You’ve heard and seen the stories; children who never live up to the legacy of their celebrity parents. Actor Phil Morris is NOT that guy. The star of TV One’s “Love That Girl” is second generation royalty in Black Hollywood; his father, the late Greg Morris played tech genius Barney Collier on the iconic TV series “Mission: Impossible” which ran from 1966-1973. Having a father who was only one of a handful of African-American actors in a leading role on television soon fired up Morris’ own creative ambitions.
Morris has successfully carved his own niche in the game with roles in the 80’s “Mission: Impossible” TV remake and as fast-talking Johnnie Cochran wanna -be Jackie Chiles on the hit TV comedy “Seinfeld.” He also gets to indulge his inner fan boy with an impressive resume of voiceover work including “Static Shock,” “Justice League” and “The Green Lantern” animated series.
The Urban Daily caught up with Morris to discuss the third season of “Love That Girl,” why his character Delroy Jones will never go near a computer and what his father really thought of the film version of Mission: Impossible, now helmed by Tom Cruise.
TUD: You’re in your third season of “Love That Girl” on TV One. Who have been some of the most memorable guest stars this season?
Phil Morris: Definitely Obba Babbatunde who plays my brother in the episode “Happy Birthday Bro”—amazing actor. My sister Iona Morris, played Nefertiti’s (Kendyl Joi) mother so that was a great experience getting to watch her at work. Valarie Petitford (“Half & Half”) who is a Broadway superstar—we were so lucky to get her. Tami Roman was great too. She’s actually a very good actress. Very comfortable and natural—it was easy to work with her. We also had Candace Parker who plays for the L.A. Sparks. She is the tallest woman I’ve ever seen and exceedingly beautiful.
How are you and your character, Delroy the same in your parenting styles? How are you different?
We’re the same in that our love for our children is paramount. We also have an incredible amount of respect for our children. Although Delroy’s relationship with Latrell (Alphonso McAuley) leaves a lot to be desired (laughs), I think that’s more on Latrell than on Delroy.
We’re different in that Delroy is a hardliner. Delroy has a line he’s drawn in the sand since 1976. I’m more liberal and spiritual. I honor the universe as truth. Delroy, on the other hand, has a specific idea of how his children should be and what they should be doing with their lives. Delroy is a very old school cat; he still uses a typewriter and white-out. Delroy doesn’t use a computer because he thinks the internet is the devil.
Your father, the late Greg Morris, was part of the original cast of “Mission: Impossible” as Barney Collier. What memories do you have of the show?
“Mission: Impossible” started in 1966. I was of the age that I knew what was going on. It was super exciting when he got the job. He told us he had been cast on this great show. We asked him “Who will you be playing?” and he said “This character named Barney.” We started laughing hysterically. My father certainly didn’t look like a Barney; it was more of a cartoon name like Barney Rubble of “The Flintstones.” We didn’t get how big the show was until the night it premiered on TV. We had the cast over at our duplex and it was an amazing, magical time. I visited the set any time I could–it was like Disneyland. My sister and I would steal the golf carts and race around the lot. I learned a lot about TV production and what it took to be part of a successful show.
Your dad was only a handful of black actors at the time, featured in a leading role on network television. Did he ever discuss the challenges of being an actor of color?
It was only my dad and Bill Cosby (“I Spy”) on television. You had Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte doing feature films. My parents explained to us the importance of my dad being on a show and playing a character that had such integrity. We were very proud of his accomplishments. We were fully aware of the import of our father’s role on that show.
You and your sister Iona (Morris) are both actors. What was your father’s reaction when you both told him you were going into the business?
My father was a tough guy. He knew how difficult it was, so he didn’t want us to struggle like he did. He was very real about the adversity we’d have to face. He was also real about the creative challenges as well. There’s no guarantee that just because your parents are successful in the arts that you will be successful too. So he encouraged us at every turn to take classes, to do theatre, to find out if this is something that was right for us.
In 1988, you were cast in the TV remake of “Mission: Impossible.” What was that experience like?
Surreal. I was orginally I was cast as Barney Collier. There was a writers’ strike and Paramount decided to bring back “Mission: Impossible” which was a show ahead of its time. But because of the strike they had to leave the script intact and not change anything. So the casting call went out for a young black actor to play Barney Collier. All of my actor friends got the call, but not me. My dad and I didn’t think they would call me, it would be too coincidental. It was just ironic that I was an actor, and the right age to play the role. I was actually one of the last actors to audition, but they were very pleased with my work. When the writers’ strike ended they decided to make my character Barney Collier’s son, Grant Collier.
Your father actually guest-starred in a couple of episodes. How was it working with your dad?
To be honest, my father was not in the best of health. He was a big drinker. I was finding it very difficult that they would hire him and I was concerned about the shape that he would show up in. It was a wonderful experience but I was really nervous. It was very bittersweet, but in retrospect it was an amazing experience.
The story is when your father went to see the first Mission Impossible film in theaters, he walked out in the midst of the movie and said it was “total rubbish.” So true? So false?
It’s absolutely true. My father was a very strong-minded, opionated person. He didn’t feel that it was a team, it was more like “The Tom Cruise Show.” I don’t even think he even made it halfway through the movie. As soon as he realized they made Phelps the villain he was like “WHAT?!” and walked out of the movie. My dad really had problems with the creative vision of the “MI” movies. In the original “Mission Impossible” there were only 5 people in the world who could do what they did—there weren’t IMF franchises around the world like in the movies. They’re not the FBI or the CIA. Tom Cruise has gone against that and that’s what upset my father.
One of your most iconic roles is playing lawyer Jackie Chiles on “Seinfeld.” How did you get the role?
It was a straight audition. They wanted someone who could do an impression of Johnnie Cochran, because the public had been seeing him on TV from the O.J. Simpson trial. The Seinfeld writers came up with really smart, topical storylines for the character. I went to meet Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David on a hot summer day, dressed in a suit and they loved my audition. Jackie Chiles was something I didn’t need much preparation for; it was like sliding into a second skin.
Did you ever hear from the real Johnnie Cochran when the episodes aired?
Yes, actually Johnnie and I went to the same barbershop for years–Terrell’s in Los Angeles. So after getting the Jackie Chiles role, I bumped into Johnnie there—he was getting a shave. He looked at me for a few seconds and just started laughing. He gave me a big hug and told me I was very funny and that he was proud of me…and then I got a letter from his law office telling me to cease and desist!
You also have a strong working relationship in the D.C. Comics universe. You’ve done voiceovers for “Justice League” as well as guest-starring on “Smallville” as The Martian Manhunter. Are you an actual comic book and sci-fi fan?
Yes, I actually have 20,000 comic books. I got my first comic book in 1966—“Tales of Suspense” with Captain America and Iron Man. I still have it today. I am fandom personified so working with D.C. Comics is like a dream come true. I’ll be reprising my role as Vandal Savage in the new “Justice League:Doom” animated movie and I’m also in the “Green Lantern” animated series. I’ve pretty much been all over the DC universe. I’ve also done some Marvel stuff. I go to comic book conventions quite frequently as a featured guest. I get to meet a lot of my favorite artists like Neal Adams.
Sadly one of the head writers of DC Animated, Dwayne McDuffie passed away this past February. What are your memories of him?
I got to work with Dwayne on “Static Shock” and when I played a villain, Imperiex on “Legion of Superheroes.” Dwayne was a gentle giant, super intelligent, and very compassionate. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to know him as well as I’d like to, but he was an immense creative force and we will miss him dearly.