William Stanford Davis On The Joy And Power Of ‘Abbott Elementary’

William Stanford Davis talks about playing Mr. Johnson, the janitor and resident conspiracy theorist on 'Abbott Elementary,' the recent Golden Globe winner for Best Comedy Series.

William Stanford Davis as Mr. Johnson on ‘Abbott Elementary.’ ABC

William Stanford Davis will never forget the day when he discovered that he had been promoted to the first series regular role of his 27-year acting career. Davis, a long-time character actor who has appeared in Snowpiercer, Ray Donovan, Swagger and Perry Mason, had a recurring part in the first season of Abbott Elementary as Mr. Johnson, the enigmatic janitor of an underfunded Philadelphia public school. But he never expected that the executive producers of the hit ABC workplace comedy, which was created by star Quinta Brunson and has already been renewed for a third season, would ask him to become a full-time employee in the sophomore season.

“My wife and I were screaming so loud [that] we may have awakened the neighbors,” Davis tells Observer with a laugh. “It was just a really joyous occasion, and we’re still celebrating. Quinta has her fingerprints on everything, and it’s a joy to come to work. I told her, one time, ‘I’d rather be at work than at home.’ I have so much fun with them. I learn from every one of them.”

In a recent Zoom interview, Davis spoke with Observer about playing Mr. Johnson and working with his award-winning cast, the show’s ability to shed light on the current state of public education, the teachers who have made the biggest impact on his life, and the storyline in the next episode involving Mr. Johnson, a teacher, and a little feline friend.

What do you remember from the process of auditioning to play Mr. Johnson? What kinds of conversations did you have with Quinta or any of the other executive producers about who Mr. Johnson is as a character?

William Stanford Davis: When I first auditioned for the pilot, we really didn’t have much of a conversation because I was coming in as a guest star. And as a guest star, you get your sides [script pages], you make your [acting] choices, and because we were right in the middle of Covid, everything was done on Zoom or on video. So I never got a chance to meet anyone until I got on the set, and they liked my choices, they gave me a couple of directions. And the next thing I knew, I was coming back for another episode, and another one and another one. I understood who this guy was, that he was filter-less and he was a conspiracy theorist. [Laughs.] He wasn’t going to let the teachers one-up him. He felt like he was just as smart as they were, so he tried to prove himself. And that’s how I started to develop the character, based on what I was getting from the teachers and the writing. The writing was just so great.

How would you describe Mr. Johnson’s place in this eccentric gaggle of teachers at Abbott, and what do you think makes each of those relationships different?

Each one is very, very different. I, as Mr. Johnson, have a close relationship with Jacob [Chris Perfetti], but it’s adversarial in some ways. [Laughs.] Then, with Janine, she’s kind of new and green, and sometimes I take advantage of it, sometimes I see her kindness and see what she was really there for, and I kind of let that land on me. The one who I feel the closest to is Ava [Janelle James]. She’s like my partner in crime! We get into so much mischief. And even when we were working in the first season, we both felt like not the outcast, but we both felt like we were strong, opinionated people—at least I was—and we clashed, also. But I have the most fun with her character as an actor.

The one I have the most respect for is Barbara [Sheryl Lee Ralph]. I’ve known her the longest. And after that, it’s also Melissa [Lisa Ann Walter]. I can’t let Melissa intimidate me. We became partners in crime, also, but I know how tough he is, so I have to really, really keep an eye on her. The one I have the closest relationship with, and I think he reminds me of myself when I was young, is Gregory [Tyler James Williams]. Of course, because he’s an African American, he’s a man in a teaching role, I do keep my eye on him, and I know we had some moments last season where we really kind of bonded. But even if I bond with any of them, I have to keep them at bay, because I think I’m smarter than all of them. [Laughs.]

William Stanford Davis (l) and Chris Perfetti on ‘Abbott Elementary.’ ABC

You began your career in theater and have worked on many popular shows, but there is a certain learning curve with filming a mockumentary. Do you think your work on stage has helped or hindered your ability to master the choreography of shooting a fake documentary and looking into the camera?

It’s helped in some ways, but it’s still the hardest thing for me to do, because as a television and film actor, you’re taught to never look into the camera. I won’t tell you how old I am, but I’ve been around for a minute, and it’s kind of hard to change. [Laughs.] So I put it in my mind with Mr. Johnson that he doesn’t care that the cameras are around, they’re just in his way anyway. He’s got work to do. But as an actor, I’m still trying to master that. Mentally, it’s a block for me, because every class I’ve ever taken and every set I’ve ever worked on [says], “Do not look into the camera!”

The child actors are consistent scene-stealers on this show with the one-liners that they’re given. Do you have any funny stories from working with them in these last two seasons? Do any of them, especially the younger ones, ever think you’re actually a janitor?

