Q&A: Acclaimed Actress Debbi Morgan

Debbi Morgan is a renowned and versatile actress with an illustrious career spanning over five decades. Best known for her iconic role as Dr. Angie Hubbard on the long-running ABC soap opera All My Children and as the first and only black actress thus far to win the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in 1989 (sharing the award with Nancy Lee Grahn), Morgan also appeared in numerous television shows, motion pictures, and plays including Roots II: The Next Generation and Eve’s Bayou, winning the Independent Spirit Award and the Chicago Film critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress. She has recently written an acclaimed autobiography entitled The Monkey On My Back, as well as a one-woman show based on her book which has played to sold out audiences. Her durable career continues to evolve and take her to greater heights.

Debbi Morgan photoSoulTrain.com: You have had such a long and diverse acting career. Was acting always your passion growing up?

Debbi: Yes. When I was a very young girl I went to Catholic school all the way to 12th grade. When I was about 8 or 9, I would come home after school and I would put towels around my head like the nuns wearing their habits. My mom got concerned and talked to the mother superior and said, “I think my daughter wants to be a nun when she grows up. Is there any kind of training or counseling I could give her?” The mother superior just laughed and said, “Trust me, as soon as she discovers boys that will all go out the window.” Actually, I was emulating these nuns. But neither I nor my mother understood what I was doing at that time. But my love of acting started from a very young age even though I didn’t understand it at that point.

SoulTrain.com: Being an actor myself, I trained with various schools. I know many black actors trained at the Negro Ensemble Company in New York. Did you come through there?

SoulTrain.com: I have a funny story about that. One time when I was going to audition for the Negro Ensemble Company, I didn’t have anybody to work on a scene from A Raisin in the Sun with me. So I worked on it with my mom. We auditioned the scene and after it was over, a guy by the name of Chris Kaiser said that I should come back and that I wasn’t ready but he asked my mother if she was interested! My mother did have some aspirations of getting into the business but she said, “I can’t do this to my daughter.” So I never studied at Negro Ensemble Company but I did study at the New Federal Theater under Dick Anthony Williams. I also studied under Clay Stevenson, who passed away a long time ago, in the Players Workshop in New York City’s West Village. But I would say most of my experience was from actually being on stage working with professionals, and getting small parts on television and in film. I think that is the greatest experience when you are just doing it and working with people who can show you the ropes.

SoulTrain.com: You did some small roles in films and then played J.J.’s girlfriend on Good Times. But your first major role was on television’s What’s Happening!. What was it like working with that cast?

Debbi: It was. That was my first big television role. I did Good Times just once or twice, but on What’s Happening! I had a recurring role. It was a lot of fun. Growing up the way that I did, working on the show was such a different environment for me, as well as being in Hollywood. Being on television was something that I never would have imagined that would happen to me. It was very exciting. I was young and was having fun. It was a wonderful way to make a living and having a good time doing it. I got to work with the wonderful comedienne Shirley Hemphill, who has since passed away. I just adored her. It was fun working with the entire cast.

SoulTrain.com: In 1979, you appeared in the landmark miniseries Roots II: the Next Generation, which was just as phenomenal as the first Roots series. You played Alex Haley’s aunt, Elizabeth Harvey. That must have been quite an experience.

Debbi: That was probably one of the two highlights of my career. Certain projects and roles come that are like roles of a lifetime and you might never get opportunities like them again. The role as Elizabeth Harvey was definitely my first career highlight. I remember this one big scene that was called “Jump Jim Crow,” where I’m mocking my father and I’m doing this ugly dance. I’m taunting and mocking him because he refuses to let me marry this young man because he’s too light and half-white. I was just so in that moment while I was doing that scene. It was a real challenging scene for me because I had never done anything that difficult, because Roots came very early on in my career. I remember after the director called “cut” and I was walking off the stage, I heard this voice say, “You’re a mighty fine young actress.” I looked up and I was staring into the eyes of Henry Fonda. I was at a loss for words and said, “Thank you, Mr. Fonda!” That is a moment I will treasure forever.

SoulTrain.com: What do you look for in the roles you select?

Debbi: That’s an interesting question because it’s not like there’s a plethora of roles for African American women of a certain age or certain ethnicity. So it’s not that I necessarily go out looking for roles or wait for the roles to come to me. I think that casting directors sort of look at your body of work as well as the kind of roles that you have done and the kind of actress people perceive you to be. I’ve always gotten roles that I’ve been proud of doing. I’ve never gotten roles where I felt like, “I shouldn’t be doing this” or “this role is crap.” I’ve never been pigeonholed into anything. Soap operas used to have this reputation in which if you did a soap opera, people will only see you as that character you portray. That never happened to me. In all of the years that I played Angie on All My Children, everything I played outside of that role was a very different character. I’ve never repeated characters that I have played. All of the characters I played had depth. So to answer your question, I never looked at a script and said, “Let me go after this role.” The roles have always come to me and for the most part they have been roles I’ve been eager to do.

