Geoffrey Owens was in Connecticut to see a mural about the honor of work. The former Cosby Show actor reflects on acting and Trader Joe’s

Hartford Courant
Hartford Courant

Geoffrey Owens, a well-known actor whose work experiences off the stage started a national dialogue about the value of steady employment, was in Connecticut this month paying tribute to work and art simultaneously.

Owens, whose acting experience ranges from Shakespeare and Moliere to over 40 episodes of “The Cosby Show” and a recent stint on Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and the Have Nots,” visited Winsted to film a discussion for an April 28 virtual event honoring the American Mural Projects’ vast mural celebrating “The American Worker.”

“I involuntarily, not ungratefully, became the poster children for the All Work Matters movement, as I call it,” Owens said in a recent phone interview.

Owens came to personify the unsteady nature of an acting career when, in 2018, he was recognized while working at Trader Joe’s in his hometown of Montclair, New Jersey. He appreciated the job for the flexibility it offered, since he still had occasional acting gigs. A shopper sent photos of him at work to the celebrity gossip purveyor The Daily Mail. A social media frenzy ensued, with accusations of “job shaming” flung at those who spread the story.

The imbroglio ultimately caused Owens to leave Trader Joe’s because of the unwelcome attention he got while at work there, but also resulted in job offers and other opportunities, such as his Instagram series “Shift Happens.”

“The thing that a lot of people were attracted to in that story was that someone with my esteem and level of accomplishment would have that job,” Owens said. “People now recognize me from that. It brought me back into the light.”

A 1983 Yale grad, Owens was on “The Cosby Show” from 1985 to 1992, playing Elvin Tibideaux, the boyfriend and later the husband of Sondra Huxtable.

But a steady gig on one of the most popular sitcoms of the ‘80s didn’t mean continued success was assured.

“Between 1992 and 1997 I didn’t have another TV job,” Owens said. “And from 1997 on, I still haven’t had another contract TV job, just guest appearances. I’ve done a handful of films. Until 2016, I mostly did theater, just tried to piece a career together. Theater pays much less than TV or film. I taught, too, on many different levels, but that was sporadic and temporary.

In Connecticut, Owens starred in a widely admired production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe” directed by Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage in 1992, another Moliere play “The Misanthrope” at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in 1993 and an all-Black rendition of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (set in Jazz Age Harlem) at the Long Wharf in 1999.

He continues to favor the stage and is also working on a one-man show, “Now I Am Alone,” which consists of 30 Shakespeare soliloquies and is scheduled to debut the show in late August in Memphis, Tennessee.

“My financial situation got so bad, I had to do something steady. Trader Joe’s was suggested by a good friend who’s an actor.”

The national attention Owens got for his Trader Joe’s job only translated into steady acting work for a short time. “Nine months after the Trader Joe’s incident happened in September 2018, everything just stopped. I didn’t work again for seven months. This was 2019. Then COVID happened, and everything stopped again.

“I can count on one hand the days I worked in 2020. Now there is some modicum of steady work again. Right now things are going relatively well. I did a couple of TV shows. I’ve been offered a role in a movie.”

In fact, Owens had an acting gig the same day he was due in Winsted. He’d arranged to be released from the TV job in Brooklyn, New York City, by noon so he could be rushed to Connecticut to tape an interview for the American Mural Project Benefit, making it “just by the skin of my teeth.”

The mural, the vision of artist Ellen Griesedieck, measures 120 feet long, 48 feet high and up to 10 feet deep and has largely been created in sections by schoolchildren — over 15,000 of them, from every U.S. state. The AMP describes its massive national collaborative artwork as “a celebration of American ingenuity, productivity, and commitment to work.”

“I was amazed and excited to hear about the mural project,” Owens said. “I can’t wait to see it. I’ve seen photos, of course. Calling it a mural is an understatement: it’s a mural, a sculpture, a mobile, everything.”

Geoffrey Owens will take part in a virtual benefit for the American Mural Project, to be webcast April 28 at 8 p.m. The program will feature Owens and AMP founder Ellen Griesedieck being interviewed by John Dankosky, a performance by vocalist Theresa Thomason, storytelling about the American work experience and drone footage of the mural project. Free; $20 donation requested. .

Christopher Arnott can be reached at .

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