They think that the teachers are teachers and that I’m the janitor. Some of them refer to Quinta as Ms. Janine, or they refer to her as a character, and Quinta treats them that way. Most of the kids are so smart. They’re such great young actors. One thing they always want to do is they seem to take to Mr. Johnson; they always want to get pictures with Mr. Johnson. And I try to oblige as much as I can.

Has there been a certain reveal in the last two seasons that has changed how you viewed Mr. Johnson?

Well, I’ve learned more and more about him being a conspiracy theorist. [Laughs.] There was a line in the first season about the Illuminati. He also believes in lizard people under the Denver airport. He doesn’t believe in the moon. He thinks that everything is a conspiracy. But I think my favorite thus far has been, in the very first episode of the show, telling the kids that the Illuminati is who runs the world.

Abbott Elementary has been lauded, among many things, for its ability to reignite a larger conversation about the importance of teachers, especially in today’s world. Why do you think comedy is such a great vehicle to discuss timely social issues, and what do you think Abbott does differently than other sitcoms? 

Because it really gets to the core of the issue: that schools are under-funded. They don’t make a political statement about it. I did an interview one time, and I think the interviewer was trying to guide it into a different direction, and that’s not what we’re about. We’re not [focusing on] anything about critical race theory or anything that brings any negative spin on it. We want to talk about the issues but keep a positive, joyful [tone], and still show what teachers actually go through, what they do to make ends meet, what they do to make sure that these kids are taken care of, that they’re fed, that they’re clothed if they need [clothes]. And that’s the seriousness of the issue, but we do it in a comedic way and, hopefully, we’re bringing a lot of joy to people as we do it.

Did you have a favorite teacher who helped you get to where you are now? If so, what kind of impact did they have on you?

I had a few. I had a third-grade teacher, which I’ve mentioned in other interviews, who was my aunt. She told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be, and she really instilled that in me. I had an eighth-grade teacher who encouraged me and a couple of buddies to get into the science fair, and we fought it tooth and nail. We didn’t want to be in the science fair. But we got in the science fair anyway and ended up getting the first-place ribbon. And then in high school, a teacher, Mr. Mayer, changed my life. I got to see the Negro Ensemble Company on stage, and I had never seen anything like this before, and it made me want to be an actor. I decided in the moment that I saw them that this is what I wanted to do—to spend the rest of my life is working on stage, creating characters. 

Abbott Elementary marks your first series regular role in your 27-year career. What does it mean to you to have this level of success at this stage of your career?

This is the greatest thing, and the journey has been amazing. I work with a stellar cast of people. They talk about late bloomers. I don’t know if there’s such a thing. And then again, I guess I would be considered that. If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life—we’ve heard that old saying, but this is something that I dedicated my life to doing, and there’s this thing we call “the knowing.” I knew that sooner or later, something was going to happen.

I had worked a lot, and even if I hadn’t worked on Abbott, I felt like I had a good run. I’ve worked on a lot of shows that were successful. I’ve got some recognition, and that’s not what we do it for. We do it for the craft, and I’ve been able to share [what I’ve learned] with people along the way. I don’t like to call it “teaching”; I like calling it “sharing” along the way. I share with them what has been shared with me, and I just stayed the course. I didn’t quit. I didn’t want to quit.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 10: (L-R) Tyler James Williams, Chris Perfetti, Janelle James, Quinta Brunson, Lisa Ann Walter, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and William Stanford Davis, winners of Best Musical/Comedy Series for “Abbott Elementary”, pose in the press room during the 80th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton. (Photo by Daniele Venturelli/WireImage) WireImage

You guys have also won big during this awards season, with recognition at the Globes and the Emmys, just to name a few.

For those who hadn’t seen this [show], I’m hoping that the Golden Globes will invite them in. I think, with most of us, it has been like a first experience at all these awards [shows] and the attention that we’re receiving, and it’s just been unbelievable. We don’t do it for the fame, but that kind of goes with the territory. And people whose work I’ve admired my whole life will come up to me and tell me how much they’ve admired my work, and that moves me. It’s touching. “Wow, you like what I do?!” And it’s really a confirmation that I made the right choice, that I didn’t decide to be a doctor or a mailman or something, you know? 

Who are some of those people who have taken you aback when they’ve come up to you and talked about how much they love the show?

Wow, where do I start? The other night, Colin Farrell grabbed me and hugged me, and I’m like, “Wow, I see you, and you recognize who I am!?” Colman Domingo praised my work. There are so many, and each time I’m blown away.

In the next episode, Mr. Johnson and Jacob clash over an animal they find in the janitor’s closet. What can you preview about this storyline? 

They’re going to see a different side, a softer side of Mr. Johnson. He falls in love with this cat, he gets quite attached to this cat, and he and Jacob kind of go at it [over] the cat. They both have different visions about how the cat should be taken care of, and I think people are really going to enjoy it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

‘Abbott Elementary’ airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on ABC. William Stanford Davis On The Joy And Power Of ‘Abbott Elementary’