Town Square: Geoffrey Owens on an actor’s life and work
Montclair resident Geoffrey Owens founded The Brooklyn Shakespeare Company, and has taught acting and Shakespeare at Columbia University, Yale, the Adult School of Montclair and Pace University. He is well known for his long-time role as Elvin Tibideaux on “The Cosby Show.” Owens came to international attention when a photograph of him working at Trader Joe’s in Clifton appeared in the Daily Mail on Aug. 30.
On Sunday, Sept. 30, Owens will perform in “A Shakespeare Evening” with the Montclair Orchestra.
By GEOFFREY OWENS
For Montclair Local
It’s difficult not to feel like a failure when you have a degree from an Ivy League college ... and you were a featured actor on one of television’s most famous shows... and yet you’re now cleaning the men’s bathroom at a local grocery store. You can spin it to yourself any way you like, but you can’t help but feel that something is unequivocally wrong.
There was one day in the store, I was on my hands and knees, changing the garbage bag below one of the registers, when a customer leaned over the counter and asked me for my autograph. Moments like this tempted me to quit. The reason I didn’t, however, was the same reason I took the job in the first place: I desperately needed the money.
Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of actors — even some who achieve considerable fame and recognition — are often unable to make a sustained sufficient living in “show business.” Somewhere in the middle of the road of my life, I found myself in the dark wood of chronic unemployment and ever-increasing debt. I had no choice but to do whatever I could for the sake of myself and my family.
Working at the grocery store was difficult, in a number of ways, but it was also very good for me. It gave me a sense of stability, security and satisfaction that I hadn’t felt in a long time. It also provided me with a feeling of peace — even a kind of innocence. The whole 15-month experience helped me, emotionally and spiritually. It reminded me of what the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov says in his works about the necessity and dignity of work. (I also thought of a Shakespeare line: “For never anything can be amiss, when simpleness and duty tender it.”)
People have recently been referring to me as a kind of “hero” — often greeting me with “Thanks for all you’ve done.” Although I appreciate the sincerity of their perspective, it makes me uncomfortable because I really haven’t done anything remotely extraordinary. The closest I came to any kind of “heroism” was taking that job — my first “regular” job in 32 years. And even then, that was out of strict necessity — no heroism involved.
When I heard about the story being written about me, I quit the job and simply hoped for the best. The story broke and I felt humiliated. The humiliation lasted only for a short while, however. Very soon, a slowly developing tidal wave of encouragement and love began flooding in from all over the world. The support I received from my family, friends, peers and perfect strangers was overwhelming. Particularly due to the generosity of certain people in the entertainment industry, my life now — not even a month after the story appeared — is significantly different.
The woman who surreptitiously took my picture meant to exploit me; God, however, had other plans. In the Book of Genesis, Joseph says to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” I’m no Joseph, but I do feel as if a potentially debilitating chapter in my life has turned, quite miraculously, into something inspiring and wonderful.