William Stanford Davis On ‘Abbott Elementary,’ Quinta Brunson Friendship

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When William Stanford Davis auditioned for Friends, he thought he absolutely nailed his performance. 

“I thought I killed it. Oh my God. I was waiting for casting to call and say, ‘We want to book him,’” he tells Rolling Stone. “I was at a friend’s office and they had my agent on speakerphone and asked about the job. And I’m getting ready to do a touchdown dance when the phone got silent. Like really, dead cold silent. And they said, ‘They think maybe Stan should go back to being a telemarketer.’ My jaw dropped.” 

It’s an experience that could have convinced a less driven actor leave Tinsel Town entirely. But for Davis, who moved to Los Angeles in 1984 with the sole goal of becoming a professional actor, that poorly received audition only made him push harder. “That was kind of a fire for me,” he says. “You don’t do great work all the time. Different things may get in the way or maybe you just weren’t right for the role. But no one was ever going to say that about my work again.” 

For the past 40 years, Davis has been grinding with that level of persistence, first in guest appearances in soaps like The Bold and the Beautiful and Passions before working his way up to bigger roles like the Showtime drama Ray Donovan. But it was the Quinta-Brunson-created school comedy Abbott Elementary and the character of a surly, attentive, and conspiracy theory-loving janitor that got Davis, 72,  to a milestone he wasn’t sure would ever arrive: the first series regular role in his career.

“I had a lot of recurring roles before and you learn to live with that,” Davis says. “You’re working, got money coming in, you can pay your bills, you know, you’ll be okay. But something about [Abbott] felt different. When they made me a series regular, the feeling was so incredible. My wife and I both were in tears. We cried so much I thought the neighbors were gonna call the police. It was just like, this journey, this was all worth it.” 

On the Emmy-nominated comedy, which is now in its third season, Davis plays Mr. Johnson, a school janitor who rules the hallways of the fictional Williard R. Abbott elementary school in Philadelphia with an attentive fist. Alongside teachers Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson), Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), and principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James), Davis and the band juggle the everyday struggles that come with trying to teach kids and keep their lives — and building — afloat at the same time. 

While not one of the teaching staff, the heart of Davis’ comedic performance lies in how intrinsically he’s tied into the school events. He’s a performer during a talent show, the voice of reason when the kids learn about a new online trend that involves jumping from desk to desk, and the only person who knows how to keep the lights and air conditioning working at the same time. Simply put, the school doesn’t run without him. Davis tells Rolling Stone that he bases his performance on the role models he had growing up. 

“Mr. Johnson reminds me of the janitors of schools that I went to,” Davis says, laughing. “They knew everything. They knew the kids that were smoking in the boy’s room. They knew the kids who were playing hooky. That’s who Mr. Johnson is. He has his ear to the ground about everything. I’ve said often that this is a man who really cares about keeping the school together — even if he has to use spit in a shoestring to do it.” 

Davis tells Rolling Stone that while he’s avoiding giving out spoilers, he’s excited for viewers to learn more about the elusive janitor and see him become a larger part of the show. “This man has been all over the world and we’re gonna see a little bit about his education, his knowledge of things,” he says. “He’s not just a conspiracy theorist, even though he’s very enigmatic, but he’s got a wealth of knowledge. And I think you’re gonna see that and more in spite of his cantankerous behavior.” 

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For Davis, becoming Mr. Johnson has been a watershed moment. But in addition to the career milestone, he’s been most excited for the chance to continue to learn more in his career. As someone who “cut his teeth on episodic television and dramas,” appearing in a mockumentary has been a learning curve — not to mention the past months, which have been dominated by figuring out how to deal with being recognized and approached in public. But above all, Davis credits the support of his family and fellow cast members — especially Ralph and Brunson — for their support.

“I’ve really gotten to know Sheryl on a more personal level and she’s kind of helped guide me through this and navigate this journey,” Davis says. “And I’ve never worked with or for anyone that is generous and kind and who has this vision like [Brunson] has. The relationships have been — kind is not even a good enough word. It’s really been an incredible journey. I knew that something great was going to happen. I didn’t know when —  I didn’t know it was gonna be until I was 70 years old. “ 

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