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May 07, 2023

A latecomer to acting, he had a rich, varied, decades-long career onstage and on screen, not only as a performer but as a mentor, teacher, and leader.

John Beasley made a lifetime of defying odds. Despite little formal training and a late entry into acting at age 45, he established himself in regional theatre (Mixed Blood, Goodman, Alliance), becoming a stock company player in August Wilson plays before breaking into episodic television and feature films. His Wilson work brought him to Boston's Huntington Theatre Company and D.C.'s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The veteran character actor died May 30 at age 79, possibly months from what would have been Broadway debut in Bekah Brunstetter and Ingrid Michaelson's musical adaptation of the popular novel and film The Notebook (reportedly planned for the 2023-24 season, though no theatre or dates have yet been announced). Last fall he originated the role of Older Noah opposite Maryann Plunkett in a Chicago Shakespeare Theatre run directed by Michael Grief and Schele Williams. COVID ran through that production's cast and crew, and Beasley suffered a serious respiratory case that landed him in a Chicago ER. Forced to exit the production after a handful of performances, he was unable to rejoin the show before it closed Oct. 30.

He recovered in his native Omaha, Neb., which he called home even after finding fame. He ended up hospitalized again but rebounded, traveling to see grandson Malik Beasley, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, compete in the playoffs. More recently, the actor went in for tests when liver complications developed. His condition worsened.

His sudden death elicited a flood of tributes. Brunstetter posted that Beasley "took what Ingrid and I created above and beyond our expectations. At 79 years old his performance was so painfully real, at once universal and specific, and heartbreaking. His acting was seamless, it never showed. He wasn't just pretending to be nearing the end of his life, he was, but at the same time, he was still so strong of mind and body, lifting in the gym every morning before rehearsal…I’m honored we got to have him at all…The dude didn't start acting until his 40s, and still left a huge mark on the industry and on his community."

In an email, Michaelson wrote that Beasley had the company call him Johnny to differentiate himself from another John in the cast. "He said no one had called him that since he was a kid, so it felt really special that we got to call him that. He truly became ‘our Johnny.’ He put his whole self into the work. Moved so beautifully throughout anything he did. He anchored the show and us all in such a calm way. I feel so lucky to have seen him work his magic in our show. Because that's what his performance felt like, magic. The last text I have (from him) is warm, short and sweet…That was Johnny. Warm. To the point. Thoughtful. Celebratory…He is embedded in my music. In our show. In our hearts. Rest well, Johnny."

His Notebook co-star Plunkett, who bonded with Beasley in Chicago, said by phone that she's sorry that the man she called "My Noah" won't make it to Broadway. "I just so wanted that for him," Plunkett said. "I only was able to share a very brief window of life with him, but I’m so grateful I got that chance. What an honor I have had to play his Allie. We had a wonderful rehearsal period. He made me laugh. He was a teaser. He was a man who demanded honesty. When you were onstage with him, he was not faking it, he was there. l Ioved him. I’m going to miss him terribly."

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (CST) communications director Hannah Kennedy shared, "Our entire staff has been reeling from the news, as Johnny was one of the best, and our time with him was all too short."

The Notebook company is expected to dedicate its TBD Broadway run in his memory.

Screen notables Beasley worked with remembered the actor, too, including Oscar-winner Robert Duvall. Beasley's turn as Brother Blackwell in the 1997 feature The Apostle, which Duvall wrote, directed and starred in, got him noticed by Hollywood producers. Reached by phone, Duvall described Beasley as "a great guy and a wonderful actor," adding, "It was a special project and he certainly helped make it that way."

A shared commitment to making things real made them fans of each other's work. Recalled Duvall, "Somebody said, ‘Where’d you get that non-actor to play the preacher?’ And I said, ‘That non-actor has his own (theatre) company and did Shakespeare and everything.’"

"Nobody is as believable as Bobby Duvall," Beasley told me in an interview before he died. "In fact, when we did it, he said, ‘Big John, don't be afraid to say anything, don't hesitate, you’re not going to throw me.’ In other words, if I improvised something, he’d go with it in the moment. I think if you’re in the moment it's always going to work for you."

