The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Damon Wayans
By Mother Brain
The Wayans have been a household name for as long as I could remember. Back when the Fox network had just launched, my cousin and I would religiously watch The Simpsons and a sketch comedy show called In Living Color. The latter was groundbreaking for television as Saturday Night Live did not feature many black comedians in the period between Eddie Murphy’s departure and Chris Rock’s arrival. While series creator, Keenen Ivory Wayans, created opportunity for many future stars, its first breakout star would be his first youngest brother, Damon Wayans.
As the third of ten children in the Wayans family, Damon’s life was constantly one hurdle after the next. His family lived in the underprivileged Fulton Housing Projects in New York City where Damon was born with a club foot. As he struggled with surgeries, leg braces, and orthopedic shoes to deal with the disability, Damon found an interest in comedy as an outlet to overcome his difficult lifestyle. Being influenced by Richard Pryor, Damon had a way of creating weird characters in his comedy routines which would help him later in his career.
Damon was attending Murry Bergtraum High School when he made the decision to drop out in his freshman year. At the same time, older brother Keenen made the move to Los Angeles to start his acting and standup career. His brother’s ambitious move inspired Damon to follow his lead in 1982 and he quickly made the comedy club rounds in Hollywood. His relations with Keenen helped to create important connections including Eddie Murphy who helped Damon land a small but memorable part as a hotel employee in the original Beverly Hills Cop.
In 1985, Damon’s comedy act helped him get cast as a “Not Ready for Prime Time Player” on Saturday Night Live. He had tough shoes to fill being the first black cast member after Murphy left a year earlier. Things were creatively difficult for Damon who could not get his sketches approved by producers and the stress of live television took a toll on him. Fed up with the production issues, Damon got himself fired from SNL after going off script on a sketch where he turned a straight cop character into a gay one (All was somewhat forgiven when he came back to guest host in 1995).
Damon took small parts in movies such as 1987‘s Roxanne and 1988’s Colors just as Keenen’s career started gaining momentum. He had gotten Damon a small role in a film he cowrote with fellow struggling comedian Robert Townsend called Hollywood Shuffle. The independent comedy financed on Townsend’s credit cards was a hit with critics and audiences, ushering a new wave of black cinema for the late 80s. Riding the wave of Shuffle’s success, Keenen decided to make his directorial debut with the blaxploitation spoof, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and cast Damon as the injury prone henchman Leonard. It was another hit that got the public talking about the Wayans family.
Yet, it was 1988’s Earth Girls Are Easy that proved to be significant for Damon’s career for a variety of reasons. He would play the alien role of Zeebo, a role which required him to sport yellow makeup and fur which allowed Damon to fall into character easily. It was also the film where he befriended another struggling comedian named Jim Carrey who was playing opposite Damon as the red haired alien Wiploc. Though not a hit, Earth Girls gained a cult following in later years and it was an important step in the careers of Damon as well as Jim Carrey.
In Living Color was more than just a launching pad for the careers of the Wayans, Carrey, and future superstars such as Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Lopez. It broke barriers for television as a majority black sketch comedy show that crossed over in mainstream America much like The Cosby Show had done. Damon was the earliest standout in the cast because of the positive reception to three prominent sketches: The vile homeless man “Anton Jackson,” the homosexual film critic opposite David Allan Grier in “Men on Film,” and his most famous character in the form of the angry broke entertainer “Homey D. Clown.” ILC gave Damon the creative freedom he was craving for that SNL denied him and it led to 4 Emmy nominations during the run.
The raunchiness of Damon’s sketches were also met with controversy, specifically the “Men on Film” sketches which were blasted by pro-gay activists. At one point was denounced by Olympic star Carl Lewis after a gay joke was made about him during a Super Bowl sketch with the “Men on Film” characters. Damon and the rest of the Wayans family left ILC in 1992 after their relationship with the Fox network grew toxic due to increasing censorship.
Near the end of his ILC run, Damon attempted to make the leap into films again, but this time as a leading man. He made a quick impact by teaming up with Bruce Willis in the Tony Scott action comedy, The Last Boy Scout. Playing the role of disgraced football star Jimmy Dix, Damon played up the testosterone-driven dialogue of writer Shane Black while also demonstrating his dramatic abilities. Many critics who panned the film at the time overlooked Damon’s performance which involved an addiction to drugs and mourning the loss of his unborn son from a car accident. Those small moments in an action film kept the story grounded.
Damon was the full selling point of his next film, Mo’ Money. Loosely based on an ILC sketch, the Beverly Hills Cop-esque action comedy paired Damon and younger brother Marlon as two con-men with Damon as the one trying to get his act together by impressing an attractive woman at her credit card company job while uncovering an identity theft scheme. He brought in his famous characters from ILC for some of the conning scenes while also casting his brother over A Different World star, Kadeem Hardison, because of his mother’s influence. Though not a critics hit, Mo’ Money proved popular with urban audiences and for a brief moment made Damon a movie star.
Around this time, Damon was so in demand that Warner Bros. had considered him for The Riddler in Batman Forever. That was until Jim Carrey shot up to the top of the comedy scene after ILC ended. Damon would find himself in more misfires than hits. 1994’s Blankman, Damon’s love letter to the 1960s Batman series, was a downright failure despite turning into a cult classic. 1995’s Major Payne resembled a bad Jim Carrey hand-me-down script than anything remotely original. 1996’s The Great White Hype was slaughtered by the summer competition as was the Judd Apatow and Colin Quinn-penned Celtic Pride. Later that year, Damon costarred opposite Adam Sandler in the race reversed 48 HRS. knock off, Bulletproof, which would also be Sandler’s first flop due to massive reedits to appeal to Sandler’s audience.
Damon took a year long break after Bulletproof’s failure to concentrate on producing efforts. He created the animated series, Waynehead, for Kids WB based on his childhood experiences followed by the Fox drama, 413 Hope St. Neither proved successful in the ratings. Damon returned to the small screen in 1998 with his self-titled sitcom which only lasted half a season.
Damon’s career started turning around in 2000 with Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. As a Harvard-educated TV executive conceiving a modern day minstrel show, Damon gave a performance equal to William Holden in 1976’s Network. His honest intentions to create a controversial show so it could be rejected get spun around and lead to corruption and tragedy. Though not a success, critics did give praise to Damon.
The following year, Damon made a comeback on television with ABC’s My Wife and Kids. The Cosby-esque sitcom based on Damon’s family was a ratings hit for 5 seasons and made America fall in love with him all over again. Damon still had the magic with his impressions as well as his frank but hilarious take on parenting issues such as underage sex, marijuana use, etc.
In recent years, Damon has spent more time behind the camera as a TV writer, novelist, and director for film and TV. He lives now through the success of his son, Damon, Jr., who has appeared in such hits as The Other Guys and most recently Let’s Be Cops. Damon has toyed around with the possibility of a “Homey D. Clown” movie in the near future. One thing is certain though: There’s a new generation of Wayans coming up and Damon himself is not going away anytime soon.