John Beasley, Omaha actor whose career cut a distinct path, was on the brink of a Broadway debut

June 8, 2023, 4:58 p.m. ·

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"The Notebook" co-director Michael Grief, left, and John Beasley in rehearsals at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Joe Mazza

Despite a late start, actor John Beasley realized stage and screen dreams whose foundations he laid in Omaha.

The television star and feature film supporting actor, who co-starred in the TV series “Everwood,” and appeared in HBO’s “Treme” and the beloved movie “Rudy,” died May 30 at an Omaha hospital. He was 79.

Beasley’s death sparked condolences and praise from well beyond his hometown. Oscar winner Robert Duvall, reached by phone, described Beasley as “a wonderful actor.”

He followed an unconventional route to get there.

The Omaha native only pursued acting professionally at age 45 once his two sons were raised. His wife Judy supported his dream. After years paying dues in local and regional theater, he broke into TV then Hollywood in the early 1990s.

Only death stopped him. This year, before his health failed, he was slated to make his Broadway debut as the older Noah in the new musical adaptation of “The Notebook.”

His appearance in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater preview run last fall got cut short due to a bout with COVID that landed him in the hospital. He was hospitalized again in Omaha earlier this year. More recently, liver complications forced him to undergo tests before his condition suddenly worsened.

He was preparing for a July workshop in New York in the musical’s lead-up to Broadway when he died. “The Notebook” company is expected to dedicate its Broadway run in his memory.

The show, based on the best-selling novel, excited Beasley not only because of where it was taking him, but because he felt in perfect sync with the role and his co-star Maryann Plunkett.

Plunkett, a Tony Award winner, said that Beasley was “magnificent in that role.”

“Just mind-blowing beautiful. ... I’m going to miss him terribly,” she said by phone.

Though he suspected his turn in “The Notebook” could be the role of his lifetime, Beasley made it clear in a 2022 American Theatre interview that he’d already achieved what he’d set out to do.

Being a working artist is the highest calling, he said, adding that he was both proud of and grateful for his career regardless of whether he made it to Broadway.

Duvall, who cast Beasley as an earnest preacher to his fiery evangelist in the critically acclaimed 1997 movie “The Apostle,” remembered Beasley as “a great guy.”

Referring to the gritty naturalism Beasley conveyed, Duvall, who also wrote and directed the film, recalled, “Somebody said, ‘Where’d you get that non-actor to play the preacher?’ And I said, ‘That non-actor has his own (theater) company and did Shakespeare and everything.’”

Beasley often cited working with Duvall as confirmation he could act alongside anyone. It also put him on the radar of Hollywood producers.

“It was a special project and he certainly helped make it that way,” Duvall said of the late actor.

To Beasley’s surprise, Duvall was a Nebraska football fan, so much so he said, “I begged Bobby to stop talking football and to start talking acting.”

“The Apostle” helped Beasley land the WB dramatic series “Everwood” starring Treat Williams, who, in a Tweet, credited Beasley with giving the show “its soul” and “its gravitas.”

Beasley went on to be a regular cast member in the TV Land sitcom “The Soul Man” with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash. In statements, both noted Beasley’s prowess as an actor and that he was an even better person.

The Omaha actor enjoyed sharing what he knew about acting through his John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Beasley’s two sons, Tyrone and Mike, followed in his footsteps.

Actor Vincent Lee Alston said Beasley’s theater was “a training ground” where burgeoning performers could explore what it meant to be an actor.

“It was our Shakespeare – a place where we could go to do ‘us,’” he said.

Beasley encouraged many local talents, often with a phone call saying, “Why are you still in Omaha – what are you waiting for? It’s time to go.”

“His career inspired me in a way that showed me what was possible for me as a Black artist. ... It sent a message to each of us actors of not only what it would take to move our careers forward, but also what the reward could look like,” said Kathy Tyree, one of the actors who heeded Beasley’s challenge.

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John Beasley, left, and co-star Maryann Plunkett share the stage during a rehearsal of “The Notebook” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Plunkett, a Tony Award winner, said Beasley was magnificent in the role of Noah. Photo by Liz Lauren

Though best known for his small and big screen work, Beasley's home was storytelling and the stage.

It started with an uncle who regaled him and childhood friends with tales that inserted their names into the adventures. At Omaha Technical High School Beasley shined in speech and drama.

Activism and athletics intervened in the ‘60s. At what was then Omaha University, Beasley played football with Marlin Briscoe, who eventually made history as the first Black starting quarterback in the NFL.

After Beasley spoke out against police brutality in Omaha , he received death threats. He moved his young family to Philadelphia, where his wife Judy was from. It was in Philly he acted in his first Shakespearean play.

He also talked himself into a television producer’s spot and worked as a longshoreman on the docks. He even briefly played semi-pro football.

Upon returning to Omaha in the early ‘70s he studied drama at Omaha University, where his next brush with The Bard came courtesy a Royal Shakespeare Company residency. He won roles at the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and other area venues – and helped break color barriers along the way.

All the while, he toiled away at day jobs, including a long stint at Union Pacific.

Mike Beasley remembers lean times.

“As an actor you never know when your next paycheck is coming. He always sheltered us from that,” he said. “A lot of friends and family thought he was crazy for going after his dream as an actor.”

Mike admired his father’s persistence, grabbing gigs as they came. The elder Beasley would occasionally drive through blizzards and sleep in his car for auditions.

When he finally decided to pursue acting full time, he found traction at major regional theaters in Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere.

Beasley, whose penchant for performing extended to being a deacon and singer at Omaha’s Hope Lutheran Church, never seemed bothered by his late start.

“I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them,” he said. “And if I had started this earlier I would have lost all of that.”

Once he got started, Beasley "worked with some of the best people in the business," including Duvall, Union and Oprah Winfrey. He found he could not only hang with them but bring something uniquely his.

Said Alston, “I imagine he’s in the heavens right now doing a scene, holding his own, hearing the words, ‘Well done my good and faithful servant, well done.’”

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