Actor and singer Richard Brooks can read over a legal document and break it right on down. He’s not a lawyer, but he played one on television as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette in the first three seasons (1990-93) of NBC’s hit drama Law & Order. And the research that went into preparing for the part gives him some expertise on the matter.
“Sometimes, I think of myself as a jailhouse lawyer now because I help people with their legal issues,” Brooks said as he chuckled. “It makes no sense. I’d read the contract, and people are like, ‘You read my contract?’ ‘Yes, I read the full contract.’ ”
Now, Brooks is in the fourth season of the hit show Being Mary Jane on BET and is a co-star in Victoria Rowell’s new dramedy The Rich and the Ruthless, which premieres July 28 on the Urban Movie Channel.
Alongside Gabrielle Union, Richard Roundtree, Margaret Avery and now Michael Ealy, Brooks plays Patrick Patterson, the older brother of Mary Jane (Union). Patrick is a recovering addict trying to get his life back on the right track while raising a young daughter and advising his older children, who now have children of their own. He plays a grandfather on the show who faces adversity of his own, but he is still helping the Patterson family through their separate personal issues.
In the fictional show The Rich and the Ruthless, Brooks plays self-made businessman and showrunner Augustus Barringer. After finding out his show, the first black soap opera on a big Hollywood network, has been booted, he decides to fight for his rightful place in Hollywood. He does what he has to do to keep the show going and moves the company to Jamaica, but his unpredictable wife, Kitty Barringer (Rowell), is not too happy about these changes.
Brooks said he met Rowell on the set of Diagnosis: Murder in 1994.
“I came in for a special guest star on that, and in the show we were paired off together, we had to break the case together,” Brooks said of his character on the nighttime drama. “I was a former heavyweight boxer who, I believe, was being swindled or something by my promoter, and she’s helping me break the case. We really had a great time just being together. There’s a little romantic spark in the police character. We’ve just been friends ever since then, looking for an opportunity to work together again.”
Brooks founded his own production company, Flat Top Entertainment, through which he released his first solo rhythm and blues album, Smooth Love. In 2013, he appeared on the public TV series The Abolitionists as Frederick Douglass. He spoke to The Undefeated about The Rich and the Ruthless, Being Mary Jane and his journey.
How do you feel that you’re entertaining us on one of the hottest TV shows right now, Being Mary Jane?
I love it. I feel like we helped start the whole trend of there being a lot of black dramas and shows like this, like Empire and Power. It’s great to still be pumping out great episodes and great drama, bringing that to BET. The character I play I really love, because he’s a fully dimensional black man. I feel like I get to portray the struggles I think that a lot of black men are going through, and we’re trying to rebound and rebuild our lives, and have a second chance to be the kind of men that we want to be. It’s a great production, great quality writing and acting, so I just love it. It’s really a joy.
Is it weird playing a grandfather?
I guess not really. I feel like I’m a young grandfather. I guess it’s amazing. I think that throughout my career, I’ve managed to sometimes snag these roles, like it’s just laying there or whatever, where I have a full family dynamic. What’s really challenging and satisfying about the part especially is that I’m a grandfather, I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m a brother, you know? I have to play the dynamics of all of those relationships and those roles all at the same time. It’s just great to have a show where my parents are there, too, and I’m still dealing with my parents. My son also. And then try to be a good father, and I have grandkids who I’m trying to be a good grandfather to, and so it is kind of crazy. It’s crazy to get to that part of your life where that is your possibility because that’s who you are. Your kids can have kids, you know? I don’t think we get to see that that much in characters on television or on the movies who actually have that whole world, that whole experience, happening for them. It’s like I’m the emotional center of the show. I get so emotional, so fragile. It’s funny.
What inspires you to keep pouring into our lives through your craft?
It’s funny because I look back and then I realize I’ve been doing this since I was 10 or 11, when I first saw a school play, I think, in sixth grade, and I think they were doing Hansel and Gretel. I found myself going, ‘Why am I not Hansel?’ I was sitting in the audience, and then I started trying to plot my way into the drama department of my junior high school and found a way into a summer job program. They had a student program at the time. The kids were out there picking up garbage and helping do construction stuff and all that.
