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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Neal Justin

Courtney Vance continues his hot streak with gripping new AMC series, '61st Street'

Courtney Vance has played his fair share of lawyers. He appeared as assistant district attorney Ron Carver on the first five seasons of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." He's earned an Emmy for his fiery portrayal of Johnnie Cochran in 2016's "American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson."

But his latest venture into the TV courtroom couldn't be farther from those past roles.

In "61st Street," premiering at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on AMC, he's Franklin Roberts, a Chicago public defender who practically sweats through his off-the-rack suits. He's dealing with long-shot cases, prostate cancer and a wife (Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis) nagging him to retire. Then he lands the chance to represent a high school track star who becomes the victim of racial injustice and police corruption. In the initial episodes, you're not sure whether Roberts is going to rise to the occasion or crawl into a corner and bawl.

Vance, 62, has worked steadily since the mid-1980s, when he starred with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the Broadway premiere of "Fences." He has subsequently appeared in nearly 30 feature films and several high-profile plays, including a 2005 Guthrie production of "His Girl Friday" opposite wife Angela Bassett. But TV is where he's really excelled.

Vance, who is also one of the show's executive producers, chatted by phone about his career.

Q: This character has a lot of problems. How did you approach playing him?

A: He's an everyman. He's messy. He gets caught lying. But at some point, he draws a line in the sand, where he's not going to take it anymore. There was a lot of pages, lots of opening and closing statements I had to memorize. It really required me to go to the wall.

Q: You've done a lot of terrific TV work in recent years. Why has that become the best platform for you?

A: TV has been very, very good to me. It's a place where you can do eight or 10 episodes of something and really explore a character. It also has the best writers.

Q: One of your co-producers on this is Michael B. Jordan. There's also a number of young Black actors in the cast. Do you feel a responsibility to be a mentor?

A: When I did "Fences," I didn't know anything about the theater. Mary Alice and James Earl Jones took me by the hand. I owe everything I have to those who gave when they didn't have to. How dare I not help others?

Q: You haven't been on stage since 2013 ("Lucky Guy" with Tom Hanks). Any plans to return?

A: A play is always in the back of my mind. James Earl Jones, Mary and I always wanted to do "Long Day's Journey Into Night" together, but we missed that train. Now, it's my turn to consider playing James [Tyrone] and have Angela play Mary. That role is hers. But one of us has to be home during the day. Our twins are 16. Maybe in a few years, we can get back to Broadway.

Q: If New York doesn't want you, I'm sure the Guthrie would welcome you back with open arms.

A: The Guthrie. That's our jam.


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