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With Don Cheadle’s accomplishments, he would seem to need superpowers to remain humble. The actor, 54, has a cushy gig as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (aka “War Machine") in Marvel’s $4.9 billion The Avengers franchise (the next, Avengers: Endgame, arrives April 26). He’s an awards machine, with seven Emmy nominations and eight Screen Actors Guild nominations. After bagging a Golden Globe in 2013 for portraying brash corporate consultant Marty Kaan on House of Lies (2012 to 2016), he now headlines a new Showtime business-world satire, Black Monday, set around the 1987 stock market crash. Moral laurels? Cheadle's got a best-actor Oscar nomination for 2004’s Hotel Rwanda (he played a hotel manager whose family is threatened by ethnic cleansing that killed 5 million) and a 2007 Man of Peace honor from the Nobel Peace Laureates (which he and George Clooney earned for advocating for the people of Darfur, Sudan, amid a different horrific genocide).
“I've been very fortunate, very blessed. All those words you want to use,” says Cheadle, who, not to name-drop, is really good friends with his Ocean’s Eleven costar Clooney, 57 — and like Clooney, proudly going gray. Yet in a chat with AARP and Television Critics Association members, the perspicacious Cheadle, whose mom is a teacher and dad a psychologist, reveals himself to be impressively, even amusingly, self-effacing. Maybe being towed by his parents to Nebraska and then to Colorado as a kid taught him humility (and self-reinvention), and humor is the best entree to making new friends. His wit no doubt will serve him well when he hosts Saturday Night Live for the first time (Feb. 16, NBC, 11:30 p.m. ET).
Showtime’s Black Monday covers a tumultuous time, when stockbrokers like your coked-up character, Mo Monroe, fleeced suckers on the eve of Oct. 19, 1987, the biggest one-day decline in Dow Jones history — 22.6 percent. What's Mo like?
No ballast. Mo is just all instinct. It's crazy. It's trying to make a magic trick work on top of a roller coaster. That's kind of how he operates.
What were you like in 1987?
Just out of school in North Hollywood. I was running around with a bunch of actors from CalArts college [California Institute for the Arts], all black guys my age. Four of us lived together, and we would bum-rush auditions together. Casting directors would say, “You know that only one of you can get this part.” We’d say, “We know that. But one of us has to get the part because we’re all borrowing money from each other!” We weren’t trying to cut each other’s legs out from under. We actually had a little support system.
In 1987, was it tough for black actors to find quality work?
I did a performance art piece with a clip of all my young black friends’ work, and every one of them had a gun in it, either pointed at us or by us. There was work, but for particular kinds of stories. Now we're seeing a cornucopia of diversity: not just black person stories, Latino stories, women's stories — universal stories. I don't think a movie like If Beale Street Could Talk would have been made 10 years ago and given the sort of runway it's been given. Everything rises when that happens.
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Now you have a 50-percent diversity mandate in your contracts, right?
In front and behind the camera.
Do you miss those 1987 days, though?
I do. I miss them a lot. They were carefree days. I didn’t have kids or a wife or a house to worry about. I wouldn’t trade them for today — I’m very, very happy where I am now. But waking up every morning and playing basketball and eating Häagen-Dazs and playing Go, and then doing it all over again every day — that was kind of fun.
When you moved to L.A.’s gorgeous seaside town of Pacific Palisades, did you feel like you made it?
No! That meant I had better make it because now I had a mortgage and kids (daughters Ayana and Imani, now 23 and 21). I just wrote the last check for my last kid I put through college — which is, like, wow! It took many, many years before I could calm down a little bit. Neurosis is baked in and hardwired for actors. I don't think we ever feel like we've made it for sure, because this isn't a business that you retire from. The business retires you. You never know when people are going to just be like, “Yeah, we've had enough Don Cheadle.”
What would you tell your younger self?
I would tell myself to stop playing basketball on cement. Go find a gym!
Are your ankles bad?
Ankles are fine. My knee is a wreck!
You costarred with Betty White as the cook on the 1992 Golden Girls spin-off The Golden Palace. Any fond memories?
I loved that. Every time I see Betty White — she just had her 97th birthday — she's the best. Not that the other women weren’t great, because Rue [McClanahan] was great, Estelle [Getty] was great — but Betty is just special. She's just a different kind of personality.
Do you think you're going to be around as long as Betty?
God, I hope. I mean, if I still have all my faculties, I would love to be around that long.
You’re going gray here and there. Looks good!
Thank you! My wife [actress and interior designer Bridgid Coulter, 50] likes it.
Do you have one credit you're most proud of?
Some things that I think are very special are Hotel Rwanda, Crash, Traffic, House of Lies, the Ocean's series, the Avengers stuff. I can't pick one over another and say, well, that's the one. Devil in a Blue Dress. Boogie Nights. I can go on and on.
Well, when you worry about the next job, you can remember all that.
Oh, yeah. [Laughing] It doesn't help!