By Kenya Vaughn
Well before the sitcom was officially declared a breakout hit in its debut season, St. Louis native William Stanford Davis, who portrays the lovable wisecracking custodian Mr. Johnson, knew “Abbott Elementary” was something special.
On the show – which was recently renewed by ABC for a second season – he saw a reflection of the type of education he received at the now closed Cote Brilliante Elementary while growing up in St. Louis.
“I had all African American teachers who cared so much,” Davis said. “That’s what this show reminds me of. Every time I see an episode, I see someone that I knew growing up.”
Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, “Abbott Elementary” hilariously displays the challenges of educators in a fictional Philadelphia public school trying to give their students the best learning experience possible despite limited resources and systemic support.
“They do a hard job – sometimes an impossible job – but they make do, especially African American teachers,” Davis said. “A lot of them have been through what those kids are going through.”
“I see my aunt, Helen Flagg, who was a teacher at Cote Brilliante,” Davis said. “Quinta’s character reminds me of her – because she cares so much.”
His aunt opened the doors of her home to students. She made sure they had clothes. She made sure they had food. And she made sure that despite the obstacles they faced at home, that they understood they were worthy of a quality education and capable of excellence. “And that’s pretty much what happened at all the Black schools in St. Louis,” Davis said. “They were underfunded, but we made do with what we had. We received a lot of support – and a lot of guidance.”
And that nurturing extended beyond teachers and administrators, as Davis attempts to illustrate each week when he presents Mr. Johnson to viewers. “Custodians keep their ear to the ground. They get to know the kids on a personal level too,” Davis said.
He believes his role displays what is possible when staff works with faculty and administration and apply their skills with the intention of pouring into the children. “He wants to make sure things are running smoothly,” Davis said of his character. “To the best that he can, Mr. Johnson is trying to make sure that the kids have what they need as they walk the halls.”
The performing bug bit Davis during his days at Cote Brilliante. They didn’t have any theater classes, but they had a lot of music – including a choir and glee club. It was his trips to the movies with his grandmother Josie Evans that inspired his decision to become an actor.
“My grandmother would take me to the movies – she took me to see everything from ‘My Fair Lady’ to ‘The Defiant Ones,’” Davis said. “And once I saw Sidney Poitier in ‘The Defiant Ones,’ I was hooked. I saw the emotion in her face – I saw how it moved her – and I felt that was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to have that effect on people.”
After graduating from Northwest High School, Davis wanted to pursue acting while attending Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., but he felt intimidated by the caliber of talent he saw in the college theater troupe.
“I wanted to join, but I was just too chicken [expletive] to try out,” Davis said. “They did ‘Purlie Victorious,’ – they did all of these plays that I knew and wanted to do – but I would say, ‘man, these guys are good.’”
After college he worked in radio for several years. But the desire to act never left him. “It was something that was always eating in my craw,” Davis said. He was working at a country radio station in Texas when he decided to pack all his possessions into his Pontiac Grand Prix and head to Hollywood. “My car caught on fire the second I got to Los Angeles, but I didn’t turn back.”
He learned the business through networking and acting classes and built up a resume of recurring roles and series regulars on several hit shows – including “Snowpiercer,” “Ray Donovan” and the HBO prequel “Perry Mason.”
He feels like personality traits common to the soul of St. Louis had a hand in him landing the role of Mr. Johnson. There was the comedic timing of the only line he delivered during his audition.
“My audition line was, ‘she got some big feet,’” Davis said. “A couple of months later, my agent said, ‘they want you for the pilot.’ I said, ‘for what pilot? You mean that little show with the ‘big feet’ line?’”
They also wanted him to dance.
“Now coming from St. Louis, I knew how to dance – I grew up doing the bop,” Davis said. “The guy in wardrobe set up his camera and they handed me a broom and I started dancing with the broom. And they said, ‘okay, we will see you on set.’”
Davis calls “Abbott Elementary” “a show for the culture.”
“It’s a show about hope and optimism,” Davis said.
It’s also a show St. Louis can be proud that he’s a part of.