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 onto to be a regular cast member in the TV Land sitcom The Soul Man with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash. Each gave props to their co-star in statements.

Beasley, who came to acting after forays in college athletics and community activism and working as a jitney driver, longshoreman, janitor, clerk, and deacon—"Done a lot of things," he once said—learned the craft in Omaha community theatre productions. He took on roles as diverse as Willy Loman, Othello, Tom Robinson, Hoke Colburn, and Troy Maxson. His life experience worked to his advantage. "All of it, every last bit of it," he told a reporter. "I’ve seen the rough side of life, too."

His wife of 57 years, Judy, supported his acting dream.

Both in and outside Omaha, he became part of an acting brotherhood so identified with the canon of August Wilson its members are dubbed Wilsonian Warriors. "Oh, yeah, I’m definitely that," he said in an interview. "I owe so much to August Wilson. He's been a big part of my career. I credit August with getting me into Chicago theatre and into that circle, because it is a nice fraternity."

As part of August Wilson's 20th Century Cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2008, he played Turnbo in a production of Jitney directed by Gordon Davidson. And he assayed Troy in a 2009 production of Fences at the Huntington directed by Kenny Leon.

At his own John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha he produced Wilson's entire 10-play cycle about the African American experience. For a production of Jitney, he brought in Broadway veterans Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks. Beasley's two sons, Tyrone and Mike, appeared with him onstage in that production. Tyrone, formerly with the Rose Theater in Omaha, served as artistic director for his father's theatre. Once intent on an acting career himself, Tyrone appeared in a Peter Sellars-directed mounting of The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre that also played New York and London. His brother Mike books many TV and movie gigs out of Atlanta.

The elder Beasley's penchant for performing extended to being a deacon and singer at Hope Lutheran Church. He saw something sacred in the mission he felt called to. "I think through my work I can change souls," he said. He also saw part of his theatre's mission as identifying and lifting up homegrown talent. Several Omaha actors mentored by him are now well along in their own careers, including Andre McGraw, Kelcey Watson, Nadia Ra’Shaun, and Vincent Lee Alston.

"John Beasley was the patriarch of an acting family," Alston recalled. "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.’"

Though Beasley didn't make it to a New York stage, he made clear that he’d already achieved what he set out to do all those years before. "To be a working artist is the highest calling, and I appreciate wherever it takes me. If I never got to Broadway, I would still feel I’ve had a pretty successful career," he told American Theatre in 2022.

At the Great Plains Theatre Commons New Play Conference's June 3 wrap party, Beasley Theater alum TammyRa’ delivered a tribute, noting, "John really nourished us." Among other things, she said she got to know August Wilson's work through him and it enriched her life. She recently co-directed a production of Fences at the Omaha Community Playhouse, something she felt emboldened to do because of Beasley's influence. "He really poured into me," she said.

She concluded by equating Beasley with the passing souls of Maya Angelou's poem When Great Trees Fall.

When great trees fall,rocks on distant hills shudder,lions hunker downin tall grasses,and even elephantslumber after safety.

When great trees fallin forests,small things recoil into silence,their senseseroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,the air around us becomeslight, rare, sterile.We breathe, briefly.Our eyes, briefly,see witha hurtful clarity.Our memory, suddenly sharpened,examines,gnaws on kind wordsunsaid,promised walksnever taken…

And when great souls die,after a period peace blooms,slowly and alwaysirregularly. Spaces fillwith a kind ofsoothing electric vibration.Our senses, restored, neverto be the same, whisper to us.They existed. They existed.We can be. Be and bebetter. For they existed.

A large turnout is anticipated for the June 7 visitation and funeral in his honor at Salem Baptist Church in North Omaha.

Leo Adam Biga (he/him) is an Omaha-based freelance writer and the author of the 2016 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

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John Beasley made a lifetime of defying odds. Leo Adam Biga (he/him) is an Omaha-based freelance writer and the author of the 2016 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.