SoulTrain.com: That’s beautiful. I love so many of the roles that you have played, but one of my favorites is when you played Mozelle Batiste Delacroix in Eve’s Bayou. You truly played that role and that movie still moves me.

Debbi: Playing Mozelle was the second role of a lifetime, and of course a third with Angie Baxter on All My Children, which brought me a legion of fans that are still with me today. So I would say those are three roles that I have been very fortunate to get in my career. Not a lot of actresses can say that so it’s been a real gift.

SoulTrain.com: Speaking of Angie, the year was 1982 when you landed that iconic role on All My Children and it was at a time when there weren’t that many black characters on soap operas. Your character, along with Darnell Williams’ character, Jesse, really broke some barriers. Do you remember when you got that role?

Debbi: Yes. I was a big fan of All My Children. I’d be rushing home from high school to watch it. My mother and grandmother watched it also. When I moved out to California after having done Roots, I was still watching it, but for the character Jesse. I was thinking, ‘He is so fine!’ Then I started thinking that they had to bring on a love interest for him at some point. So I called my agent in New York and asked him to find out if they would be bringing a love interest on for the Jesse character. So my agent said, “They have been auditioning actresses for the last month for a love interest for the Jesse character and they are willing to fly you to New York for the audition.” So I get to New York and I was sitting out in the lobby and the casting agent told me that there were only two of us left to audition. She said, “It’s you and that real pretty girl down the hall there.” Usually, casting agents don’t say things like that. They just say, “Next, next, next…” I looked down the hall and I saw this beautiful young girl and I thought, ‘I know she’s going to get the part.’ Then I see Darnell talking to her and they seemed so close. The producer calls me and Darnell into the office and introduces us to each other and we chatted for a minute or so and then we read the scene. This was on a Friday. So after we read the scene, Darnell said,  “Nice meeting you,” and he walked out. The producer said to me, “Do you think you can have all your bags packed and be back here by Tuesday morning and start working?” I said, “I got the part?” He said, “Yes if you want it.” Then I said, “Of course!” I was so happy.

When I walked out in the hall I saw Darnell standing with the other actress. Darnell walked over to me and I said, “Darnell, I got the part!” I threw my arms around him and I was so excited. Darnell gave me this lackluster hug back and said “Oh, that’s nice. Congratulations.” It wasn’t warm and fuzzy. My heart just broke. I thought maybe he didn’t like me jumping on him like that. I didn’t know what to think. So I left and I came back to start work and what I ultimately ended up finding out was that the young girl was one of Darnell’s best friends and he really wanted her to get the part. As time went on, I became one of Darnell’s best friends and I also became the best friend to the girl who didn’t get the part. Her name was Kasi Lemmons, who would years later direct me in Eve’s Bayou. Kasi Lemmons almost became Angie.

SoulTrain.com: Wow! That is interesting! I know you must have a lot of favorite memories playing Angie over the years. The summer of 1982 storyline when Jesse and Jenny run away to New York remains one of my favorite storylines from All My Children.

Debbi: That was probably my favorite time on All My Children with Jesse, Jenny, Angie, and Greg. Oh my God, we had a ball! Dorothy Lyman, who played Jenny’s mother the original Opal Gardner, was hilarious! I remember when Angie got pregnant and her father was going to put the baby up for adoption, Angie was running away and didn’t want Jesse to know. So Angie gets on the train and goes to New York. In one scene I knock on the door and Opal opens the door and sees me. Now this was completely ad-libbed and I have this big pad inside me since Angie is pregnant. Dorothy opens the door and says, “Angie, what the hell happened to you?” The director called cut and I was on the floor laughing and everyone on the set was laughing—the cameramen, the people in the control booth, everybody! She was so funny, you never knew what was going to come out of her mouth. In the early eighties, we had the most fun on All My Children. Those were the best years.

SoulTrain.com: When Jenny was killed off, I got away from All My Children for a little bit. You, Jesse, Jenny, and Greg were a great team.

Debbi: It’s unfortunate because that’s how fans feel. They’re not given any kind of information. The producers begged Kim Delaney, who played Jenny, to stay. The producers did not want her to leave but she did not want to be on soaps anymore. The producers knew they couldn’t replace her so rather than the fans saying “bring her back, bring her back”along with Kim determined she was not coming back, the writers killed her off. The fans were like, “Why did you kill her off?”“Why did you take her off the show?”

SoulTrain.com: Did you ever interact with Susan Lucci who played Erica Kane? I know over the years you two didn’t do many scenes together.

Debbi: No, I didn’t work very much with Susan. I worked a little bit more with her this last go around when I came back to All My Children in 2007, when Angie took charge of Pine Valley Hospital. I worked more with her then more than in the early days. But Susan was great. When she built her house out in the Hamptons she invited me and my then-husband to her home and she was really lovely.

SoulTrain.com: When I heard that All My Children was going to bring Jesse back, I was wondering how they were going to do that considering his character was killed in 1988. The way you two reunited in that classic train station scene was magical!

Debbi: Everyone loved it. It was like Gone With the Wind. That was epic!

