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Illustration by Tin Salamunic
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Coleman and Seth Gilliam on The Wire Photo by Paul Schiraldi courtesy HBO
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Coleman with Marsha Stephanie Blake in a 2009 Broadaway revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone Photo by T. Charles Erickson courtesy Philip Rinaldi Publicity
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Coleman and his daughter, Sacha Stewart-Coleman, at 2012’s Date with Dad dinner and dance in Chester Photo courtesy Camp Diva
It's January, and Chad L. Coleman is on hiatus in Los Angeles. He's "drumming up work," which you might imagine involves him walking up and down the streets of Hollywood, looking tough. You know, the way he used to move around as "Cutty from the Cut," the pugilist ex-con from Baltimore's mean streets on The Wire. Or maybe he's blazing a trail through the woods like he does in his latest role, as Tyreese from The Walking Dead, the baddest man to swing a hammer since the Mighty Thor.
But if you talk to him for any length of time, it becomes clear that Coleman is more than just a guy who kills zombies on television. He's a loving father, a deep thinker and an actor who is dedicated to his craft.
Yes, technically, Coleman dispenses with the shuffling undead for a living. Currently that's what keeps him busy on Sunday nights as a cast member of AMC's wildly popular and wickedly gory TV series The Walking Dead. The Richmond native plays Tyreese, a former NFL player who's now part of a ragtag group fighting to survive in a world overrun by hungry reanimated corpses. The show, which wraps up its third season at the end of the month, is based on a long-running comic book of the same name.
So how did an otherwise normal Richmond man end up serving on the front lines of a war against the relentless flesh-eating undead? Like all great heroic tales, it started in the '80s.
Cut to: Armstrong-Kennedy High School, circa 1982 (or so). A young Chad Coleman is onstage, and he is completely blowing his monologue from A Raisin in the Sun. It's not horrible, but it's just not working — and he knows it. His drama instructor Bob Pemberton knows it, too, and that's why the man comes onstage to address the young thespian with a finger to the gut. "Son, it's got to come from here," he says with a poke. "Try again."
So Coleman tries again. Inside his head, he dives deep. He goes all the way down and comes back up with armloads of raw emotion and puts them all into those words. He tears that monologue into a million magnificent pieces. Afterward, he is buzzing. He feels exhilarated. And the roomful of dropped jaws tells him that he nailed it. "That was a real out-of-body experience," Coleman says. "I walked away thinking, wow ... how did I do that?"
That was the moment Chad L. Coleman knew what he was going to do for the rest of his life
When Coleman was barely a year old, he lived in Richmond's Fairfield Court public housing project with two brothers, two sisters and no parents. He doesn't know exactly where his mother and father were, but most days they weren't at home. For instance, they weren't around the night Coleman's 7-year-old brother, Donald, tried to cook dinner. That's probably why he cooked the apartment instead.
Once the smoke cleared, the kids were placed into foster care.
It sounds like the heartbreaking start of a familiar story. Childhood turmoil that leads to teenage trouble. Except things didn't happen that way for the Coleman kids. They were taken in by an older couple, George and Lottie Byrd, who were already raising their own grandson. What happened next? The Byrd household got a bit more crowded, and the young Chad Coleman found some stability.
"My foster parents were great," he says. "They saved our lives."
Chad's brother, Don (now a member of the Richmond School Board from the 7th District), echoes that sentiment. "They were old school, and I'm grateful for that," he says. "They really pressed us to have strong values."
Don and Chad's other brother, Chris, lived with the Byrds for a few years before moving back in with their father. Chad and his sisters stayed with the Byrds until the couple decided to move to Boston.
Given the option, the Coleman kids decided to stay behind. When he was 12, Chad went to live with his maternal grandmother in the city's South Side. Growing up, Coleman said he was never tempted by a life of mischief. Sure, there were occasional lapses in judgment. But he credits his foster parents, his grandmother and his teachers with keeping him moving in the right direction. To hear him tell it, there were just too many people on his side. "There wasn't going to be any other direction," he says. "I was never enticed by the other side of the tracks."
Still, there was something inside of Coleman that wanted to break free. He needed an outlet. He needed a community. So he joined a gang ... of sorts.
Don Coleman claims credit for lighting the spark. He was in some theater productions during his time at Armstrong, and he clearly remembers his little brother taking an interest. "Looking back," Don says, "he was always a fun person. He always had a little acting in him."
