James Pickens Jr., 59, is best known for his portrayal of Dr. Richard Webber on the ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. He also played Medgar Evers in Ghosts of Mississippi (1996) and had a small role in the recent hit 42 (2013). Editor Bob Welch caught up with him at the 2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo to talk about his passion for team roping, his foundation, and acting in Westerns.
Growing up in the urban Midwest, how did you get interested in the Western way of life?
I’m a child of the 1950s. I grew up when there were only three channels and you had to turn the dial manually. Every network must have had 10 or 12 Westerns on them. My father and my brother and I would watch them all the time and I always fantasized about being a cowboy. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and the closest I’d come to a horse was the merry-go-round at the amusement park. My fantasy was far off in the distance, but I always loved horses. Fast forward, when I moved to Los Angeles to act, I wanted to learn how to ride. I was able to make some relationships, then I got my first horse and got into team penning. I had a blast, but wanted something with a little more adrenaline to it. Since I got introduced to team roping, I’ve just really enjoyed it. The steers have been winning, but it’s been a fun journey.
What is it you’ve found among the rodeo—or Western—crowd that’s kept you hooked?
I just enjoy the Western lifestyle and the integrity of it: what you see is what you get. Folks are pretty much the genuine deal and I’ve been humbled by the fact that they’ve opened their arms to me and have been very gracious to me over the past few years. Maybe some of it was fueled by the fact that I’m on a television show, but that’s OK. I think they’re intrigued that a “Hollywood celebrity” would have a fascination with the Western lifestyle.
Over the years, you’ve worked with some of the best ropers in rodeo history, like Joe Beaver and Speed Williams. How did those connections come about?
I really started connecting with the whole team roping world and watched these guys on television, never thinking I would meet them or, in some cases, have personal relationships with them. It’s been pretty awesome. Joe was the first roper I met through a mutual friend of ours. From the minute I spoke with Joe on the phone he was open and available to me. Once people realized I was interested in team roping, I started meeting more people along the way. When I started the foundation, I really started to make some relationships with the guys.
What is it about team roping that has drawn you in?
It’s a real rush. I tried to play golf and the whole nine yards, but there’s something about team roping. The Western world in general, and being close to something that you’ve watched on TV and fantasized about, adds to the attraction. For those top ropers, it’s what they do, but to the layman, what they do is pretty unique. It’s a blast to be around them and watch the best guys in the world do what they do. Me, as a weekend roper, I watch them and think I should just hang my rope up. But these guys are so gracious. They’ve been really wonderful, and a couple of guys I’ve roped with over the years have tried to help me better my roping.
Are you able to bring your hobby of team roping to your job as an actor?
My job is a far cry from team roping, but I have a roping dummy I bring on set and spend more time roping it on set than I do roping at home. Our days are long—12–14 hours—and we shoot five days a week, so I’m hard-pressed to get out on my horses. I’m lucky to get out twice a week. So in between set ups and scenes I’ll take the dummy out and rope it. My cast members are pretty fascinated by it. That’s been a saving grace for me, to be able to get my head out of it for a while and keep my skills a little sharp.
You’ve got a benefit team roping that’s really picking up steam in the roping world. tell us more about that.
My wife and I have been involved in a couple of charities over the years. You want to do something more than write a check, so a friend advised us to start a foundation. So almost five years ago, we started the James Pickens Jr. Foundation and it’s geared toward children. We’re trying to impact lives in the next generation. We partner with like-minded folks or groups who have the same vision and we target charities that are doing the things we want to do. One is a cowboy camp, which makes the connection with team roping so advantageous, and another is an after-school program for kids of single moms. I thought, Why not use the connections I have in the rodeo world to produce a charity roping? I wanted to reach out to the best ropers, catch them when they’re on the West Coast and host a roping. It’ll be our fifth year on April 22, and we’ve raised a little over $50,000.
You grew up watching Westerns. have you ACTED in any?
I’ve actually acted in two Westerns. One was a short-lived series with the late Robert Urich called The Lazarus Man (1996). I played a government man there—wasn’t a cowboy. And I did a parody Western with Kris Kristofferson called Sodbusters (1994). It was a takeoff on Shane with Eugene Levy. It was a very satiric look at Westerns and I played the blacksmith in that one. I can’t say a whole lot, but I’m in the works on another project that would be a Western. I think the Western is going to make a resurgence. It’s been a TV staple for years. It’ll be good to see it make a comeback.
Visit http://www.jpjfoundationroping.com to find out more about the James Pickens Jr. Foundation. This year’s Charity Roping Event is scheduled for April 22, and will be held at the historic Tejon Ranch in Lebec, California.