While his name may not immediately come to mind, his face is among the most familiar on stage, screen and television
Clifton Powell, now appearing as Marvin Pence Gaye Sr. in "My Brother Marvin," playing at the Merriam Theater through Feb. 24, has an extensive list of film credits that includes "Next Friday" and "Friday After Next," in which he played the unforgettable "Pinky," as well as "Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents," "The Gospel," "Street Kings," "First Sunday" and "Ray." On television he has appeared in "Murder She Wrote" "NYPD Blue," "In the House," "Moesha," "Army Wives" and "She's Not Our Sister," among many others.
While Powell, a native of Washington, D.C. has evolved into one of Hollywood's favorite "go-to guys," early in life, he was a class clown who was occasionally faced with the threat of being put out of school. "I really wanted to be a football player," he said during our recent interview. "I saw a play, and I didn't really know what a play was, because I grew up in the 'hood and I had never really been exposed to the arts like that. I went from one high school to another, and that summer, I saw a play at the high school that I was on my way to. I was like, 'Wow! That looks like fun! I might try that!' And I was too skinny to play football. I was too little. I was fast, but I was just too skinny.
"So the next year, I went to the teacher and his name was Mr. Redden. I said, 'Mr. Redden, look. I want to be in a play, and I don't want to do no damn singing. I just want to act!' But I didn't know how to act. I just told him I wanted to be in it. I was just messin' around, and he put me in the show! The name of the play was 'Little Abner,' and I played 'General Bullmoose.' I didn't have any idea what I was doing, but it just looked like fun! Ironically, my niece came to the show, and she said, 'Clifton, you really were pretty good in the play.' I was like, 'You think so?'
While the acting bug didn't immediately take over, Powell was soon convinced to audition for the prestigious "Workshop for Careers in the Arts," while accompanying his friend, David Jackson to "a tough part of town" where the auditions were being held.
"He said, 'Come ride with me,' and I rode up there. He went in to audition and I sat outside in the lobby," Powell recalled. "They kept coming outside and asking me to come in to audition, and I told them, 'Man, I'm not trying to be no little actor!' They were like, 'Well, we need more men. We need more strong men in there.' I'm like, 'Man, get out of here! Get out of my face!'
"They came out like three times, and finally, the teacher, his name was Kenneth Daugherty, he said, 'Listen. We need strong Black men in there. Will you please come in and audition?' I said, 'Whatever, partner! I'll come in and do it!' and they put me in the program! I guess I did something funny. I don't know what I did, and they put me in the program. That's how I got started."
From that unlikely beginning, Powell has developed into a versatile actor who can play Martin Luther King in "Selma, Lord, Selma" and that dastardly dude in "Woman Thou Art Loosed" with equal aplomb, and has appeared in countless stage, film and television projects.
"Once you get into theater and the magic of it, and the spectacle of it, it just takes you by storm," said Powell, who is also the director of "My Brother Marvin." "I do a lot of independent stuff. Some of them are good, some of them may not be that good, but I just wanted to be a working actor and just work. I'm like Sam Jackson. I just want to work! We all come out of the same school. We work. That's what we do. We're actors. We make movies, we do plays. We do whatever to keep our craft going. Then you land a part like this, like the Marvin Gaye story...this show can run like for five years straight, man! That's how good it is, and his story is so poignant. So I just feel incredibly blessed to have kept working as an actor."
Even so, Powell isn't the only high profile public figure in the family. His nephew is the popular CBS sports anchor James Brown, most commonly known as J.B. "His mother is my sister," Powell explained. "Mary Ann Brown was who raised me. My mother died when I was four, and J.B.'s mother raised me along with my dad, before he died. She's my older sister. We have different fathers, but the same mom."
A father of three, Powell, as Los Angeles Clippers fan, enjoys spending time with his family, and has high hopes for his son Clifton Powell, III (affectionately known as CP3), who is a talented high school basketball star.
"I'm really just trying to be a normal person. I like to have a normal life, and just continue to be blessed -- I'm so blessed -- and stay humble," said Powell, who will appear in the upcoming feature films "The North Star" and "The Undershepherd." "I'm so appreciative for my African-American and Latino fan base, and my white fan base that really made me a household name, but especially my African-American fan base. I'm just grateful, and I'm just a regular guy. I try to do regular things and keep my head level."