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William Stanford Davis of ‘Abbott Elementary’ Is a Class Act

The hit sitcom’s grownup star tells tales in and out of school with AARP

William Stanford Davis smiles in a scene from the ABC show Abbott Elementary

Scott Everett White/ABC

En español

William Stanford Davis, 70, is the grownup in the dazzling cast of the hit mockumentary comedy about an underfunded yet scrappy Philadelphia school, Abbott Elementary. In what The New York Times is calling this year’s “best new network sitcom,” Davis (Snowpiercer, Ray Donovan) plays Mr. Johnson, a janitor with firm, eccentric opinions and a deadpan delivery.​

In the show, Davis’ character shares recollections of what his school days were like. In real life, the actor shares memories with AARP of his most inspiring teachers, high school band experiences and why acting became his calling.

What do you remember about your school days?

​I went to elementary school in St. Louis, an all-Black school. It was considered underfunded, but the teachers put together a lot of effort to make sure we had the best experience possible: choir, glee club, a lot of extracurricular activities. It was an amazing experience. In fifth grade I transferred to my first integrated school. The books were newer and all those types of things, but I didn’t get the attention there that I got at my first school.

In the Venn diagram of schoolkids — nerds, jocks, bullies, class clowns, etc. — where did you fall?

​I was more of the class clown — that was my way of fitting in. I wasn’t an athlete by any means. I wasn’t a class jerk, either. I tried to respect people but I tried to get people to laugh more than anything else. When I was younger I wanted to be a singer. At the original school, that was part of the deal, you had to at least try out for the choir. When I went to the new school, I wasn’t going to expose myself.

But you did end up in a band?

Yeah, the Fabulous Paramount Revue. In my junior, senior year, we really took off. It wasn’t just like we were a garage band. We opened for the O’Jays and a lot of major acts.

Why did the band break up?

We got too old. Everyone had different aspirations. Some of us ended up going to the same college — ​​I went to an HBCU, Lincoln University in Missouri; some guys went overseas; we just kind of went all over the world and did our own thing. It was during Vietnam, so a couple of guys got drafted. It just kind of fizzled out. A lot of guys went on and started other bands. 

Abbott Elementary's William Stanford Davis stands next to a indoor circuit breaker box

Raymond Liu/ABC

William Stanford Davis stars as Mr. Johnson in "Abbott Elementary."

So instead of joining a new band … you became an actor?

I always wanted to be an actor but I never knew how to pursue it. I always felt like it was in me. Music was so much a part of my life, being from St. Louis where music is everywhere. Being in a band really opened me up to being comfortable on stage, and the applause wasn’t bad. That built my confidence. I ended up working at a country-western radio station, and when I left that job, I thought, If you don't go to Los Angeles, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it. When I first saw Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, something about that stuck with me. I could not let that go. 

First impressions when you got to L.A.?

I felt like, Oh my God, palm trees! It was 85 degrees. I called home and said, “Burn up all my stuff, I’m not coming back.”

Did you have a most memorable teacher?

A couple of them. My aunt Helen Flagg was my third-grade teacher, the closest person to me in the world. She didn’t give me any breaks. The first day in her class she paddled me for some minor offense, but this was to let me know, “You’re not better than anybody. You’re not going to get any special treatment.” A lot of her really good friends were teachers there, and they were really supportive of me. By second grade I was reading at what they called a fourth-grade level. They would take me to the other classes with the older kids to show me off: “Look what Davis is doing.” I was like, Wait a minute, I got to be out on the schoolyard with these kids.

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Does your aunt’s kindness remind you of Abbott Elementary’s protagonist, second-grade teacher Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson)?

Quinta’s character in the show reminds me of her — I told her a couple of times that she reminds me of Aunt Helen. My aunt wasn’t as tiny as Quinta, but it’s her heart and the way she cared.

Any other memorable teachers?

Mr. Mays made sure I got into the science fair. I was like, “I don’t want to get into the science fair. What are you talking about?” He insisted and called my mom. We got a blue ribbon for it. For my English literature teacher, Mrs. Leathers, I would bring in poems by Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka and she would let me get up and read. She’d say, “Davis, come here: Sit, sit, sit. You really love those words, don’t you?” I'll never forget that.

The last few years have been challenging for teachers, not that it’s ever been easy. Is your show offering them a way to show their underappreciated situation?

I sure hope so. The main selling point of the show is exposing what teachers have to go through, to not only make ends meet but to make a living. I think teachers and police should be the highest paid. They should be paid as much as doctors.

What’s your favorite series set in or around schools?

I never missed an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. What is so different from all of the shows is that Abbott Elementary gets into the personal lives of the teachers. There’s something special about this show. It touches everybody: the teachers, the students, the civilians who watch the show who aren’t teachers.

And what’s on your acting bucket list? Anything left?

There’s a play called Jitney by August Wilson. I always wanted to play the father, Becker. I want to do it on Broadway. I’ve done quite a bit of stage but not that and not Broadway.

Gayle Jo Carter, the former entertainment editor at USA WEEKEND magazine, has interviewed newsmakers for AARP, USA WEEKEND, USA Today, Parade, Aspire and Washington Jewish Week.