Family & Companions
As a founding member of "The Not Ready for Primetime Players" on the ground-breaking sketch comedy show "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Garrett Morris enjoyed mainstream notoriety even as he struggled with frustrations over his limited role on the program. After 10 years of training as a singer, musician and actor on the stages of New York, Morris came to "SNL" as an outsider, being the oldest and only African-American performer in the troupe. Although many of his contributions came in the form of broad stereotypes, he did manage to craft several memorable recurring characters, among them the President of the New York School for the Hard of Hearing, and ex-Mets baseball player, Chico Escuela. Overshadowed by the likes of John Belushi and Bill Murray, Morris left the show in 1980 along with the remaining original cast members. After a period of self-imposed exile, during which he overcame a serious drug addiction, Morris gradually returned with appearances on series such as "The Jeffersons" (CBS, 1975-1985) and in films like the horror satire "The Stuff" (1985). Later work found him regularly appearing on African-American-targeted sitcoms like "The Jamie Foxx Show" (The WB, 1996-2001). Despite his difficult and frequently unfulfilling tenure on "Saturday Night Live," Morris outlasted his detractors and was eventually abided a sort of fond reverence by later generations of performers and audiences who had grown up giddily quoting the childlike Escuela's famous catchphrase, "Base-a-boll been berry, berry good to me."
Born Garrett Gonzalez Morris on Feb. 1, 1937 in New Orleans, LA, he was raised by his grandfather, a Baptist minster. Morris' first love was music and as a young boy he displayed his devotion in church, where he began singing at age five and soon became a fixture in the choir. In 1958, after traveling north for a musical competition, the aspiring performer decided to put down stakes in New York, where he joined the YMCA Drama Club. His first show business break came later that same year when Morris was hired as a soloist with the Harry Belafonte Singers, with whom he remained until 1968. He made the transition to acting in 1960 when he landed the role of titular character Leroy in the play "The Bible Salesman" at NYC's Broadway Congregational Church. He reprised the role off-Broadway at the Martinique Theater after an 18-month stint in the Army, where Morris worked as an X-ray technician. Continuing his theatrical pursuits, he attended the prestigious Tanglewood Workshop in Lenox, MA on scholarship, where he received awards for conducting. The gifted and determined Morris also studied music at the famed Juilliard School. Considerable stage credits, both on and off-Broadway, followed. Morris took part in musicals such as "Porgy and Bess," "Show Boat," "Finian's Rainbow," and Melvin Van Peebles' "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death." Dramatic fare included "The Great White Hope," "Slave Ship" and "Ododo."
A veteran stage performer with 10 years of credits now under his belt, Morris segued into film with small parts in the features "Where's Poppa?" (1970), a dark comedy starring George Segal, and Sidney Lumet's heist drama "The Anderson Tapes" (1971), starring Sean Connery. The following year, he made his debut as a playwright with the 1972 production of his "The Secret Place" at NYC's Playwrights' Horizons. Having briefly appeared in a soap opera years earlier, Morris made a more concerted move toward television, beginning with a regular role on "Roll Out" (CBS, 1973-74), a short-lived sitcom about a mostly-black company of supply truckers during WWII that tried to cash in on the success of another wartime comedy, "M.A.S.H." (CBS, 1972-1983). Fortunately, he made more of an impact on the big screen with a supporting role in the well-received nostalgia piece "Cooley High" (1975), as an empathetic high school teacher. When Morris learned that up-and-coming comedy writer-producer Lorne Michaels was developing a youth-oriented, late-night comedy-variety show, Morris pushed for a job as a writer, even though his only writing experience had been his one stage play. While he did not think Morris had the background to join the writers staff, Michaels was impressed enough by the actor's performance in "Cooley High" to hire Morris as an inaugural cast member on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ).
Although the show was a major break for Morris, as the only black cast member who was also more than a decade older the most of his fellow performers, he found it difficult to fit into the clique-driven "SNL" power structure. Morris lacked the facility to quickly switch characters in the unfamiliar milieu of sketch comedy - a shortcoming that staff writers often complained made him problematic to write for. Nonetheless, Michaels pushed for Morris' inclusion in sketches, and while his contributions were limited, he still managed to entertain viewers with several memorable characters. There were bright spots such as the "News for the Hard of Hearing" segments from the Chevy Chase-era "Weekend Update." Simple and formulaic, although always funny, this bit had Morris - on a video monitor - conveying the night's top story by merely echoing Chase's words via a high-volume shout through his cupped hands. Unfortunately more often than not, Morris was given stereotypical roles, playing drug dealers, winos and domestics. He hilariously played Sammy Davis, Jr. in a Richard Nixon sketch and Uncle Remus in "Mr. Mike's Least-Loved Bedtime Tales." The wildly positive response Morris received after his energetic impersonation of Tina Turner proved to be a double-edged sword, when he was subsequently often asked to don a dress and imitate the likes of Diana Ross, Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey.
However, Morris' most beloved character would undoubtedly be that of retired Dominican baseball player Chico Escuela, with his oft-cited catchphrase "Base-a-boll been berry, berry good to me." Despite the success of "SNL," Morris was not embraced by the black press, which criticized him for allowing himself to play the fool as the show's token black. In his defense, Morris insisted that behind-the-scenes he had been constantly battling for better material, albeit with little success. When Bill Murray replaced the departed Chase in the second season and began his ascent within the ranks of "The Not Ready for Primetime Players," Morris knew his situation on the show would not improve. Before long, the discouraged performer began dulling his frustrations with heavy substance abuse - one of the few things he did have in common with many of his cast mates - and soon found himself utilized even less on the program. So erratic did Morris' behavior become that when former-SNL co-star John Belushi died of a drug overdose, several insiders marveled that it had not been Morris who died first. Although he did manage to squeeze in side projects, such as the urban comedy "Car Wash" (1976) during his frustrating time at "SNL," Morris maintained a low profile in the few years that followed his and the remaining original cast members' departure from the show in 1980.
