How the Fresh Prince's Geoffrey, Joseph Marcell, Became King Lear

The classically trained British actor takes a Shakespeare’s Globe production around the world.

For six seasons (and countless subsequent years in syndication), Joseph Marcell played the sarcastic and stoic Geoffrey the Butler on the popular television sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But few knew that the St. Lucian-born Englishman is a classically trained actor, who has appeared on Broadway twice, before and after Fresh Prince's run (in John Guare's A Free Man of Color and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes), and in countless productions in Great Britain with the Royal Shakespeare Company and other organizations.

Now, Marcell is tackling King Lear, perhaps the greatest play and role ever written, in an eight-actor touring production of the U.K.-based Shakespeare's Globe. It currently runs through October 12 at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts after playing countries including Istanbul, Malta, Denmark, and Marcell's native St. Lucia. The day he began performances of the production's Pennsylvania run, Marcell chatted with TheaterMania about returning to the stage, taking on this titanic role, and being recognized everywhere he goes from his still-beloved TV gig.

Joseph Marcell as Lear in the Shakespeare's Globe production of King Lear, now at the NYU-Skirball Center.
Joseph Marcell as Lear in the Shakespeare's Globe production of King Lear, now at the NYU-Skirball Center.
(© Ellie Kurtz)

Is Lear one of those roles you've always wanted to play?
Not necessarily, no. In every actor's life, you hope that one day you'll get to play King Lear, but it wasn't at the forefront of my mind. Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in London, asked me if I'd like to play it, and I thought yes, and then I thought no, and then I thought why not risk it, so I did. I didn't think I was quite ready for it. I thought I'd first like to revisit Othello and Brutus before I attacked it, but ours is a buyer's market, and you have to grab it when you can, really.

You've brought this production everywhere from England to Istanbul. What do the different venues bring to the play?
The different venues give it a whole different kind of approach, a whole different ambience. It makes every night a first night. In Turkey, we had surtitles above us and our audiences were always two seconds behind. We'd be four lines ahead and they'd be laughing at something that happened two seconds ago. When we were in the Master's Gardens at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, we were playing outdoors and started the show with a slight drizzle…By the time we got to the Heath, when I shouted "blow winds and crack your cheeks," we had thunder and lighting and rain. And our audience cheered. Everyone was soaked. It was magnificent.

With just eight actors, this is a King Lear unlike the sprawling versions we've seen in New York recently.
Oh, it's magical. We have a truly versatile company…All of the actors play various characters. Once you accept the convention, the transitions are seamless. There are speech and voice delineations that show you the differences, but…How do you put it without sounding too big-headed? It's absolutely actors showing off. I would love to see it, because watching it from the wings it's marvelous to see the way these guys do it. They're doing it without makeup and costume; they're simply putting on a hat. Their hand gestures change. It's the magic of the theater.

While performing in the various tour cities and countries, do you get recognized frequently as Geoffrey from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?
Across the world. The. World. From Adana in Turkey to Philadelphia, every day…this morning, I'm coming back from what I call my power walk, and I hear "Sir? Sir?" So I turned around and there are these two ladies saying, "You are Geoffrey, aren't you?" Now, what do I say? I must be polite; I can't be rude. I say, "Well, I played him, yes." "Can we have a picture?" "Okay, we'll take a picture."

There's a wonderful moment in our production — which is not interactive, but we make our audiences become part of the story — where Lear turns to the audience at the very first moment when Goneril shows her disrespect to the monarch and says, "Does anyone here know me?" and somebody inevitably shouts "Geoffrey!" [laughs]

Which character in King Lear does Geoffrey most resemble?
In King Lear? I think Geoffrey would probably be someone…He has traces of Edmund in him, but Geoffrey is loyal, so that wouldn't do. I think it's probably Gloucester, really. He has the aristocratic bearing and is loyal…and is blind to the sense that he is a man out of time.

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