This fall, Mykelti Williamson will return as ruthless businessman Preston Webb on Law & Order: Organized Crime. “He has aspirations to build an empire along the lines of Walmart or Amazon,” Mykelti tells Closer about his kingpin character. “I enjoy him because he really wants to do good and right his wrongs. I like to be able to show that humanity, even if the character is a villain. No one is all good or bad.”
Mykelti, 65, has been exploring the human condition as an actor since he was a teenager in guest roles on Starsky and Hutch, The White Shadow, Father Murphy and more. A longtime character actor who also writes and directs, he is best known for portraying Tom Hanks’ ill-fated Army buddy Bubba in 1994’s Forrest Gump. “That role changed my life by making me kick into gear to prove that the studio didn’t just find some quirky looking guy with a protruding lip for the part,” he says. “It was actually an actor doing character work
What made you want to become an actor?
“I did a play at my mom and my aunt’s church. A stage mom had pulled her son out of the play on a Friday night. My aunt called. They got me dressed, and I went and watched the other kids do the play with a script in my hand. By Sunday, we went live, and I was offbook and got a standing ovation. It was that moment when I went, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ I was about 7 or 8 years old.”
Was your family supportive of you becoming a professional actor?
“Kind of. I would describe it as cautiously supportive because no one wants their child to get hurt. A family that knows nothing about Hollywood has heard a lot of good stories — like the dream-come-true stories — as well as stories that may terrify them.”
What do you consider your big break?
There was a television series I did that was the first half-hour sitcom on PBS, The Righteous Apples. The director, Stan Lathan, discovered me when I was a teenager. He gave me my first television series as a regular and took me under his wing and taught me how to hit a mark and all kinds of stuff.”
Of course, everyone remembers you from Forrest Gump. What was that set like?
“It was great. [Director] Bob Zemeckis allowed me to go down to South Carolina three weeks ahead of production to learn how to work on a shrimping boat. I also had a dialect coach that was helpful. And Tommy Hanks and Gary Sinise — they’re cut from the same fabric. They’re the kind of people who are so awesome that you wish they could live forever so that everyone could meet them. Great guys.”
Bubba was a funny-looking guy, but you’re not. Did that keep people from recognizing you after Forrest Gump became a hit?
“Yes. On a plane people would be watching Forrest Gump and not realize that I’m sitting across the aisle from them. It was pretty cool that I could disappear like that. I liked being able to go get a hot dog if I wanted to and have a regular life.”
Mykelti is an interesting and memorable name. Is there a story behind it?
“My name is Native American. It’s the name my grandfather wanted me to have; it means ‘Spirit-like Gods.’ The Blackfeet were one of the tribes that first encountered Europeans up the Missouri River and were traded blankets with smallpox. Those were my ancestors.”
You’ve been married to your wife Sondra since 1997. What’s your secret to a happy marriage?
“I think you have to be a little bit lucky to meet the right person. We recently made it to our 25th anniversary together.”
Congratulations! Did anyone ever give you good advice on love and marriage?
“Yes, my mom. She said, ‘When you’re dating, stop telling them what kind of a woman you like. They will only burn up a lot of time playing that role. Let people be who they are, and you be who you are.’ That’s how I met Sondra. I liked who she was and respected her. She liked me, too, and before you knew it, we were planning to get married. ”
You have three daughters. Did any of them follow you into acting?
“Yes, they all have in their own ways. Phoenix is sharpening her sword as a producer, but she is also a phenomenal actor. My middle daughter, Nicole, she is an excellent actor but she also designs women’s clothing and lingerie. My youngest, Maya, is an accomplished jazz trumpet player. She actually first played Carnegie Hall with a college jazz band when she was 14.”
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
“I like to swim. I like to golf. I fly airplanes. I scuba dive. Photography is a really hot-button passion of mine. I like to photograph old barns. People question it, but when you see my photos, you get it. I like to shoot the countryside.”
What are you proudest of in your life and career?
“I’m most proud of the change that I am seeing in Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong, there are still people who behave and write characters as if they were doing Birth of a Nation, but I see other people who are really putting forth an effort to change [negative] images. I’m really proud to see that evolution and the people who want to make a good difference in the lives of others.”
Do you have any words of wisdom you live by?
“I do. They are love, respect, power and a flamethrower. I give everybody love. I give everybody respect. I give no one power, but I expect you to walk in your own power and you can expect me to walk in mine. But you should be aware that I carry a little flamethrower. There are a couple of people who have felt heat from my flamethrower, but then I go right back to love.”
What else do you hope to accomplish in your career?
“I’ve been a director since the ’70s, but I put it on a back burner until five years ago. I’m passionate about making really good movies that represent humanity on its highest level and crush stereotypes. That’s where I’m headed.”