Since its release in 1987, Coming To America has managed to carve out a cult classic status as time has gone on. It’s a film filled with many memorable characters, moments, and lines that hold up to this day. One of the standouts is undeniably Cleo McDowell and his ongoing clashes with McDonald’s over his restaurant, McDowell’s. (They have the Big Mac. He has the Big Mick).
McDowell, portrayed by John Amos, returns in the highly anticipated sequel, Coming 2 America. MILD SPOILERS AHEAD! In the sequel, McDowell’s has a new restaurant location in Zamunda, which has of course updated with the times to introduce the new Beyond Big Mick. Additionally, one of the new film’s big emotional scenes involves a touching conversation between McDowell and Eddie Murphy’s Akeem.
And despite Coming To America‘s popularity over the last 30+ years, it is not one singular role that defines what John Amos does. He has a long and varied career that includes the critically acclaimed Roots (for which he received an Emmy nomination), his work on Good Times, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The West Wing, Maude, Die Hard 2, The Beastmaster, Uncut Gems, and too many countless others to list. So no matter where you’ve seen him before, you definitely have walked away impressed with a John Amos performance at some point over the course of your life.
We recently spoke with John Amos on the phone about Coming 2 America, how filming the sequel felt like going into a time machine, the original movie’s impact, what he ideally looks for in a director, playing opposite Andre Braugher who is playing John Amos, remembering Cloris Leachman and Ja’net DuBois, and which of his roles have resonated best with people.
It’s been so much time since the original first came out. When did you first start hearing rumblings that there might be a sequel?
Well, I’ve been hearing them for 15-20 years. But it’s only been in the last couple of years that it began to take on a real reality.
And when you hear those rumblings, did you start asking yourself “Am I gonna be in it?”
No I didn’t think about it too much. I was just so grateful to have been in the original that I just assumed that my character might reappear. I had no apprehensions about it. I just thought that I would be in it.
And so when you read the script for the new one, what were your initial thoughts?
Well the first time I read it I was pleased, because there was so much talent on paper in the script. And of course, this turned out to be true with all the younger actors making their debut in features. And then the veterans like Wesley Snipes, Louie Anderson. The regulars were back. It was quite a treat with all those proven luminaries.
How can you describe the feeling of walking back onto the set?
It was like going back in time. Like being in a time machine. A lot of these people, these actors, I never thought I would work with again. And it was really a treat to be in their company, exchanging dialogue with them. And so all in all, it was quite a treat.
And as far as being back on set, are there any fond moments or memories that you’d be able to share?
Not really. Not without giving away too much of the picture. Some of it I’d like to keep quiet. But they’re in for some shocks, surprises, and they’re in for a lot of laughs. I can tell you that. I laughed myself sick just watching some of the rehearsals. That’s the effect that Eddie Murphy can have on you.
It feels like almost no time has passed when I see some of the clips. And why do you think the film still resonates so much today? What would you attribute that to?
A good script. We had everything working for us to be successful, and we delivered. And I’m very proud to be an important part of Hollywood history.
Definitely. And I will say, before jumping around a bit more, you have one of my favorite lines in the original film which is “I don’t know whether to shake your hand or kiss it or bow or what. I feel like break dancing.”
(Laughs). I was given the freedom to adlib dialogue, and John Landis allowed me to adlib that line. So I’m grateful to have had a director like that, one who really knows comedy. And give me that freedom in the movie.
Since you mentioned John Landis, I will ask how was it working with a new director this time around, Craig Brewer?
I didn’t have too much hands on direction from Mr. Brewer, the director for the sequel. But I did get to adlib or adjust the dialogue as I saw fit. So again I was appreciative for the direction, or the minimal direction, that I received.
That’s all you could ever ask for, I imagine, as an actor. And now let’s jump around a bit. Back in 2019, you made a guest appearance in the live Good Times special on ABC, playing opposite Andre Braugher who was playing the role that you originated. Was that a surreal experience at all, standing across from someone playing a role that you created?
Yeah. It was the first time that I got to work opposite John Amos. And I’ve got to say, he’s a pretty good actor. (Laughs).
And Andre Braugher and I have a history in that we both were part of the cast of Joe Papp’s Shakespeare In The Park. We had a fantastic time doing that Shakespeare In The Park. The play was Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. And we had an incredible cast. So I was, again, very fortunate to be apart of a wonderful company. And obviously being a Shakespearian play, a very well written play. So the response at the theater which was outdoors, which not too often do you do theater outdoors and then to do Shakespeare in the Park, it was a blessing.
Wow. I wish I could’ve seen that. That’s so cool you guys got to reconnect then all these years later. And jumping around some more, we recently lost one of your cast mates from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cloris Leachman. Do you have any fond memories of working with her that you can share?
She’ll be missed. She was such a talent. She was great to work with. She was always supportive. I didn’t have a great many scenes with her at Moore. But what scenes I did have with Cloris, in which she thought that my character was an athlete as opposed to being a sportscaster, they came up with that relationship between us and it worked. I miss her, and she’ll be missed by the entire population of Hollywood I think, because she was a consummate actress.
And let’s not forget that in the cast of Good Times, Ja’net DuBois, who played our next door neighbor, she passed earlier. And she will be missed as well. She was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful actress. And had a great sense of comedy. And in fact, she became one of the principals after I left the show and after Ms. [Esther] Rolle has departed. So she’ll be missed as well. A fine actress. And she was also the original composer and sung background music for The Jefferson’s. She wrote Movin’ On Up, and was very [important] to the success of Good Times and The Jefferson’s.
And it’s so good that Ja’net DuBois was able to be apart of that live special in 2019 and all of you could be together one last time before she passed, then.
It was beautiful. You don’t often get a chance to work with actors that you established this series with, but I was fortunate in that respect. A tremendous amount of good luck.
And going off of that, after all of the amazing work you’ve done over your career and been lucky enough to be apart of, what is something you’ve found that seems to resonate most with people when they meet you?
It’s a little difficult to say which one follows me the most. I think it’s really contingent on which one of my performances made the greatest impression on the viewing public. Sometimes, if they’re so inclined, they’ll share with me their thoughts and the impact that Roots the dramatic series had on them. Or they’ll look at me and just smile and tell me their favorite lines or a line from the movies I’ve done. And different people remember parts from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Times, some even The West Wing. That was a departure from what I was usually doing, which was comedy, with The West Wing being one of the best written shows on TV from a dramatic standpoint.
So as I said, and I’m repetitive in saying it, I’ve had a little bit of the best of both worlds. Comedy and drama. And even live performances, such as Shakespeare on stage. So thank you, showbiz. You’ve been good to me. And I hope I’ve been as equally as appreciative.
Coming 2 America is streaming on Amazon Prime now.