Actor guided by faith, and—finally—playing a character who’s a lot like him
For a good man, Ving Rhames knows how to play bad men pretty well.
Cutting a path from Harlem to Hollywood, the 6-foot actor who’s built like an NFL lineman and speaks with a deep bass rumble proved intimidating as the villains Marsellus Wallace in “Pulp Fiction” and Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones in “Con Air.”
But Rhames can swing 180 degrees and play more likable characters, too, such as ace computer hacker Luther Stickell in the “Mission: Impossible” films. He played the title role in a 2005 revival of the lollypop-licking TV detective series “Kojak,” and he brought home a Golden Globe award in 1998 for best actor in a miniseries for his portrayal of real-life boxing promoter Don King. A few years later, he turned into a cartoon character as the voice of Cobra Bubbles in the Disney animated film “Lilo & Stitch.”
A role that rings true
Soon the veteran actor, 53, will get to play a character very much like himself when he stars as trauma chief Dr. Jorge “El Gato” Villanueva in “Monday Mornings,” which debuts Feb. 4 on TNT.
“He’s similar to myself: straightforward, honest,” the actor says. “A hard guy full of tough love and also selfless. He really tries to do what is best for the whole. He’s a very no-nonsense guy who expects people to be proficient and honest.”
“It’s not that huge a transformation of my inner being,” add Rhames, who says the character reflects elements of his own deep personal spiritual beliefs.
“Monday Mornings” is based on the book by CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who serves as executive producer with writer-producer David E. Kelley, whose successful touch has also steered TV’s “Ally McBeal,” “Chicago Hope” and “Boston Legal.” The show also stars Alfred Molina and Jamie Bamber.
The title refers to the hospital’s weekly morbidity and mortality conference, when doctors gather for a confidential review of complications and errors in patient care.
Committing to “Monday Mornings” came easy, says Rhames, who jumped at the chance to be on a quality television show that would allow him to expand his character throughout a full season—and hopefully longer. “The scripts are phenomenal,” he says. “Really, the writing is better than film. I never wanted to be on a series where I wouldn’t be able to grow as an artist.”
Tough guy, soft heart
Rhames, who shortened his first name, Irving, to simply Ving at the suggestion of fellow acting student and college roommate Stanley Tucci, has grown in his profession to become an actor recognized for the physical and emotional gravity he brings to his roles.
“He’s a powerful screen presence. Imposing is the first word that comes to me,” says movie critic Leonard Maltin. “There’s no escaping his impact physically. He radiates a kind of authority very few actors can duplicate.”
Bill D’Elia, the director of “Monday Mornings,” agrees that Rhames dominates the screen when he’s on it. But he adds that the actor is a “tough guy with a soft heart,” which perfectly complements his character on the new show, “a former football player who then went to medical school.”
“Ving is funny in person, and personable,” D’Elia says. “He’s imminently approachable on set, mixes it up with the cast and makes them laugh. He makes me laugh, and he’s a blast to direct.”
Deep family roots
Born the son of a mechanic and a homemaker who were children of Southern sharecroppers, the actor draws strength from the depth of his family roots in Harlem, N.Y.
“My parents were from South Carolina, but I was born in Harlem Hospital,” Rhames says. “My dad never made a lot of money, but he always had a strong work ethic. My mother really had a phenomenal one. I credit her with keeping the family together. She was really the rock in my life.”
“I always taught him about the goodness of people,” his mother, Reather Rhames, 85, told a reporter in 1996. “I always wanted my children to have an education, because I never had that. He wanted to be a football player, but he was thin and he couldn’t gain the weight. One day he told me he was going to go into acting. I said, ‘What?!’ I didn’t know anyone in my family or on his father’s side who was into acting.”
Guided by faith
While his mother has been a powerful and positive influence in his life, Rhames has also let his faith steer him in a business not always known for its high moral ground.
“I allow God to guide me,” he says. “In some ways I don’t make choices. I try to stay out of God’s way. God has always provided for me, always had his hand on my life. I knew that at a very young age. My thing is to let go and let God. God knows what is better for me than I do.”
The actor and his wife of 12 years, Deborah, live in Los Angeles with teenage stepdaughter Tiffany, daughter Reignbeau, 12, and son Freedom, 10. As for hobbies, Rhames is passionate about collecting early American furniture, including Handel lamps and items made by Stickley Brothers and Roycroft.
But what he seems to have truly collected is a wonderful life.
“Just to have health and strength is a blessing,” he says. “I wake up this morning, I’m healthy, my children are healthy, my wife is healthy. None of that is promised. Everything is a blessing.”
What does the doctor do when he's off-camera?