Chuck Cooper in Thunder Knocking on the Door
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Chuck Cooper in Thunder Knocking on the Door
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
All things considered, Chuck Cooper--the actor who won a 1997 Tony for The Life and who may currently be seen in the Off-Broadway musical Thunder Knocking on the Door--is glad he didn't pursue his original ambition to become a disc jockey. Says Cooper of acting: "It's a terrible way to make a living, but a wonderful life."

He was offered his present assignment by Keith Glover, who wrote Thunder's book and contributed to the music and lyrics. (The score is by Keb' Mo' and Anderson Edwards; Oskar Eustis directed.) "I read it, liked it, and decided to give it a whirl," Cooper says. "It's so much fun and I'm working with awesome people." Completing the cast of the show at the Minetta Lane Theatre are Leslie Uggams, Peter Jay Fernandez, Marva Hicks, and Michael McElroy. Set in rural Alabama in 1966, the musical concerns a blues guitar "cuttin' contest" and members of the Dupree family. In a dual role, Cooper plays two Dupree brothers, the late Jaguar Senior and the still living Dregster, whom Jaguar's widow, Good Sister (Uggams), loves but won't marry.

Cooper says that he's still finding new and deeper elements in these characters, but tells me that he didn't find it necessary to research them "because I grew up with the blues. I am not a big one for doing a lot of research unless I am doing something that is very far from me. The most important work is the work you do to find what it is within yourself that you can bring to the part."

Born in Cleveland, Cooper is "the oldest and the youngest" in his family, explaining: "I'm the oldest of my father's children and the youngest of my mother's children. And I'm the only child that my mother and father had [together]." He recalls that, when he was registering to attend Ohio University, he had a conversation with a faculty member who encouraged him "to try the theater department instead of the radio/television/communications department, where I'd planned to go." Following graduation, he came to New York and got a job with a children's theater company. "Back then, it was called the Performing Arts Repertory Theater; now it's Theaterworks USA," he says. "Jay Harnick and Charlie Hull gave me my first job and my Equity card, and I will forever be grateful to them." Child audiences, observes Cooper, "are the toughest and the best because they're honest. They don't have any pretensions; they don't jive you on. If you're on the mark, they love you; if you're not, they let you know."

Cooper with Thunder-mate Leslie Uggams
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Cooper with Thunder-mate Leslie Uggams
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In 1983, Cooper reached Broadway as Brother Boxer in The Amen Corner, a musical version of James Baldwin's play. "It was just thrilling," he says, "to be in the league of Broadway performers. It's a unique and wonderful fraternity. Never mind that the show sucked." His Broadway credits also include Frank McGuinness's 1992 play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, the story of three cellmates in a Middle East prison. Cooper understudied and then succeeded James McDaniel in the role of Adam, playing against David Dukes. He still expresses sorrow at Dukes's untimely death due to a heart attack in 2000. "Aw, man, when I heard that, it really took the wind out of my sails," he says. "I can't say enough nice things about him. He was good people, a great guy."

Also listed on Cooper's résumé are two Stephen Sondheim shows: the musical Passion and the play Getting Away With Murder (co-authored by Sondheim and George Furth). "I was a swing in Passion and covered six of the male tracks," says Cooper. "Initially, there were some problems figuring out [the story], but I think that it will go down as one of Sondheim's best--and, certainly, Donna Murphy's performance is one of the finest ever rendered on a Broadway stage. I watched her every night in total amazement at her immersion into the pain and passion of the role."

At San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, Cooper created the role of Dan Gerard in Getting Away With Murder, which was then called The Doctor Is Out. "They saw fit to dump me to get Frankie Faison--who, I guess, was their version of a star," Cooper remarks. "Frankie and I are good friends. I don't have any animosity for him, just respect. But they dumped me, and then I had to come back and ask them to understudy the role on Broadway." As it turned out, the show's Broadway run was short lived.

A happier experience was The Life, in which Cooper won a Tony for his role of Memphis. Did he have any reservations about portraying a pimp? "I had many reservations," he confesses. "I can recall the first day of rehearsals at Westbeth [in Greenwich Village]. I and my fellow actors were all rather perturbed and disturbed about the subject matter. But there should be no sacred cows in terms of subject matter--as long as it's handled tastefully, and I think our production did that.

Cooper makes a major point of expressing his gratitude to Cy Coleman, who composed the music, co-wrote the book with lyricist Ira Gasman and David Newman, and was one of the producers of The Life. "It took many years for the show to get from Westbeth to Broadway," he notes, "and, throughout all that time, Cy stuck with Pamela Isaacs, Lillias White, and me. He insisted that we be the ones who played those roles, even when the director changed. That kind of loyalty and faith does not exist in this business!"

Cooper with Felicia Finley in The Life(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Cooper with Felicia Finley in The Life
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
So convincing was Cooper as the vicious Memphis that playgoers tended to respond to him warily at the stage door after the show. "They gave me a lot of space," Cooper chuckles. "They were frightened, I guess, but it was acting. I'm a nice guy!" As for winning the Tony, "it beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," Cooper says, though he feels that winning a Tony is not always a boon for a black actor. "If you did a survey of white actors who won the Tony Award and what happens to their careers, then compare it to what happens to black actors, you would find a disparity," he says. "Case in point: Hinton Battle has won three Tonys. When is the last time you saw him on Broadway, or in a film, or on television? And look at me: After my Tony, it took me years to get back on Broadway [in Chicago]." So, how did Cooper like playing Billy Flynn? "That was just a gas!" he enthuses. "Billy has the best entrance in musical theater--10 minutes of women begging for him to come onstage!"

Cooper's other credits include Neil Simon's Rumors on Broadway (as an understudy), several Shakespearean parts in regional theater, and the role of Badfoot in the Encores! production of St. Louis Woman. Yet, in his Playbill bio, Cooper lists his favorite role as that of "Eddie, Alex and Lilli's father." The proud dad notes, "That's so true! Eddie's 20, Alex is 15, and Lilli is 12." Though Cooper is divorced from their mother, he says that he's not really single: "I am living with a wonderful lady who's a wonderful playwright. Her name is Deborah Brevoort. Please mention her, and tell everyone how much I love her!"

Does he have any plans after Thunder Knocking on the Door? Says Chuck Cooper, with a laugh: "Yeah...to get another job!"