This winter, James Pickens Jr. is expected to return to the set to begin filming the 20th season of Grey’s Anatomy, which plans a spring premiere. James, who has played Dr. Richard “Chief” Webber since 2005, Ellen Pompeo and Chandra Wilson are the last original cast members of the long-running medical drama. “It’s been a heck of a ride,” James, 69, tells Closer. “We’ve had a good time.”
Beyond his career on television, where he also brought memorable characters to life on The X-Files and Roseanne, and theater, his first love, James is a celebrity ambassador for prostate cancer awareness. When he’s not on a set or stage, he can be found horseback riding and roping cattle. “It’s been a great escape for me,” he confides of the ranching life. “I go out and I just ride the trail. It’s fun.”
Did you always want to be an actor?
“No. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and was the oldest of three kids. My father worked in the steel mill for over 20 years. I had aspirations to be an artist and an illustrator, but then I went off to college and that’s when I got the acting bug. I found myself in New York City in the late ’70s where I plied my trade as an actor, mostly in off-Broadway theater. By 1990, I made my way to Los Angeles, and I can’t believe I’ve been here that long now.”
Was your family supportive of your dreams?
“They were supportive, but most of that generation didn’t quite get it. To them, it was about an eight-hour workday. Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll and Harry Belafonte were their frames of reference, but the whole idea of acting as a career was pretty foreign to them.”
If you could give your younger self advice, what would you say?
“I think I would tell my younger self that I am proud of where I wound up and that I never gave up. Once I figured that this was my path, I never deterred from that path. I don’t have any regrets. I think everything happens for a reason.”
You spent many years in theater. Do you prefer it to television acting?
“Theater has always been my first love. I just finished a play back east at the New Jersey Repertory Company, and I didn’t realize how much I had missed theater. They say it’s like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it.”
You performed in a new play, A Tailor Near Me, opposite Richard Kind. What was that like?
“It was a lot of fun. Richard is great. The theater was very small. It’s a subscription house, but it was sold out every night. I think it’s most important that we helped a small theater survive. COVID really took its toll on the regional theater community. Smaller houses had to close because they couldn’t afford to stay open. Hopefully, others will take our lead and we can campaign to keep these small theaters alive.”
You’ve worked with some wonderful actors. Have you ever been starstruck?
“I’ve never worked with him, but I have to say Sidney Poitier is probably the one I was most starstruck by. He was so elegant and such a gentleman. His life was written all on his face, and he would impart words of wisdom. He would always give me the biggest hug and kind of look at me with these sly eyes and give a little smile.”
Who have you enjoyed working with?
“Anthony Hopkins and I worked on a film called Nixon. He was amazing. Hal Holbrook, too. I shared a stage with Samuel Jackson and Denzel Washington. We did a wonderful show in New York called A Soldier’s Play at the start of our careers and we ended up becoming good friends. Our kids have grown up together.”
Tell us about your involvement with Movember’s campaign to raise prostate cancer awareness.
“I have a special place in my heart for this cause. I’ve had several relatives who were diagnosed with prostate cancer — My father and several of his brothers. I make it a point to get tested annually. It’s so important to get the word out and help spread information. I want to let my brothers in the African American community know that there is no stigma to getting tested for prostate cancer. We’re 50 percent more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than the general public, and we need to get past the fear, the apprehension and mistrust in order to live longer.” (For more information, go to movember.com.)
You’ve been married to your wife Gina for 39 years. What’s your secret?
“Stay out of each other’s way! [Laughs] You have to navigate those waters as a couple and know your strengths and know your weaknesses, know when to negotiate and know when to say, ‘OK, you got this one.’ I have a great partner, and I’ve been really blessed to have an amazing woman as a wife. I think even more important, she’s my best friend. I’m truly blessed. What do you like to do on a date night? We like a good dinner. We like to catch a movie, and we’re big fans of live music. We have a lot of friends who are in the music business and so we try to make it a point to see live music and to promote it as well.”
Tell us about your involvement with roping and trail riding.
“I’m a kid of the ’50s and early ’60s, so I had three channels on the TV and every channel had westerns. When I got the opportunity to get involved with it deeper, I jumped right in. I own three horses now — they’re my favorite animal. I’ve kind of attempted to rodeo a little bit. I’ve been a huge fan of the Western lifestyle for a long time.”
Do you have a motto you live by?
“I read a Bible verse every morning before I get my day started just to lift me up. The verse I usually start my day with is ’This is the day the Lord has made and we will rejoice and be glad in it.’ I also try to make my bed up first thing. By making your bed, you’ve already accomplished something. You’d be surprised how it kind of recalibrates you and gets your day moving ahead.”