COFFEE WITH … JOHN WITT
Newsman-turned-actor: ‘I had done everything I had to do. Now I could do what I want to do.’
BY RAY McALLISTER
AUG-SEPT 2016 BOOMER MAGAZINE
“For a while it was nice to sleep late and take long naps,” John Witt was saying the other day. “But then I started asking myself, what’s next? I had done everything I had to do. Now I could do what I want to do.”
He had done a lot. A teacher who entered journalism almost by chance, John had run up a four-decade résumé: weekend anchor at a small Roanoke TV station, police reporter and then bureau reporter at a Roanoke newspaper, assignment editor at a bigger Roanoke TV station, bureau reporter for United Press International, then finally a series of positions at the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Norfolk bureau reporter, assistant state editor, Sunday Virginia editor, Health & Science editor, multimedia editor and, finally, website editor.
When he left the paper in 2013, he was financially secure – but restless. He was only 64. [Why the Beatles thought that would be old is beyond me.]
We caught up recently over a cup of coffee at his Northside home. We got the coffee from a nearby shop, Stir Crazy, but the place was too packed to stay and talk.
So back to the story.
What was next for John?
He had found himself in the spot many boomers do: first careers behind them, many productive hours – and passions – ahead. [Not like the goof-off hours at work] He remembered an editors meeting at the Times-Dispatch. “Back in 2010,” John says, “features editor Cindy Creasy pitched a story that Spielberg was doing a casting call, and they were searching for men with beards. Everyone looked at me … and laughed.”
The bearded editor laughed as well. But – long story short – he ended up snagging several non-speaking roles in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which was shooting in the area: journalist, abolitionist and congressman, as well as a featured spot as Lincoln’s pastor in the climactic death scene.
Could the Lincoln stint be a springboard now?
He had acted before. As a 10-year-old, he was hired by a Roanoke bank to play a “Scottish prince,” Thrifty Christy, wearing a kilt and even arriving on a train for a press conference announcing a children’s savings program. Later, in high school and college, he was quick to join more legitimate theater productions.
He made the move. So far it’s worked. He’s not getting rich – non-union background actors make as little as $64 a day, though with meals and time-and-a-half for overtime. The job entails mostly sitting and waiting, and sometimes his face isn’t even visible in the final product.
But in less than two years, John has worked on a dozen television series and half a dozen movies.
He’s worked on two seasons of PBS’ acclaimed Civil War drama, Mercy Street, just finishing up the latest, as a staff doctor, in July. (One advantage of Mercy Street: Interior scenes are shot at Laburnum House, just eight blocks from his own home.) In August, John returns to the third season of Fox News’ Legends and Lies. He’s been a Wild West judge and Revolutionary War general thus far. Now he’ll be fighting the Civil War.
Along the way, he’s also done voiceover work and narration, mostly in historical dramas. (Full disclosure: John recorded the audiobook version of my Topsail Island: Mayberry by the Sea book last year. He nailed it.) [He sounds more like me than I do.] “I can’t do accents but give me something that has any trace of Southern and I can ramp it up or ramp it down,” he says.
So this about-face from his previous life … good move or bad?
“It’s nice to get paid for it,” John says. “It’s not that it’s an unalloyed pleasure because days are really long,” he says. Jobs, weathers, hours – they’re all unpredictable.
“But I find it overall to be very challenging and a little bit creative – I’ve always been sort of a storyteller,” he says. And, he adds, “I like seeing the big dogs work on-set.”
Ray McAllister, former Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and former BOOMER editor, is the author of six books, including four award winners on the North Carolina coast. His latest is The Forum Files: The Stories Behind The Richmond Forum. For information: RayMcAllister.com.