Welcome to Always Great, a new Awards Insider column in which we speak with Hollywood’s greatest undersung actors in career-spanning conversations. In this entry, David Alan Grier reflects on his decades on stage and screen—and how after a long Hollywood career in comedy, he is finally getting a chance to showcase his dramatic bona fides. Read the previous entry here.

David Alan Grier never saw himself as just one thing. Coming of age as a performer, the actor admired the careers of legends like Jackie Gleason, stars known for one persona who could pull off brilliant surprises in another. “When [Gleason] did The Hustler, he was so deadly, man,” Grier says, almost in awe. “He was so bone-chilling and righteous that I always think about that—those kinds of choices. That’s what I’m about.”

Such fluidity, Grier has learned over the course of more than 40 years as a professional actor, requires patience. This is an actor who graduated from the Yale School of Drama, attending with the likes of Angela Bassett and Tony Shalhoub and rooming with the late Reg E. Cathey. He broke into movies with the celebrated stage adaptation A Soldier’s Story and Robert Altman’s Vietnam War drama Streamers, and has won a Tony Award out of four nominations for his extensive work on Broadway. Yet for the bulk of his time in Hollywood, Grier has operated as a kind of comic utility player, stealing scenes between sketch shows, blockbuster movies, and popular sitcoms—oftentimes with a handful of lines. “This business is very much about saying, Well, you can’t do that,” he says. Fortunately, Grier didn’t take the message. 


© United Artists/Everett Collection.

That things have started changing is a credit to both Grier’s persistence and his talent. Taking on a rare dramatic screen role, the actor gave a quietly riveting, empathetic performance last fall in FX’s The Patient (streaming on Hulu) as the therapist to Steve Carell’s therapist, who’s been kidnapped by a serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson) seeking…some kind of treatment. In other words, Grier plays an imagined version of his character, appearing in fantasized sessions devised by his imperiled patient as a way of working through the terror, tedium, and trauma of his predicament. The part is anything but thin, though—Grier emerges as a nifty narrative conscience, guiding the limited series through to its affecting end. Immediately when he got the script, Grier was all in. “I really wanted to email my team after reading 10 pages,” he says with a laugh. “I had to wait a Couple of hours so that they didn’t think I hadn’t read it.”

And then he was off, working on the sort of project he’d long been hoping for. “I didn’t know what people were going to say, I didn’t know how they would take it, I didn’t know how they would view it,” he says. “I just took it and ran.”

Everything Grier learned at Yale continues to guide him today. “We were trained to have careers,” he says. He wasn’t taught anything specific about screen acting, or movies and TV at all for that matter. He graduated in 1981. That same year, he made his Broadway debut in the musical The First, playing baseball icon Jackie Robinson, and eventually received a Tony nod. In 1982, he joined the company of A Soldier’s Play, as well as the Oscar-nominated film adaptation that soon followed. In 1983, he starred in Altman’s Streamers, which premiered in Venice; Grier won the festival’s best-actor award jointly with his ensemble. “I got off a really good start, but then I always felt pressure—What am I going to do next?” he says. “And no one thought I was funny. I hadn’t really done comedy, and I got the same thing at that point—they were like, ‘These casting directors have not seen you [that way],’ so I had to establish myself there.”

He felt the grind of proving himself, particularly in that new arena, as the buzzy projects started drying up. “I was very unhappy. I mean, I was doing a guest part on a TV show, struggling, or doing a play or two,” Grier says. He came out to Los Angeles, feeling “done” with New York, and filmed the pilot for a sketch comedy called In Living Color. Months went by with no news. Grier felt prepared to quit the business altogether. “I got these books on law school, and very early on, I was like, I can’t do this, this is not who I am, and this is not what I’m going to do,” he says.  “And then In Living Color broke out. From then on, it was game on.”

The irreverent and groundbreaking ’90s series, created by Keenen Ivory Wayans, reintroduced Grier as he shined alongside the likes of Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx*,* his appearances ranging from goofy to cutting to wildly unpredictable. He felt comfortable, unusually so given the new terrain, because here he found a company, not unlike what he’d experienced every day at Yale or in the stage work where he honed his craft. “We had a fucking ball,” Grier says of his five seasons on the show. He started receiving offers to do stand-up at dozens of colleges and universities. “I never really entertained the thought of doing stand-up and making that a part of my professional career,” he says. “I didn’t even have an act!” He developed one, in any case, and in all that gained financial freedom, the ability to separate what he needed to do with what he wanted to do. 

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