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Meet Broadway’s First Black Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman’

‘The Wire’ star Wendell Pierce soars as the down-and-out salesman and on Amazon’s ‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’

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Long revered for his brilliant work in The Wire, Treme, Selma and Suits, Wendell Pierce has two hot shows this winter. He’s getting rave reviews as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway, and he plays the hero’s bestie, James Greer, in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, back on Amazon’s Prime Video Dec. 21 after a three-year hiatus. Pierce told AARP about his sweet life at age 59.

In Season 3 of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (written before the Ukraine invasion), Ryan races to stop a rogue faction in Russia from restoring the Soviet empire and starting World War III, with Greer as his ally at the CIA back home. What’s the best part of doing the show?

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I love the espionage, and I love to travel. We did nine countries this season, [including] Prague, the Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; Slovakia; Athens, Greece; and Washington, D.C. It was really wonderful to see all the different countries.

The Wire, in which you memorably played Detective Bunk Moreland, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Many call it TV’s greatest series — and right up there with Dickens’ novels, an epic dramatic portrait of every aspect of Baltimore society. How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I wish that for every artist: You do work that will become classic. Classic is something that will transcend time or place and different people and culture.  It is something that will have an impact on people.

Why does The Wire still find new viewers — and also listeners to the excellent retrospective podcast hosted by Method Man, The Wire at 20?

The cautionary tale that America seems not to learn is still as relevant as it was 20 years ago. It’s a reminder that we have to be vigilant to make sure the values and expectations we have for our communities and our country are met. We as a country must learn to care for our people and see the moral ambiguity of our institutions, which can be self-destructive.

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You trained at Juilliard, won a Tony, and earned film and theater award nominations: the Olivier and Evening Standard awards and three Independent Spirit Awards. Which is better, stage or screen?

I used to be a theater snob. But I try to do the trifecta every year — stage, TV, movies — successfully. It’s using different muscles. Theater is a floodlight, and film is the same amount of light — it’s just condensed into a laser. They challenge me in different ways, but the common denominator is good writing.

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You’re the first Black actor to take on the classic role of Willy Loman on Broadway. How does it feel to break that barrier?

I join a small fraternity of men who have done it on Broadway over 73 years. I’m the sixth man — one every decade — and so I feel a great sense of obligation to set the bar for this generation. I also think of all the men who were mentors of mine whether they knew it or not: Ossie Davis, Earle Hyman, Roscoe Lee Browne, men who didn’t get the opportunity to play it because of some cultural prohibition of who they were as Black men. It had nothing to do with the art, everything to do with the ignorance. Ultimately, it’s a milestone against ignorance and nothing more.

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Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman in 'Death of a Salesman' on Broadway.
Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

What do you hear from your audience about the play?

The perspective of an African American family magnifies all the themes. It deepens it. The more specific you are, the more universal something becomes. A hundred-year-old woman who’d seen every production on Broadway told me, “I saw the play in a new way that I never expected to see. I saw the original production and those were moving to me, but this moved me in a way that I did not expect and didn’t expect to happen and I wanted to tell you.” And that is the greatest accolade that you can get, to know that you touch someone in that way.

Death of a Salesman is rejuvenated and magnified and amplified, relevant and significant in the present as much as it was the day it was written.

How do you keep up your energy for eight performances a week in a demanding role?

I get physical therapy three times a week. Whatever fatigue that happens, I use it — for the tone of the first line, which is, “I’m tired to the death.” I try to eat in a nutritious way and stay as hydrated as much as possible for the voice and the body. I take my vitamins. It’s like playing a sports match. It’s mentally and emotionally challenging.

Do you find time to sleep?

I try to get my eight hours. I do the play in the evenings. I go home. I watch television or a movie or read. Then I sleep late into the day. I kind of turn into a vampire.

You grew up in New Orleans, steeped in music, and host Jazz at Lincoln Center on radio, working with your high school classmate Wynton Marsalis. How do you spend your holidays in Manhattan?

Getting together with friends. That’s my Christmas in New York: a lot of late-night jazz, The Messiah at Lincoln Center, see the lights on Fifth Avenue. Shopping on Fifth Avenue is always a joy.

Are you a New Year’s resolutions type of guy?

I try to set goals in my personal and professional life. I’ve started to look for a home: the home, the final place. That’s something for the new year. I see a beach nearby: California, the Bahamas. I spent a good portion of last summer in Greece, which I loved. A little too far from home. I love Mexico. I got all of these places in mind. The exploration of trying to find the place could be just as fun as finding it. I’m looking forward to that.

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