You’ve likely seen Bel Air, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot starring Jabari Banks, Coco Jones, Cassandra Freeman and Adrian Holmes. But years before the classic NBC sitcom was going to have its own spinoff, In the House, starring Don Cheadle.
The Grammy and Tony Award winner played the character Ice Tray on an episode in Season 1. It was called “Homeboy Sweet Homeboy” and Cheadle’s character was a friend of Will’s from his old neighborhood in Philadelphia.
“Ice Tray is like the Rocket of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Talib Kweli said in an interview with Cheadle in 2019 when he revealed the spinoff. Cheadle played Rocket in the gang movie Colors. “It humanized Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in a lot of ways. They were starting to deal with Will Smith’s character and what that family would look like in a real situation.”
A pilot was shot for the spinoff that never happened. Cheadle says that In The House just wasn’t picked up. The name was ultimately used for the LL Cool J sitcom starring Maia Campbell, Debbie Allen and Kim Wayans.
In a new interview with Franklin Leonard for Vanity Fair, Cheadle says that he also wrote and sang the theme song for his spinoff.
“At that point, I was doing a lot in studios. Again, I never completely dropped the idea of music,” he told Leonard. “It was always in the sidecar. I wanted to take a crack at the theme song. They’re like, ‘Go ahead.’ So I set off and my producing friend Kenny Finch wrote the theme song. I don’t know that ultimately we would’ve used it, but I’m singing and you hear it.”
Cheadle made his feature film directorial debut and played jazz musician Miles Davis in the 2015 movie Miles Ahead. A jazz aficionado, he grew up making music as well as dancing then started doing guest slots on TV shows including the Golden Girls spinoff The Golden Palace.
The turning point in Cheadle’s career, though was 1995’s Devil In a Blue Dress, based on a novel in the Walter Mosley Easy Rawlins series. His portrayal of Mouse, a killer and Rawlins’ sidekick, was his breakout role. He was championed by his co-star Denzel Washington who played Rawlins but Cheadle says a jazz album, Personal Mountains by Keith Jarrett also helped him win the part.
“My agent read the book, said ‘this is you, you gotta get in on it'”, Cheadle said. “Everybody in town and all over the country was trying to get in on it.”
Cheadle says his agent couldn’t understand why director Carl Franklin, who knew Cheadle and had worked with him before, wouldn’t call him back. Franklin apparently thought that Cheadle couldn’t be Washington’s contemporary as Washington is 10 years older.
“The day I heard that [the role was available] I had started listening to this album and something just made sense. I can’t tell you why,” Cheadle told Vanity Fair. “I don’t know why, some cosmic esoteric whatever, that the personal mountains made sense. This would be a personal mountain for me if I climb this mountain. And I know it’s going to be life-changing for me.”
And he was right. Cheadle says he didn’t chase the audition but for months he only listened to that song. A while later, he was at the doctor’s office when the room got so crowded that he was pushed to the door. When the door opened, it was Franklin and the receptionist told them, as the last two standing by it, to go into another room. Cheadle says they caught up, and Franklin briefly referenced that he was directing Devil In a Blue Dress.
The next day, though, his agent told Cheadle Franklin wanted to see him. He auditioned and the rest is movie history. That role changed the course of Cheadle’s career, setting him up as one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors, earning him an Oscar nomination for Hotel Rwanda and playing James Rhodes/War Machine in seven Marvel movies. He also starred in and produced House of Lies and Black Monday for Showtime and won a Tony as the producer for A Strange Loop.
Watch the full interview below:
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