If Don lit the spark, then Ed Broaddus provided the gasoline. Chad Coleman met Broaddus during their sophomore year at Armstrong-Kennedy. "To hear him tell it," Broaddus says, "I'm the one that got
Broaddus was the big actor on campus, the ringleader of a whole wide world of drama — and Coleman wanted in. "Everybody was intelligent and funny and competitive. But I was really shy," Coleman says. "So I would go and watch them and tell them what they should and shouldn't do." He had a good ear and a love for language. He wasn't shy about sharing his opinions. And when other actors followed his suggestions, it usually worked. It became clear that Coleman needed to be on stage. Broaddus suggested that instead of giving advice, Coleman should give acting a shot.
"We were both class clowns," Broaddus says. "But Chad was more of an extrovert."
It was Coleman's outgoing personality that got him onstage. But it would take more than a wide smile to win over drama teacher Bob Pemberton. Pemberton was a veteran of the New York City theater scene. He was all business and a tough critic. "He would run off half the people who showed up to audition," Broaddus says. Pemberton was a triple threat — acting, singing and dancing — who didn't mince words when it came to judging a performance. Some of his more memorable lines? "Jesus Christ on a motorbike, God didn't give you the sense he gave a lemon." And, "I'm not God, but I'm close to it." Or simply, "Get off the stage."
"Bob was able to push us. You could learn a lot from him," Broaddus says. "But he was intimidating."
"Once I got involved, it was apparent that it was what I was supposed to be doing," Coleman says. For the rest of his high school career, he performed in plays, usually alongside Broaddus. Both participated in productions staged by Richmond's All City Theatrical Guild, a program that brought the city's best young talent together. They starred together in Hallelujah, Baby! and Damn Yankees. (Coleman played the devil.) And they paired up for a take on Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, with Coleman channeling his manic energy into the character of fastidious neat freak Felix Unger.
Growing as an actor fueled Coleman's self-confidence. According to Broaddus, he was just as magnetic in the halls as he was onstage. In his senior year, he was voted Most Popular and crowned Mr. AK (Armstrong-Kennedy) at the senior prom. "I hung around with Chad because he was a role model to me," Broaddus says. "When I was around him, I became different than what I was. He helped me comeout of myself a little more."
Coleman planned to spend his college years at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, but after a scholarship fell through, he spent his freshman year on scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University instead. He wasn't completely sold on spending more time studying acting, though, so he joined the Army.
Coleman spent four years traveling the world as an Army videographer. When his service was over, he found that there wasn't much demand for an Army-trained cameraman. "I did not get one job," he laughs. "But that was probably for the best."
What he did instead was whatever it took to keep him close to acting. He took a humiliating job as a stand-in on The Cosby Show. "The stage manager treated us like pieces of meat," he says. "We had to wear pieces of tape with the character's names, and they really hated it when I became friendly with Malcolm Jamal-Warner. It bothered me because I knew my talent. I knew I was good enough to be up there acting." He lived in Hell's Kitchen, bartended at Broadway shows and worked for Telecharge (the official ticket seller for Broadway), which allowed him to see the latest plays for free. The jobs also allowed him a flexible schedule, which Coleman filled with plenty of auditions and regional theater gigs.
After landing some work on America's Most Wanted, Coleman decided he liked being on national television. So he kept it up. He earned his Law & Order stripes (original flavor and SVU ). He played a man called Moses on the soap opera Guiding Light and OJ Simpson in the made-for-TV movie Monday Night Mayhem. And then he started watching this HBO show about cops and drug dealers in Baltimore.
The biggest break of Coleman's career didn't fall into his lap. It was just another audition.
Back from a touring production of The Exonerated, an off-Broadway prison drama, Coleman showed up to read for a roomful of writers, producers and casting directors working on the HBO series The Wire . He knew that he only had one shot, maybe two, to prove that he was the one to play the role. And he nearly blew it.
According to Coleman, they liked his look and asked him back for a second read. But he forgot his lines. Every single one. He spaced. He froze. His mind raced and then everything ... just came out. It was another "out-of-body" performance that proved to be just as important as Coleman's first. "People were blown away," he says. Especially David Simon, the series creator, head writer and executive producer. Coleman got the job.
