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William Stanford Davis Is the King of Abbott Elementary

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ABC

Calling Abbott Elementary’s Mr. Johnson an enigma almost seems like a disservice. A gorgeous riddle that shape-shifted into a human? An international man of mystery? A gig-economy hero outranking Kirk from Gilmore Girls? All are viable descriptors for the school’s custodial tsar, played by William Stanford Davis, who spends the majority of his days cleaning up after kids and dispelling wisdom to teachers like “my shiniest mop leaves the most grime in its wake.” (If you’re lucky, you’ll receive his quarterly newsletter about the history of spring cleaning.)

But in Abbott’s season-three finale, the character comes down to earth for a moment, convincing Janine to open herself up to a romantic relationship with Gregory, even if it means working through a bit of professional discomfort to get there. This man knows what he’s talking about. He has hundreds of bullet points on his résumé and thousands of stories to back them up. “Jobs come and jobs go. I’ve quit, been fired, and been replaced on a panel by Paula Adbul right before the show blew up,” Mr. Johnson tells her. “But I don’t regret leaving them behind and living my life to the fullest.”

That life has been a source of fascination for viewers since Abbott Elementary debuted in 2021. While we’re still not privy to the full scope of Mr. Johnson’s exploits, the 72-year-old Davis, who was never offered a lead television role until now, has a few ideas. He just hopes his inscrutable bubble never bursts.

What would be a fitting first name for this man?
I’m feeling Wolfgang Amadeus Johnson. Maybe even Bartholomew. Right now, I’m telling everyone his first name is Mister. I want to do a contest to determine the best first name for Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson originated as a guest role before evolving into a regular. How did you perceive him the first time you picked up a script?
I immediately thought the script was very special, but some things never see the light of day. You can think something is going to be a big hit and it never happens. A lot of the things they had for my character in the script didn’t even make the pilot. It was very funny and all of the characters were fleshed out really well, so I was like, I’m going in as a guest star. I’m just trying to be great company in someone else’s home.

When did his star quality become unavoidable?
I remember in the pilot he had a great moment that involved some choice words about the Illuminati, but in the second episode leaves to go fishing. By then it felt like they were keeping him on as a recurring character. I remember wearing that fishing vest and thinking, This feels pretty good. The third episode I wasn’t seen as much, but from the next episode on, he kept coming back and getting funnier. Focus groups would almost blow up in laughter every time this man came onto the screen — that’s the story I heard and I’m sticking to it. I was having so much fun that I didn’t give it much thought until around the seventh episode, when it was whispered I might become a regular character.

The season-three finale sees Mr. Johnson as a mentor: Janine, flustered about how to pursue a romance with Gregory, asks him for advice, and he responds earnestly about not being afraid of things. How do you think he got to this point, living his life and doing whatever he wants?
He goes about life without caring what people think about him. Everything he’s done has been earnest and honest. He’s very opinionated, like, This is not what my life should be; you’re not gonna make me be a slave to this. I’m like a rolling stone. I’m gonna keep doing what makes me feel good and happy. That’s what I’ve chosen to find within this guy. He’ll be damned what anybody else thinks.

Earlier this season, an episode revolved around a book-club debate and how it reinforced Mr. Johnson’s existing and troubling viewpoints. How does he choose to see the world?
He doesn’t take a lot of things seriously. He sees the world as a place of opportunity. He’s flown airplanes and he’s been a state senator. The one thing I’ve really tried to create for this character is to make him, of course, three-dimensional, but to make him smarter than everyone in that school. He’s the king of that castle. This is my domain, and you’re all just running around in it. 

Should we trust everything this man says about his life? Would it come as a surprise if he’s just a pathological liar?
You know what, I’ve never thought about that possibility. I’m committing to the truth. Having been in the Mafia is a stretch, we know that. But I do think some of these things aren’t lies. He might even have the receipts to show for them, and I’m sure in future episodes we’ll see them.

What’s your preferred lore about Mr. Johnson’s backstory?
He’s worked many jobs all over the world. You never know where he’s coming from. He has an opinion about everything, and he’s standing his ground. Maybe he’s a ghost who’s been in the school for hundreds of years. We don’t know. But for me, building the character, I like to think he went to a school like this when he was young. He wants to do what he can for the students and teachers. His contribution is to make the school as comfortable as possible. That means cleaning, making the air-conditioning work, you name it. Whatever is needed to make sure these kids get the best education possible, because that’s based on the education he had as a kid.

By his own accounting, he’s tried about 400 jobs until picking up a mop and never looking back. Is there something deeper here about his enduring career choice at the school?
He could be hiding from the Mafia. No, but a school is a place of beauty and learning. There’s no better opportunity for him to impart wisdom on young people. He’s truly the wisest one there. If the kids come and ask him questions, he’s going to give them a better answer than the teachers.

Do you believe Mr. Johnson’s appearances are more impactful when they’re short and cryptic, or are you hoping to get more details about his personal life?
If I have more appearances onscreen, that’s okay, but if they’re not of quality I don’t wanna do them. I’d much rather have this powerful punch in short bursts and make people happy and laugh. I want people to say, “We want to see more of him.” A lot of people don’t understand that this is a half-hour comedy and we only have 21 minutes per episode. There are seven main characters on the show, and we all know the main story is always gonna be about Janine and Gregory, even if it’s not the main story in every single episode. So more screen time would be cool, but if it’s not funny or real, why do it? I’d rather have less and make it more impactful than have more for the sake of being on the screen.

That said, I’d love to see his personal life at home. Does he have relatives, children, or a wife and love life? There’s always a surprise when we do table reads to see what this guy gets up to. Is he going to be an astronaut? Was he an admiral on an aircraft carrier? Anything can be a possibility. When I tell the writers my opinions, they just walk away and laugh.

Taraji P. Henson previously guest-starred as Janine’s mother. If you could cast anyone as a Johnson family member, who would it be and for what role?
I would love it if Marla Gibbs played my mom. She’s the only person I’ll bow down to. Even now, at her age, she’s still very feisty and very opinionated. He had to get it from somewhere. You just know he got so many conspiracy theories from his mom. I mean, in my real life, I heard so many conspiracy theories from my grandmother. She didn’t believe in the moon landing. Marla would be a perfect choice. It’s my mouth to God and the writers’ ears.

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Devon Ivie , 2024-05-23 22:46:15

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