“Shut up. Don’t say a word for 26 weeks.”
Orlando Jones says it is some of the best advice he’s received in an entertainment career that has now spanned almost 40 years. He was 19 years old at the time, newly hired in Hollywood to be on the writing team for A Different World, the spinoff of The Cosby Show on NBC.
“I sat in the writing room for 26 weeks and I wasn’t allowed to say anything,” Orlando says about the advice he was given by Gary Miller, a writer and producer on the show. “At 14 weeks, I thought I was ready, and I pitched a joke. Gary Miller turned to me and said ‘do you want to pedal that joke door-to-door with a -------- manual?’ I was like ‘Wow!’ He said, ‘I thought I told you to shut up!’” The rest of the story comes at 14:00 of the podcast.
Orlando says he learned an important lesson that day, about the importance of apprenticeship. He used it to begin laying the foundation of his career. Work on A Different World led to other writing opportunities on shows including Roc and The Sinbad Show, before Orlando landed a role as one of the original cast members on Mad TV in 1995. He remembers it as a step up in opportunity, and fear.
“When you’re writing for sitcoms, there’s a lot of note-giving, but you’re watching other people and you’re writing to their voice,” he said. “Suddenly I had to figure out how to write for my own voice, and then write for somebody else’s voice. Mad TV was definitely scary because I was in a room with mostly standup comedians, who were used to their own voices and knew how they were funny. I had to kind of figure it out on the job.”
Another piece of advice came not long after Orlando started on Mad TV. During a cross-country trip from Los Angeles to New York, Orlando and a friend stopped in Chicago, where the friend introduced him to another actor, Laurence Fishburne. The ensuring conversation rocked his world. The full story comes at 25:05 of the podcast.
“He came over and he said, ‘nice to meet you, I’m Laurence Fishburne, I’m a huge fan of your work!’,” Orlando says. “I was like ‘Dude, seriously. You don’t watch Mad TV! Thank you for being nice!’. He was like ‘no, my son watches Mad TV, and when we’re together he puts it on and so I’ve gotten an opportunity to see you’. He goes ‘I’m telling you right now, you don’t belong on television, you belong in film, and you should probably move away from doing comedy. You’re very, very good at it, but your dramatic skills are really impressive’.
Fishburne would ultimately introduce Orlando to other skilled actors, including Sidney Poitier, who would help mentor Orlando through his career.
Orlando left Mad TV after its second season and began finding roles in movies. He landed a major role in 1999 as the face of 7up soda, pitching executives on a campaign that became “Make 7up Yours”. It worked. He played Sveen, a character that comes up with ideas for marketing the soft drink, but the ideas go wrong, with hilarious results. The series of commercials became a smash hit, and Orlando remembers the campaign breaking new ground in the industry.
“At that time, it was a big deal, because the only way a young African-American kid would have gotten that type of job, soda or tennis shoes, were that you had to be a professional athlete or you had to be a superstar, whatever that was,” Orlando says. “There frankly weren’t that many at that time. It was a really big deal. It was a bigger deal that they let me write it.”
Roles came in movies including Office Space (1999), The Replacements (2000), Drumline (2002) and The Time Machine (2002). He got the opportunity to help launch FX Network with The Orlando Jones Show, a late-night talk show that ran in the summer of 2003. Orlando talks about the learning experience at 29:30 of the podcast.
“I really got a lesson in the politics of the way the business works, which I didn’t particularly have prior to that, particularly on a talk show because I hadn’t done one prior to that,” he says. “It was crazy because FX had no shows. I think the only show they had was The Shield. My lead-in was an infomercial.”
Orlando received one of the most important pieces of advice years before his name graced that talk show. It happened far from Los Angeles, in Mauldin, South Carolina. Gladys Robertson taught speaking at Mauldin High School, and she noticed the young man’s talents for performing.
“She was really the one who said ‘you should really change your focus from basketball’, which is where my focus heavily was, basketball and science, and said ‘you should think about taking this seriously’,” he remembers. “I didn’t take it seriously at the time, but she pushed. She called my parents, and she was very focused on the fact that what I should be doing was performing, and she was right.” That story is at 7:45 of the podcast.
Orlando won a high school speech and debate championship in 1985 for dramatic humorist interpretation. He began travelling, first to perform and later to audition for roles in commercials and industrial films. Once again, he acted on a piece of advice, this time from Adam Fisher, Jr., an attorney in South Carolina. The advice led Orlando to starting his own advertising business and marketing himself. It opened the door to the next step in his career. The story begins at the 13:00 of the podcast.
“After I had landed several jobs he said, ‘you should think about incorporating and starting your own business’,” Orlando said. “He incorporated me, and I took the reel of things I had done, and I started my own business when I was 18. That was sort of my big leap, and it was that reel of commercial work that I had done that got me noticed by A Different World. They flew me out to LA, interviewed me, hired me and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.”
Orlando moved his wife and family to Wilmington not long after he arrived in 2013 to shoot the Fox series Sleepy Hollow. After spending more than 20 years in Los Angeles he was looking for a slower pace and less traffic. He says the Port City is more like what he was accustomed to growing up in the southeast. Since becoming a resident, Orlando has gotten involved in the local community, co-hosting fundraising events for organizations like DREAMS and Make-A-Wish.
“To me, if I’m going to be in this community I want to do things that hopefully are a positive impact on the community,” he says about those opportunities. “I’ve been fortunate that people have allowed me to do that. I feel like it’s a blessing that they allow me to be a part of it because they could say ‘no’.”
Orlando Jones was extremely generous with his time, and we covered many more topics like his appreciation for fandom, his current series American Gods, and his opinions on the loss of North Carolina’s film tax incentive program that has resulted in fewer projects filming in the Wilmington area. I hope you enjoy the podcast as much as I enjoyed talking with him.
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