In Hollywood most “overnight success stories” are never that. Success is usually constructed through trial-and-error, faith and rejection, and endless hours of honing and polishing one’s craft.
Still, there are not that many Academy Award-winning screenwriters who began as a standup comedian, as John Ridley has done. Woodey Allen won screenwriting Oscars for “Annie Hall” (1977), “Hannah And Her Sisters” (1986), and “Midnight in Paris” (2011). Mel Brooks won for “The Producers” in 1968, and Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won for “The Descendants” in 2012. But Faxon and Rash are better known for sketch comedy than standup.
“I think everybody’s path is their own,” said Ridley, 49. “I know there are ‘standups’ who went into writing, and it was a great transition. Judd Apatow is one. Mine is my own transition, and going from comedy to drama is a little different.
“But even when I was doing ‘standup,’ I was writing. I’m very thankful I had a path where I could do so many things.”
After coming out to Los Angeles from New York in 1990, Ridley was good enough to perform on “The Tonight Show” and “The David Letterman Show.” But there was too much inside him creatively to only tell jokes. He was soon writing for the television shows “Martin,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Third Watch,” and “Trinity.” He’s also published seven books. Television work evolved into movie opportunities, both as a screenwriter and director.
For many, however, Ridley became a household name last year when he won the best adaptive screenplay Oscar for the film “12 Years a Slave.”
Although he is the second African American to win an Academy Award for screenwriting (Geoffrey Fletcher won for “Precious” in 2010), Ridley, 49, hesitates at being considered a trailblazer.
“There have been so many people in different areas in the world and life who have blazed trails,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate. My parents are of an era where they had to be trailblazers. I appreciate what others have done.”
Now Ridley hopes to continue riding his own hot streak. His current project is the television series “American Crime,” an 11-episode anthology crime drama with a diverse, high-profile cast that debuts on ABC March 5.
The series’ creator and executive producer, Ridley writes and directs a story about a young couple in Modesto, CA, who are attacked in their home, and the reverberations sent throughout their neighborhood and community by the attack and subsequent trial. The drama inherits the 10 p.m. slot vacated by “How To Get Away With Murder,” which goes on hiatus.
Is there any way Ridley, who was born in Milwaukee and now lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife Gayle and their sons, could have imagined life turning out this way?
He didn’t need the Oscar to open other doors for him because Ridley has been steadily and meticulously building his resume.
One of his first assignments, “Cold Around The Heart” in 1997, won Ridley the Urbanworld Film Festival Jury Prize for Best Director. He both wrote and directed episodes of “Barbershop” on Showtime in 2005. He wrote the screenplays for the George Lucas film “Red Tails,” about the WWII Tuskegee Airmen, and the Eddie Griffin comedy “Undercover Brother.” Most recently, he wrote and directed a biographical slice of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s life titled “Jimi: All Is By My Side.”
Ridley’s also had setbacks.
He wrote a screenplay called “The Spoils of War.” Director David O. Russell saw a sentence description of the work — ““heist set in the Gulf War” — and turned the inspiration into his own script for the film “Three Kings.” While Russell eventually conceded that “John gets credit where it’s due. The germ of the idea that I took was his,” Ridley maintained that Russell excluded him during the process of making of the movie. He eventually settled for an onscreen “Story By” credit.
And there were reports that director Steve McQueen sought a co-writing credit for “Slave,” which he did not get. It wasn’t hard to notice how distant the two men seemed to be toward each other at the 2014 Oscars, though Ridley later denied there was a rift between them.
Ridley said that he has moved on.
“I hope I don’t sound sappy…as a part of maturing, you look at where you are,” he said. “What makes me most proud is my parents lived to see their hard work pay off [in raising him and his two sisters]. And I have sons…hopefully they see things that I present and feel there are things that represent us all well.
“I’m very thankful for whatever my peers in the [film] community put toward myself and my work. And to see pride in my parents’ and kids’ eyes, there is no substitute.”
“Hendrix” prompted ABC officials to okay production of “American Crime.” It was more proof to Ridley was in a place to tell the stories he wants rather than ones he is assigned.
“People who believed in me, believed in me before the [Oscar],” Ridley said. “One reason [ABC] allowed me to direct ‘American Crime’ was they were enthralled by ‘Jimi.’ So I wouldn’t do anything different.
“I’m thankful for the award — it really honors Solomon Northrup’s memoir — but I’d still say things could not have played out any better.”
The high-powered “American” cast includes Oscar winner Timothy Hutton and Emmy winner Felicity Huffman in lead roles, and well-known faces like Regina King and Penelope Ann Miller in supplemental roles. There are also Latino actors in pivotal roles.
Benito Martinez, best known for television shows “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy,” plays the father of a teenaged son caught up in the controversy that rages through the community. It was a role Martinez said he was eager to get.
“When I read the script, I immediately understood who this man was,” Martinez said. “He’s trying to do his best for his kid, then he’s blindsided by (the unfolding events). …. That to me was compelling.
“In the beginning he happens to be Latino. It becomes specific later, but until that point, he’s just a father doing the best he can… as we go along in the story, part of the artistry is we ask all the questions that people ask today. It’s not to make a point but to reveal an issue. For the most part we’re revealing people of different backgrounds and beliefs, but in an honest way and with honest conversation.”
Martinez also found working with Ridley a satisfying experience.
“He has an incredible approach. He is gracious, he listens, he gets his point across eloquently and always asks people to contribute to the process. I love that. You’re not just going for ‘the moment,’ ‘the shot.’ You’re trying to get an honest moment of communication between two people.”
So did Richard Cabral, whose character “Hector Tonz” is also implicated in the attack. Cabral, first seen in the television series “Southland,” said, “One of his first speeches to all of us was that he expected us to be leaders of the show, and that he would be the first one in and last one out. Day-in, day-out he would be there, but he expects us to be leading. It was so profound to me, working under a man who took this so serious. He was gonna work his butt off, so how could I not give my heart and soul.”
Cabral added that viewers should not be fixated on “skin color” or a perceived direction of the storyline.
“Pain is pain, and that is what we were all going through in the story,” he said. “A lot of people have tried to do this, but John did it in one of most profound ways I could have imagined. It is deep and real.”
It would be understandable if Ridley wanted a break, however briefly, and spend even more time with his family in their Sherman Oaks residence. But there’s much more to say and do.
Especially if “American Crime” pays off with additional seasons.
“I’m tired in a really good way,” he said. “To be in a space where I can tell the stories I want is great. Now is not the time to take a step back. Others will decide when I’m done.”