I was making money being paid actually to act, as a kid. It’s funny now to just look back and realize this was all I’ve done, all I’ve had to do pretty much my whole life, is to be an actor, and I’ve always wanted to be a great actor and really represent men, and black men. My mother always put it upon me to try to teach black men how to be men, or something like that. So that inspires me, and I am just so happy to have roles that may illuminate something about what we go through as men out here.
What’s been the most meaningful role you’ve ever played?
Well, I like to think of my current role, of course, as Patrick, and now Augustus Barringer on The Rich and the Ruthless, and all the roles that are to come. Of course, Law & Order in Paul Robinette had a more transformative role for me because I had to really grow as a man, as an intellect, as a scholar. I had to become more versed in current affairs, and law, and politics and things like that. Before then, I had been pretty much just an artist kind of mentality and just wanting to act, and that role forced me to learn contracts and laws, and my research for it actually influenced me as a person a lot, so that one was probably the biggest stretch at the time. To grow into that role, I think, has helped me with the rest of my career to take on more challenging parts and things like that.
But I have a theater background. I think that had a big effect on me, too, the work of August Wilson.
If you weren’t an actor and an artist, what do you think you’d be doing?
When I started going to a prep school I was acting, and I went right to another grad school, Circle in the Square. But my mom had wanted to get me a full scholarship to medical school actually in Cleveland. She spoke with someone, and he was like, ‘Wow, this is great. We really need black men as doctors. We could give him a full ride, eight years.’ He’d pay for it, you know? But I was committed to acting, and also, I never really liked dissecting. I didn’t like biology. I didn’t really like dissecting frogs and things like that.
I think that law would have probably been one that I were to find myself more practically thinking of. There’s a certain amount of performance to it, and there’s the intellect. I do like legalese and the complexities of law and stuff.
What’s been the hardest part of your journey?
Probably just surviving the process of the ups and downs of the industry, and dealing with the other people’s expectations, whether they are ahead of me or behind me. You start off and no one really believes you could do anything, they think it’s impossible, and so you have a lot of doubt. Then, as soon as you start to do something, then people are ahead of you, and then they might be like, ‘Well, how come you’re not a major superstar already? How come that movie didn’t … ‘ So it’s always good, just sort of gauging it and trying to keep a level head. You’ve got to keep a balance and continue to think positive.
What do you look forward to most in your future?
I’ve really been into directing a little bit. I was shadowing on Being Mary Jane this season. Right now I’m doing an intensive at New York Film Academy out here in L.A. for the summer. Trying to squeeze that in between acting parts and stuff, and so I really want to expand into writing, producing, directing and creating concepts. Sort of what Victoria [Rowell] is doing, which is why I really want to support her in anything she’s doing. Because I think it’s incredible, the way she’s managed to put this project together and carried it to this point where we’re premiering, and somebody thought of her. That’s what artists have to do sometimes. We can’t just sit around and wait for other people to create opportunities for us; we have to create the opportunities.
We’re the ones who have a lot of the experience. We know what works. We’ve read hundreds and hundreds of scripts, and been on hundreds and hundreds of sets, so it is our time to actually step up and create opportunities for the next generations. So, kind of where my mind is right now.
What would you tell an aspiring actor who came to you for advice?
I do believe in studying and emulating a trained actor. I believe in excellence, I believe in using the art form as a way for personal growth. So whether you succeed at it or not, I think it’s an opportunity to learn more about yourself while you’re exploring other characters. I would definitely tell them to persevere and also innovate, because everything is changing and there’s no right or wrong way to make it these days. Who knows what’s coming in the future? With social media and the new way that stars are coming up the internet now. But definitely, I would tell them to try to be the best, and study with the best, and supplement all their education with books and learning.
Are there any roles that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?
I’ve done so many roles. I definitely want to do some more movies. I wouldn’t mind getting into some new superhero comic book. I think that would be fun. And maybe something on the musical side, too, I wouldn’t mind. I haven’t really done a hit Broadway musical, or I haven’t gotten much singing out as much as I would like to. That would be fun. I think just to get my music out, or to be a part of something musical.
What are your hobbies?
My singing, music. Songwriting is one. Sports. I like basketball and swimming, reading, going out and partying. Still like to party.