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Not ‘Pops’: Comedian John Witherspoon Dies at 77

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Comedic actor John Witherspoon, known for his signature roles as Willie Jones in the “Friday” films, and Pops on “The Wayans Bros.” sitcom has died. 

“It is with deepest sorrow that we can confirm our beloved husband and father, John Witherspoon, one of the hardest working men in show business, died today at his home in Sherman Oaks at the age of 77,” Witherspoon’s family said in a statement issued on October 29. “He is survived by his wife Angela, and his sons JD, Alexander, and a large family. We are all in shock, please give us a minute for a moment in privacy and we will celebrate his life and his work together. John used to say ‘I’m no big deal’, but he was huge deal to us.”

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At 77, he was still in performing stand up to packed out shows around the country, which Witherspoon attributed to the hilarious and memorable roles he played on the silver screen.

Witherspoon was known for the grumpy, gauche, and ‘embarrassing Dad’ characters he portrayed in 1990’s House Party (“Shut up all that damn noise, this ain’t Soul Train!… Who else is over there, Public Enema?!”) or in the meme-worthy ‘Bang bang bang bang bang!’ scene from 1992’s “Boomerang.” Like many of his scene-stealing performances, these catch phrases were clever Witherspoon ad-libs. 

Born in 1942, John Witherspoon grew up in Detroit as one of eleven children.

In the early 1970s, Witherspoon started doing stand-up in New York City clubs, and selling knives by day. By 1974, was a regular at LA’s Comedy Store, where he emceed shows and performed alongside comedians like Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, and David Letterman. 

Beginning with his film debut in 1980’s “The Jazz Singer,” Witherspoon went on to appear in movies including  “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987), “Vampire in Brooklyn” (1995) and the sleeper hit “Friday” (1995). In recent years, Witherspoon tacked on a personal YouTube project titled Cookin’ for Poor People” featuring pigtails and chicken feet recipes with a generous helping of irreverent punchlines. 

The family shared news of Witherspoon’s passing on social media, triggering an outpouring of condolences and heartfelt tributes from longtime friends, fans, and industry peers including Ice-Cube, Regina King, Marlon Wayans and Aaron McGruder:

A post from his eldest son, J.D. Witherspoon read, in part: 

“I’m sad, but I’m also happy 4 all the great times we had together. We’d roast each other like homies more than Father & Son, and I really liked that. He was my best friend & my idol.”

Humble, and hustling until the end, John Witherspoon was also beloved ‘Pops’ to a generation of fans, which is perhaps his greatest legacy.

A funeral and celebration of life will be held in Los Angeles on November 5.

Cassandra Etienne is a freelance reporter and video journalist based in New Jersey. Her multimedia and documentary projects reflect an interest in cultural reporting, and in covering social issues such as civil rights, women's health, and education and healthcare reforms.