SoulTrain.com: Now of course, nothing lasts forever and All My Children ended in 2011. It came back on for a short time online but didn’t last long. Do you think it could have stayed on longer like some other soaps like General Hospital and Young & the Restless, which are still on the air?

Debbi: You know, there are only four soap operas left on the networks. Nobody could have ever told me that All My Children would have been one of the last soap operas standing. It was just so surprising that out of all of the soaps, that would be one of the ones to go. To this day I still can’t believe it. I was shocked. It was just shocking that they would take it off the air. The whole soap industry took such a devastating fall when the soaps were pre-empted for that long O.J. Simpson trial. People dedicated everything around that trial—their lunch hour, meetings, school work, whatever they had to do and once the trial was over, they were like, “I can’t get into that soap anymore.” The soap industry was never able to fully recapture the audience they had before the O.J. trial.

SoulTrain.com: You’ve done a number of movies, such as Coach Carter, Eve’s Bayou as previously mentioned, and Women Thou Art Loosed. You recently played Evelyn Braxton in Lifetime’s Unbreak My Heart, the film based on Toni Braxton and her family. What was that experience like?

Debbi: It was a great experience. I didn’t get to meet all of the sisters. We filmed in Vancouver and only Toni and Tawanda came. I got to spend a brief time with Toni and I really got to connect with Tawanda because she stayed for a while helping each of the girls who portrayed the Braxton sisters. She was a real delight and so was Toni. It was so funny because Toni said to me, “I have to tell you, when the producers were talking about casting and auditioning, I said, ‘I don’t care what you do, you better get Debbi Morgan to play my mother. She has got to play Evelyn. I don’t care. Please get Debbi!’” She later told me that she knows I am not old enough to play her mother and I told her, “Girl, if it’s a good role don’t you even worry about that.”  But actually as it turns out, the mother looks younger as her daughters get older because in the beginning they were very religious and she dressed much more matronly, but as money started coming in and they started doing well, she began to get her groove on and she could run with her daughters looking like the older sister.

SoulTrain.com: Just this past Christmas you were in the TV One movies Royal Family Christmas and Royal Family Holiday, both of which were beautiful films.

Debbi: Oh boy, the cast had a ball and it was so much fun! I think they’re talking about doing another movie. It would be great if it could go to a series. I think they’re talking about it but we don’t know anything about it at this point.

SoulTrain.com: You also have a role as Estelle on Power.

Debbi: That’s a great show. I wish it didn’t take so long to come back around. These cable shows only do 10 or 12 shows a season so they don’t get the long pickups like they do for the network shows.

SoulTrain.com: You won a Daytime Emmy Award for your portrayal as Angie Hubbard and were nominated four times. That must have been an honor for you.

Debbi: Yeah, it’s an honor but it’s sad too, because this is 2016 and I am the only African American actress that’s ever won a Daytime Emmy Award. It is very sad. That’s like the whole thing with the Oscars. It seems like we’ve been fighting this fight forever. Sometimes it seems like everything is moving backwards.

SoulTrain.com: Do you want to expand more on your feelings about this year’s Oscars?

Debbi: So many have been giving their viewpoints and perspectives on the whole thing. I don’t see boycotting the Oscars doing very much. What is that going to do? You make a better point starting where the root of the real problem is, with the nominating committee. The fact that it is 94% white and 77% male, they’re not going to care about Straight out of Compton. Also, if we are not getting our movies distributed or not enough films are being made with black, Asian, and Latino actors, then there is a need to have ten nominees for Best Actor instead of just five. Instead of only nominating three or four movies nominate seven movies. All of this is a slow process. Nothing happens overnight. But those are the places I think you need to start.

SoulTrain.com: As far as future plans, did you ever want to direct or produce films?

Debbi: No. I never had a passion for directing. My thing is writing. I had my book published last June, The Monkey On My Back, that is going well. I also have a one-woman show that I wrote which is based on the book. I’m going to be doing some more book tours this spring and summer. I’m also working on a script with my writing partner. I love writing and developing stories and where the imagination can take you.

SoulTrain.com: Since this is SoulTrain.com, I have to ask you this: did you ever desire to dance on Soul Train back in the ‘70s? You could have gone down the Soul Train line with Rerun or maybe with Darnell Williams, who as you know used to dance on the show. 

Debbi: No! I wasn’t going to embarrass myself. I have two left feet. I would have just been standing in the Soul Train line clapping. That is as far as it would have gone.

SoulTrain.com What word of wisdom do you want to share?

Debbi: As you get older and you start losing people out of your life—I just lost my mother in 2014, my aunt in 2013, and another aunt who we just put in the hospice and she’s dying now— you thought these people would be in your life forever. I look at the things that we make such a big deal out of such as gossiping about people, being angry, he don’t like me, she don’t like me; when you just stop and just think just how short life is and it goes so fast. I didn’t think this way in my 20s or 30s. You have to Just stop and smell the roses and be appreciative in this moment with life and that you’re taking another breath. When you think like that, you will become a kinder and gentler soul.

Visit Debbi Morgan’s official website and buy her autobiography The Monkey on My Back on Amazon.

—Stephen McMillian

Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian and choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.

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