On Sept. 19, 2004, he debuted on the third-season opener of The Wire , playing the freshly paroled Dennis "Cutty" Wise, a former Baltimore street soldier struggling to adjust to life after 14 years in prison. Coleman played Cutty as a contemplative man, someone desperate to put his violent past behind him.
While chaos and crime remain a fact of daily life, Cutty struggles to maintain hope that things really can change for the better. When he fails to pull the trigger during a showdown with a rival crew, he decides to retire. He resigns from "the life" in a tense and heartfelt scene with drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (played by Coleman's former Hell's Kitchen roommate Wood Harris). "The game ain't in me no more," Cutty says. "None of it."
Coleman was widely praised for his performance. But he was anxious for what comes next. Maybe a little too anxious. "I had all these expectations of what was supposed to happen," he says. "I was having an amazing experience, but I was so fixed on ‘making it' that I was robbing myself of the joy." The way Coleman figured it, at any moment the call would come in, and he would be whisked away to superstardom. "On a day-to-day basis, I was too fixated on the celebrity mentality."
Coleman continued to play Cutty through the fourth and fifth seasons of The Wire . He was respected as part of a brilliant ensemble. In a way, the show launched him, but then it promptly brought him back down to earth. It taught Coleman a massive lesson in, humility. Maybe he didn't realize then, but listening to him talk now, it was a lesson that stuck. "I'm always conscious about slipping back into that mentality," he says. "But it takes work."
After The Wire ended, Coleman found more work on television, mostly one-shot appearances with the occasional recurring role. You may have seen him in shows such as CSI: Miami, Criminal Minds or Burn Notice. He played a former heavyweight boxer on In Plain Sight. For Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, he was a cyborg. He kept busy. He kept acting.
Then in 2009, something big happened. That year, Coleman made his Broadway debut in a revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. In it, he played Herald Loomis, a former slave trying to find his wife and put his life back together. The New York Times reviewer called him "magnetic."
Don Coleman recalls making the trip to see his brother onstage. "I appreciated his role on The Wire , and I was proud of him, but his theater work touches my heart even more," Don says. "I know that's my little brother up there, but I also completely believe in his character. The boy can act." One week later, President Barack Obama and the first lady showed up for a "date night" (along with hordes of Secret Service agents). It was a memorable Broadway debut for Coleman, but as it turned out, there was another one just around the corner.
His daughter, SaCha Stewart-Coleman, made her own Broadway debut in 2010, in August Wilson's Fences , sharing the stage with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. When it comes to the professional career of his daughter, who lives in Brooklyn with his ex-wife, actress Sally Stewart, Coleman gives her space. "She goes to a wonderful performing-arts school," he says. "I'm not Daddy Director, you know? I let her come to me for advice. In a fantasy world, it would be like, ‘Oh, Daddy, regale me with all the stories of your life!' It's not like that. She's living her own life."
(Coleman will have another chance to live the fantasy: His second child is expected in late June.)
In 2011, Coleman joined the cast of the short-lived Fox sitcom I Hate My Teenage Daughter. The broad ensemble comedy starred Jaime Pressly and Katie Finneran as divorced moms raising difficult young women. Coleman played Gary, the ex-husband to Finneran's character, father of one of the teenage daughters and a golf pro with workplace issues. ("You think I enjoy hanging out with old white people all day? They keep calling me Tiger.") Fox canceled the series after one season. But the disappointment didn't last long. Because something else was happening for Coleman. Those long-smoldering embers from The Wire were about to catch fire again.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, The Wire attracts fans who are cultish in their dedication, remaining fiercely loyal to the program's cast and creators years after HBO broadcast the final episode. What does that mean exactly? Not much. Unless those rabid fans happen to be big players in Hollywood. Then it means everything.
Seth Rogen started it. He was a fan of The Wire and gave Coleman a role in the 2011 film The Green Hornet, as a henchman to Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz's big bad guy. Next came Robert Kirkman, the creative mind behind The Walking Dead comic book, who's a writer and executive producer on the AMC TV show. Kirkman, who was also a fan of Coleman's work as Cutty, contacted the actor's agents and set the deal in motion for him to come aboard as Tyreese.
It's common knowledge that comic book and horror fans aren't timid when it comes to expressing their opinions. In the end, it doesn't matter if Kirkman endorses Coleman or not. The final verdict will be passed by the hardcore comic readers who will decide whether or not Coleman has done right by Tyreese, a major character in the comic book. Judging by the amount of positive expletives, all-caps and exclamation points on the message boards — so far, so good.
