Peckham-born Joseph Marcell has made quite a name for himself, as Geoffrey in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and is now back to The Bard. Katherine MacAlister talks to the reigning King Lear

‘Doth any here know me? This is not Lear... Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ Joseph Marcell asked his entranced audience in Suffolk last week. “Geoffrey!” someone shouted back.

Joseph Marcell chuckles when he recounts this story while praying it was a one-off heckle. He’s not surprised, though, because Geoffrey made him a household name in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, one of America’s most successful TV shows ever, for nigh-on six years.

The contrast between the all-black American comedy and playing Shakespeare’s most complex and often tragic figures could not, however, be more stark. So how did a carpenter’s son from south London get from Peckham to Hollywood via Othello and the RSC? And why did he come back?

Joseph chuckles when I ask, as perplexed as anyone at the turn of events, and tells me his fascinating story from the sanctity of his west London home where he lives with his wife and daughter, his son residing in the US.

Humble, respectful, unpretentious, dedicated and patient, Joseph Marcell has never made a big song and dance about who he is and what he wants out of life, he just got on with it. This was certainly the case when buying a ticket to watch Black New World alone at the Aldwich Theatre in the 1960s and deciding there and then to become an actor. “It was the first time I had seen a non-white production and I was converted. I was 18,” he remembers.

That was his defining moment, and Joseph was undeterred by the mountain he needed to climb to achieve his dreams. His father, however, was less impressed with his son’s career choice, creating a rift which lasted 15 years. “He thought it was a terrible idea. I was meant to be an electrical engineer and there were no actors in our family,” Joseph remembers.

“It wasn’t until his mates saw me in Empire Road, the first non-white production on the BBC, and people started asking if I was his son, that he gave me credibility. I had to prove him wrong,” Joseph smiles.

Totally naive about becoming an actor, Joseph met a bunch of fellow thespians in the pub, who were all training at Hampstead, and joined them. “I’d heard all actors came from Hampstead anyway,” he laughs. From there he moved to acting college in LA.

“I have Caribbean wanderlust and just stayed there for a while and then came back to work with the RSC, which was a dream come true. The son of a carpenter doing Shakespeare for the RSC is the crème de la crème.”

But it was Joseph’s appearance in Othello which changed his life irrevocably, being spotted by the casting agents for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, an all-black sitcom starring a young Will Smith, and given the part of Geoffrey, the Oxford-educated butler.

“They came and found me and decided to make me famous. It was a show that just kept giving, and still does. It’s unrelenting because The Fresh Prince is still on everywhere in the world at least twice a day, so I am famous. I don’t quite know why, but I do know how. And that has given me credibility. For a classically trained actor to get a part in Fresh Prince through Shakespeare, though, was sheer luck and grace but meant that people are willing to take chances on me.”

The Oxford Times:
Joseph Marcell as King Lear

People such as the RSC which cast him as King Lear in the Globe’s summer tour, coming to the Bodleian Library Quad next week. “I met the late Sam Wanamaker in the ’80s and he got me to join the RSC’s artistic directorship.

“You don’t say no to Sam — so it’s been a long time since I started at the Globe, although I was in America for a while and that took precedence,” as did the many films and plays that followed.

Why come back at all? “Well, because it’s where I grew up. London is my home and the RSC asked me. It’s every actor’s dream,” Joseph says simply. “Although having said yes to King Lear, I went away and thought about it and realised what I had taken on. I’m getting on a bit, I’m over 60 now, so it’s a great challenge and an enormous honour to be asked.”

But with a Shakespearian encyclopaedic body of work under his belt — not that big a leap of faith surely?

“King Lear is not a usual role for a non-white actor so demands a degree of suspension and disbelief from the audience,” Joseph explains.

“There hasn’t been a British actor playing a black Lear, so this is a first, and while playing these roles is too wonderful to realise, the challenge is unbelievable. So I’m trying to be as calm and believable as possible.”

Does Joseph come off stage traumatised every night, then? “No, just exhausted because Lear starts off in an awful rage and although he gets calmer, his rage is still there, it just gets more intense.

“So I was haunted by the ghosts of Lears past, as well as his own ghosts, until I realised I should just play it my way. I try as best I can to have a point of empathy with the character.”

As for what’s next, the tour concludes in California in November and there’s a rumour he might take Caribbean writer Derek Walcott’s adaption of his Nobel Prize-winning epic poem Omeros back out on the road with the RSC.

Anything he’d still like to do, Shakespeare- wise? “I’d love to have a go at Prospero [The Tempest] and try Othello again now I’m a more mature gent, but I need to get through this first, because although I miss my family when I’m away, I’m doing what I want to do, which is being an actor and you can only be an actor when you act.

“For me it’s always been about theatre, the screen was a little touch of grace, so without being too Pollyannaish about it, this is beyond my imagination.

“And as I’m told one needs to be three things to be a successful actor; tall, dark and handsome, and I’m only two of those, everything else is a complete surprise,” he chuckles again.

King Lear
Globe Theatre as part of Oxford Playhouse Plays Out
Tuesday, July 22, until August 3
Bodleian Library Quad
For tickets, call 01865 305305 or visit oxfordplayhouse.com