley’s theater in South Omaha cultivated new acting talents. Some, like Vincent Lee Alston have gone on to thespian careers.
“John Beasley was the patriarch of an acting family,” said Alston. “Many of us cut our teeth at the John Beasley Theater. It was a training ground, a boot camp, where you could explore what it meant to be an actor. It was our Shakespeare – a place where we could go to do ‘us.’”
On stage, Alston said Beasley was “always giving, present, committed to his choices and ‘in the moment.’
“You learned the slightest nuance could speak volumes, the power of silence and the courage to be vulnerable,” Alston said. “John had courage. Not afraid to go inward – find the treasures of both pain and joy and give it all away to us, the audience, his family, his community.”
The Real Deal
Beasley’s well-worn “everyman” quality made him believable as everything from judges and generals to preachers and coaches to bus drivers to grandpas. He endeared himself to directors and audiences by bringing truth. Informing his roles were real-life experiences. He could be whatever a part demanded because of the breadth of his life journey.
He said that life experience worked to his advantage as an actor: “All of it, every last bit of it.”
The Hollywood Reporter referred to him in an obituary as “a late bloomer.” That never seemed to bother him.
“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater. There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do.”
He expressed no regrets for not pursuing it sooner, saying he wasn’t ready to be an actor until he’d been a father.
“I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this earlier I would have lost all of that.”
Tyrone Beasley remembers his father running lines at home even when he didn’t have a show, just to stay in practice. The son adopted the habit in his own career.
Mike Beasley remembers lean times.
“As an actor you never know when your next paycheck is coming. He always sheltered us from that. A lot of friends and family thought he was crazy for going after his dream as an actor.”
Mike admired his father’s persistence, grabbing gigs as they came, wherever they took him. The elder Beasley would occasionally drive through blizzards and sleep in his car while auditioning in Minneapolis and Chicago.
An unerring sense for what’s real became his trademark. “Believability is what I’ve always searched for,” John told a reporter. According to Alston, “He believed in realism above all else and accepted nothing less. Said Plunkett, “He was a man who demanded honesty. When you were on stage with him he was not faking it, he was there.”
Along the way Beasley “worked with some of the best people in the business,” including Duvall, Union and Oprah Winfrey. He found he could not only hang with them but bring something uniquely his.
He influenced his sons but he never pushed them to acting, Mike said.
The late patriarch felt no one chooses acting. “It chooses you,” he once said. The three frequently talked about the family business. His sons will miss the confabs.
“I lost my best friend today,” Mike posted on social media announcing his father’s death. “They say you shouldn’t ever meet your heroes because they don’t turn out to be who you thought they were. That is so wrong. My hero was my father. Thank you for everything.”
Said Alston, “I imagine he’s in the heavens right now doing a scene, holding his own, hearing the words, ‘Well done my good and faithful servant, well done.’”
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