"These fans have been amazing," Coleman says. "I love my Wire fans, but it's another level of sheer excitement with The Walking Dead . They love Tyreese. And there was a such a huge life for the character prior to the show. It's great when you can meet their expectations, which is not always easy to do."
With each episode, maybe Coleman becomes a little more Tyreese and a little less Cutty. Maybe there will be Tyreese action figures, Halloween costumes and video-game avatars. But to some, Coleman will always be "Cutty from the Cut."
He's grateful for what The Wire did for his résumé. "The shelf life is huge," Coleman says. "All of these jobs are connected to The Wire. " And he continues to honor that lesson he learned. "My appreciation is greater because I completely understand the value of the experience I'm having as opposed to what can it get me, what's next," Coleman says. "You have to have drive and that competitive nature because this is a business, too, but you need to balance that out."
For Coleman, a big part of that balance is giving back. Most of his spare time is devoted to side projects, including personal films, speaking engagements and community work. He tries to connect with young people, speaking, with understandable affection, about the virtues of foster care. And that ongoing work of giving back involves some strong connections to his past.
In his current hometown of Los Angeles, Coleman works closely with the Make a Film Foundation, a nonprofit that helps kids with terminal illnesses write, produce and direct their own short films using professional Hollywood actors. Coleman's old friend Ed Broaddus is involved, and the group's founder is Tamika Lamison, another former Richmonder and All-City Theatrical Guild performer. "We have all continued to support each other creatively and as friends over these 25 or so years," Lamison says.
"Chad has mentored as a filmmaker. He has been an emcee at our awards shows. He has been a guest speaker. He's contributed in so many awesome ways."
While Coleman currently lives in Los Angeles, he's a regular cross-country traveler. Every chance he gets, he flies back and forth to visit his daughter and "keep the connection tight." They go for walks in the park, flock to the latest horror movies and share a passion for sushi. He visits family in Atlanta, Maryland and Washington, D.C. And once a year, he keeps a very special date in Richmond with SaCha and a few hundred strangers.
You don't get to see many of Chad Coleman's dance moves in his weekly struggle against invading "walkers." He likely reserves the more advanced dance-floor technique for the Date With Dad Dinner and Dance. The annual community event is the invention of Angela Patton and CAMP DIVA, her local nonprofit dedicated to Richmond girls. Every March, it brings together fathers and daughters for an evening of quality time. This year, the festivities will take place at the Downtown Marriott on Sunday, March 17.
"It's not just about girls who don't have fathers in their lives," Patton says. "A lot of girls have fathers in their lives, but they're just not engaged. This gives them another place to connect. It's just them. We provide that foundation so the work can continue."
Three years ago, Patton and her daughters had an idea to find a famous guest for the event. After reaching out to a short list of African-American celebrities, Coleman jumped to the top of the list. Patton says it took him about 10 minutes to respond to an email. After attending with his daughter as a guest for the third annual dance, he asked if he could become the official spokesperson. "Ever since then," Patton says, "he's been dedicated to participating on any level we need him to."
In addition to working the crowds at the dinner and dance, Coleman is also a regular part of the Date With Dad Dance held at the Richmond City Jail. It's a scaled-down version of the main event, but no less fancy. It gives incarcerated fathers the rare chance to reconnect with their daughters. Patton says that afterward, Coleman always makes time to visit with inmates who might not have a daughter. He takes some questions, shares some stories and gives them a little hope.
"They really relate to him for who he is," she says. "Not only who he was on The Wire , but as someone who came from Richmond and someone who made it."
As a young actor, Coleman worried about "making it." In some ways, given where he came from and the challenges he's faced, just by leaving this city, he "made it." Others weren't as lucky. "I don't know too much of my class that was left," Broaddus says. "We didn't even have enough for a high-school reunion. A lot of those people we grew up with are dead or incarcerated. Most of us just moved out of Richmond."
Coleman wasn't incarcerated. He was motivated. And now, as the rest of us watch him on TV, smashing his way through the zombie apocalypse with a claw hammer, we know that even if his face looks serious or angry or scared, he's only acting. Deep down, he's enjoying every minute of it.
NOTE: This article has been edited since publication to prevent spoiling events in the Walking Dead TV show.