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John Witherspoon Made Every Role Great Including METEOR MAN

John Witherspoon
Back in the 1600s, the slaves used to make a type of griddle cake out of cornmeal. Cornmeal was the cheapest and most reviled type of flour back then. It was considered rough and useless since it didn't respond to leaven and had a gritty consistency. Most people wanted and preferred wheat flour. But African-Americans enjoyed the simple fried cakes made out of cornmeal and water. The cakes, known as "Hoe-Cakes" or "Johnnycake", fell out of favor in general but was popular in the South. Most people thought the cornbread was rough but black people loved them. It would later be used as an ad-lib by an actor.

In 1987 Robert Townsend was making his self-financed film Hollywood Shuffle. It's a comedy about a young actor struggling in the film industry because of stereotyping. The young comedian wrote a completed script but the studio told him it wasn't long enough, The script was 50 pages and needed to be 90 pages. So he went to the California comedy club "The Comedy Store" where he often performed looking for actors to fill out the movie run-time. This included the actor/comedian John Witherspoon. Witherspoon had performed extensively on television in the 60s and 70s including Barnaby Jones, Good Times and a guest spot on The Incredible Hulk as a boxer. He'd also acted in a number of movies.

Townsend approached Witherspoon to play in the movie. "He was a comic himself there," Witherspoon later said. "So he said, 'Look I want you to be in this movie. I want you to be Mr. Jones. I want you to run this rinky-dinky hot-dog stand'." So he played Mr. Jones, Bobby's boss at Winky Dinky Dog. He ad-libbed lines in the movie along with several other comics like Kennan Wayans and Dom Irrera.

In one scene Mr. Jones chided Townsend's character Bobby for missing work. Jones tells him he created the hot dog stand and a new product called "Winky-Dinky Ho-Cake"

"When I came up with the 'ho-cake' line, nobody knew what ho-cake was," Witherspoon later said. "He said, 'ho-cake?' I said, 'Yeah, hos gotta eat too.' That became a powerful catchphrase. People use that today when they see me. But everybody laughed so hard that the cameraman shook the camera. It was so funny."

Years later Townsend decided to make a superhero movie called The Meteor Man. It's about a substitute teacher living in a crime-ridden neighborhood. He gets hit by a falling meteor and gains superpowers. Donning a costume he works to end the crime by uniting the neighborhood.

"Well, the thing for me is that I always loved superheroes as a kid," Townsend later said about the 1993 film. "It was the original Superman in black-and-white, then cartoons like Spider-Man, then the Batman TV series with The Riddler, Frank Gorshin, and Caesar Romero. When I started to create Meteor Man, I was looking to say, 'Hey, I want to be the first African-American superhero on screen,' and I really took it [seriously], even though it's fun, to say what are his superpowers and who are the villains. I wanted to have fun with it and walk that line of being silly, but also have some real messages in the film."

He cast his old friend and comedian John Witherspoon as Clarence James Carter III. Witherspoon called it the "first black superhero film". It pretty much was. The first black Marvel superhero film Blade didn't come out till five years later.

The movie was not well-received and is considered a flop. It had a budget of $30 million and made only $8 million. The Meteor Man was reviled by critics. Roger Ebert wrote, "The movie contains big laughs and moments of genuine feeling, but it seems to be put together out of assorted inspirations that were never assembled into one coherent storyline...Kids may like the film and anyone can enjoy the moments of inspiration, but 'The Meteor Man' could have been better if it had tried to do less, more carefully."

Honestly, even when I was a kid I didn't think much of the movie, but the cast was amazing including James Earl Jones, Robert Guillaume, Frank Gorshin, and Bill Cosby. Yeah looking back, Cosby isn't that great but the man is still a legend in the industry.

Witherspoon shined in that role. He shined in every role he had. Even small ones like his brief guest spot on The Incredible Hulk. The actor found a way to bring life to even the smallest characters. So when he was given bigger roles like his role as Ice Cube's grumpy dad "Pops" in the 1995 breakout hit Friday he was even bigger.

John Witherspoon died today on October 29, 2019, in California. He was 77-years old. Townsend said on Twitter that his heart "hurts" with the loss.

Like that "Hoe-Cake" Witherspoon was rough around the edges and could have been written off as an undesirable actor. But like those griddle cakes, he was beloved by the African-American community. We loved him for his gruff persona and heart of gold. Witherspoon brought laughter and joy to millions. He'll be missed but we'll always have his Hoe-Cakes. Because "hos" got to eat too.

About the Author
Maurice Mitchell has been a passionate science-fiction fan of movies, television, books, and comics since age five. He and his twin brother Nigel created the site "The Geek Twins" to share that passion. Maurice has written and created infographics for sites like The Geek Twins and About.com. His work has been featured on sites like Business Insider, io9 Slashfilm and more.
Follow him on Twitter @Mauricem1972

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