Wednesday, October 13, 2021

In ‘The Wonder Years,’ Dulé Hill Looks Forward, and Back

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

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Dulé Hill joined “The West Wing” in 1999, not long after it debuted. He played Charlie Young, a personal aide who soon begins a relationship with the president’s youngest daughter, Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss). Charlie is Black; Zoey is white. The hate mail arrived almost immediately.

“It was shocking to me,” Hill, 46, said during a recent video call from his Los Angeles home. “I said, ‘Wow. It runs deep in this country. It runs deep.’”

Hill requested those letters and taped them up in his trailer as a peculiar kind of inspiration. If he played the part to the best of his abilities, he hoped, he could make it easier for the next actor of color to be hired. And harder for the next slur to be mailed.

“We’re all on this journey, trying to move the ball forward,” he said.

Sometimes moving forward can mean looking back. This fall, Hill, an actor of agility, elegance and goofball charm, will appear in a reimagined “The Wonder Years,” which premieres on Sept. 22 on ABC. Set in Montgomery, Ala., in 1968, it stars Hill as Bill Williams, a music professor by day and a funk musician by night. A devoted parent and an ambitious artist, Bill tries to equip his children for a world that won’t always recognize their full humanity. Playing Bill encourages Hill, who recently became a father, to display his rangy gifts — comedic, dramatic, rhythmic.

Though this new “Wonder Years” remains a nostalgia-driven, half-hour comedy, it also pushes Hill to confront themes that his previous TV parts — callow young men, cheerful neurotics, tack-sharp professionals — rarely allowed. Because Hill knows how blessed he is, professionally and personally. (He will tell you all about it, his grin blazing through the computer screen.) But he also knows what it means to be a Black man in America.

“You appreciate this country and you love this country,” he said. “But you also realize that this country doesn’t always love you back.”

Hill signed onto “The Wonder Years” only a handful of months after the killing of George Floyd because it seemed more important than ever to show that loving Black families have always existed and will always exist, even in the midst of struggle.

“As I go along in life, I see that out of bad and challenging times, there’s also a beauty and a brilliance and a light that comes,” he said. This show, he thought, could be part of that light.

Hill has been an entertainer pretty much since he could walk. His mother, a dance teacher in central New Jersey, started him on tap, ballet and jazz dance when he was 3. At 9, he was cast as an understudy in the Broadway musical “The Tap Dance Kid.”

Even so, he didn’t plan on an acting career. After high school, he studied business administration at Seton Hall University. Then in 1995, during his junior year, he booked a role in the off-Broadway production of the dance musical “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk.” When a performance conflicted with a midterm exam, he asked the professor if he could take the exam early. The professor refused, saying that Hill should think about where he wanted to be, at college or in show business. He chose show business.

In 1999, he landed “The West Wing.” Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, recalled his audition. “There are a few things that even a good actor can’t fake, and two of them are ‘smart’ and ‘funny,’” Sorkin wrote in an email.

Hill’s work to that point had involved mostly majority Black casts. As the rare actor of color on “The West Wing,” he felt a responsibility to excel. “I wanted to be one of the one of the steps along the way to making change,” he said. His ambition, his nerves, his inherent goodness — “He radiates goodness,” Sorkin said — he poured it all into Charlie.

When “The West Wing” ended, he asked his reps to find him a comedy. They found “Psych,” a zany procedural on USA. James Roday Rodriguez, his ostensible co-star, drove to Hill’s house for a chemistry read to see if Hill should play Gus, the anxious sidekick to Roday Rodriguez’s antic detective, Shawn. Hill had cut his television teeth on Sorkin’s precision-tooled dialogue; Roday Rodriguez had an improv background. The read was weird.

“This dude is all over the place,” Hill remembered thinking. “He’s on the ceiling, underneath the couch. I’m like: ‘What is up, my man? Are you trying to sabotage my read?’”

Roday Rodriguez also remembered that day. “I was probably his worst nightmare,” he said. But as the show continued, Hill grew looser and more spontaneous. “Luckily, we had eight seasons for him to become the next Jerry Lewis meets Richard Pryor meets Rowan Atkinson,” Roday Rodriguez said.

Matt Shakman, a frequent director on “Psych” echoed this. “Dulé is full of endless surprises and is the really rare actor who can do anything,” he said.

Anything includes some expert tap routines, which Hill used to practice on set, on any available flat surface. “Like, we get it, you can tap,” Roday Rodriguez quipped. “We understand that you have that skill. You don’t have to do it between every single take.”

“Psych” wrapped in 2014. Hill did a stint on “Ballers” and another on “Suits.” He played against type as a sinister drug supplier in “Sleight,” a low-budget thriller. He married his “Ballers” co-star Jazmyn Simon in 2018, adopting her teenage daughter. The next year they welcomed a son. Roday Rodriguez noted how marriage and children had changed his friend.

“The difference is, how fricking happy he is just to open his eyes in the morning and be alive,” he said.

Amid that happiness, Hill, with his tap shoes laced, was exploring a Black entertainer’s pain. In 2019, not long before his son was born, he starred in a bio-musical, “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” showing what respectability politics had cost Cole. Colman Domingo, who co-wrote that show, felt the resonance between Hill and Cole, men of color navigating a majority white industry with sweetness and grace.

“There is dynamite underneath that sugar; I wanted to explore that dynamite,” he said. “Dulé was not afraid of that at all.”

Hill has never been afraid of that. But on a career path smoothed by personal charm, opportunities for exploration have been few. (An exception: his starring turn in a 2007 revival of “Dutchman,” Amiri Baraka’s incendiary play about cyclical racism.)

He knew that “The Wonder Years” could be one more. When he read about the pilot order, he turned to his wife and he told her that if he were going to do a network comedy, this would be the one. After Floyd’s murder by police and the protests that followed, the struggles of the Civil Rights era felt very near.

“I wanted to tell the deepest story that hopefully could relate to where we are today,” he said.

The original “Wonder Years” premiered on ABC in 1988. It starred Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold, a middle-class 12-year-old in 1968, navigating adolescence as America came of age, too. Amanda Ann Klein, a professor at East Carolina University, has written admiringly of the show. But in a recent interview, she noted a problem with it: “A big hole was its ability to deal with race,” she said. So she was excited to see its premise applied to a Black family.

“I don’t think you often see Black Americans getting the opportunity to be nostalgic,” she said.

Saladin K. Patterson, the showrunner of this new version, wanted to show how these same years might affect a loving middle-class Black family. “We felt like that was going to be a story of strength and resilience and perseverance,” he said during a video call. He drew on his own family’s history, modeling Bill on his father, Bill Patterson, a musician and music manager who spent his career stardom-adjacent. He thought of Hill immediately.

“We wanted to make the Bill character very cool, make him very good at what he does,” Patterson said. “And the real Dulé is very cool, so he’s tapping into a real place.”

Still, it took a little acting. “To be honest, his character on TV is a little more laid back than he is in real life,” said Elisha Williams, the 12-year-old actor who stars as Bill’s son, Dean. (He also called Hill “one of those cool dudes because he’s been around so long.” Ouch.)

Hill hopes that this leg of his race will teach viewers something about the political upheavals of the 1960s — how they birthed the world we know today, how Black love has persisted. And he expects it will help him to understand something about himself and the life he wants to make for his children.

“When you’re playing a Black father and you are a Black father, the story is going to hold up a mirror to yourself,” he said. “It’s going to make you ask questions about things: ‘Who am I in this? And who do I want to be?’”



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