Having apparently surmounted his drug problems, Morris resurfaced in the early 1980s. His second play, "Daddy Picou and Marie Le Veau," was produced in 1982. He returned to television with several recurring guest spots on shows like "The Jeffersons" (CBS, 1975-1985) in 1983, "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1980-87) in 1985, and on the short-lived sitcom "It's Your Move" (NBC, 1984-85). Feature film work at the time included a turn as cookie kingpin "Chocolate Chip" Charlie in the schlocky horror comedy "The Stuff" (1985), and "Critical Condition" (1987), a misguided medical romp starring Richard Pryor. Morris took on the crime drama genre when he joined the cast of "Hunter" (NBC, 1984-1991) from 1986-89 as street hustler/informer Sporty James. In subsequent years he became a TV fixture in recurring roles on sitcoms targeted at African-American audiences, such as the working-class comedy "Roc" (Fox, 1991-92) and the Martin Lawrence vehicle, "Martin" (Fox, 1992-97). His role in the latter series - that of the title character's boss - had to be written out of the show after Morris was shot during an attempted robbery in 1994. He reunited with former-"SNL" cast mates Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin in the big screen version of their classic sketch "Coneheads" (1993), and later joined the cast of another short-lived sitcom, "Cleghorne!" (The WB, 1995).
Morris continued to pick up work in both film and on television, with a supporting role in "Machine Gun Blues" (1996), a crime drama set in prohibition-era Chicago, and as Uncle Junior on the successful sitcom "The Jamie Foxx Show" (The WB, 1996-2001). He had a substantial co-starring role in the ensemble comedy drama "Jackpot" (2001), followed by a smaller cameo in the stoner comedy "How High" (2001). Morris joined the cast of the Vivica A. Fox beauty shop comedy "Salon" (2005), and later appeared as a reverend in the high school football comedy "The Longshots" (2008), starring Ice Cube. In the latter-half of the decade Morris co-founded and became the emcee at Los Angles' Downtown Comedy Club, a venue for both established and up-and-coming comedians.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Began singing at age five (date approximate)
Entered a music competition with the National Association of Negro Musicians; while traveling with the group back to New Orleans, got off the bus in NYC; found housing at the Harlem YMCA; became involved in the Harlem YMCA Drama Club where Cicely Tyson, Clarence Williams III, Isabel Sanford, Godfrey Cambridge and Diana Sands were also participants
Made his stage debut as Leroy in "The Bible Salesman" at the Broadway Congregational Church in NYC
Drafted into the U.S. Army; served 18 months as an X-ray technician before securing a special leave (date approximate)
Reprised the role of Leroy in "The Bible Salesman" at the Martinique Theater in NYC
Played Peter in "Porgy and Bess" with the City Center Light Opera Company
Played second barker in "Show Boat" at the Music Theater of Lincoln Center; later appeared in U.S. touring company
Appeared in the City Center Light Opera Company production of "Finian's Rainbow"
Made his feature acting debut, "Where's Poppa?/Going Ape," directed by Carl Reiner
Produced his first play "The Secret Place" at NYC's Playwrights Horizons
Made his TV series debut with a regular role on "Roll Out," a short-lived military sitcom on CBS
Made first collaboration with director Michael Schultz with an appearance on "Change at 125th Street," a busted CBS sitcom pilot
Auditioned with Lorne Michaels to become a writer for "Saturday Night Live;" hired as a performer on the strength of his performance in "Cooley High"
Played Mr. Mason in the well-received Michael Schultz-directed comedy "Cooley High"
Gained fame as an ensemble member on the landmark late night comedy-variety series "Saturday Night live"
Played a supporting role in the Schultz-directed comedy feature "Car Wash"
Made his first TV special appearance with the other "SNL" regulars in the TV-movie "Things We Did Last Summer" (NBC)
Produced second play "Daddy Picou and Marie Le Veau"
Played the recurring role of Principal Dwight Ellis on the NBC youth sitcom "It's Your Move"
Joined the cast of the NBC cop drama "Hunter" in the supporting role of Sporty James
Appeared as Wiz, a regular on the Fox sitcom "Roc"
Appeared as a regular on the first two seasons of the Fox sitcom "Martin" as Martin Lawrence's boss and radio station owner Stan Winters
Cast as a regular on The WB sitcom "Cleghorne!" as the protagonist's overbearing postal worker-father Sidney
Appeared as himself on the premiere of The WB sitcom "The Wayans Brothers"; returned two months later playing Uncle Leon
Reprised the role of Stan Winters for a guest shot on Fox's "Martin"
Cast as Junior King, a regular on The WB sitcom "The Jamie Foxx Show"
Landed a pivotal role in the independent "Twin Falls Idaho," written by and starring the Polish brothers
Reteamed with the Polish brothers for "Jackpot," playing the road manager of a country singer
Guest-starred on the Logo series "Noah's Arc"
Acted in the comedy feature "Who's Your Caddy?"
Cast opposite Ice Cube in the family comedy "The Longshots"
Co-starred with Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs on the CBS sitcom "2 Broke Girls"