Barry Shabaka Henley as Uncle Tunde and Billy Gardell as Bob in Bob Hearts Abishola.
Christine Ebersole as Dottie, Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Ebunoluwa, Shola Adewusi as Auntie Olu, Barry Shabaka Henley as Uncle Tunde, Billy Gardell as Bob, and Folake Olowofoyeku as Abishola on Bob Hearts Abishola.
Barry Shabaka Henley as Uncle Tunde and Billy Gardell as Bob in Bob Hearts Abishola.
Spoiler alert: on the CBS comedy Bob Hearts Abishola, Bob (Billy Gardell) — a Detroit businessman — loves Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku) — a Nigeria-born nurse he falls for when she cares for him during his recovery from a heart attack.
And she loves him, of course.
But Bob would never have had a shot with Abishola had he not first earned the trust of her Uncle Tunde — the family patriarch played with officious charm by Barry Shabaka Henley.
"The elders run the game," says Gardell — who, like Henley, has learned volumes about Nigerian culture from the show's co-creator (and costar), Gina Yashere, and the other members of the cast and creative team with Nigerian roots. "The fact that [Tunde] became Team Bob is the reason Bob was allowed to pursue the affections of Abishola. And he was on Team Bob from the beginning."
Listening to them in conversation, it's safe to say that, off-camera, Henley is Team Billy and Gardell is Team Barry. Although they did not know one another before the show brought them together, the two men became fast friends through a shared love of jazz and a mutual respect for their respective bodies of work.
Henley has more than 100 film and television credits, including several features with director Michael Mann, and Gardell, after decades of road work as a stand-up comic and dozens of TV guest spots, became a star opposite Melissa McCarthy in the CBS comedy Mike & Molly — co-created, like Bob Hearts Abishola, by writer-producer Chuck Lorre.
For a window into their worlds, Emmys.com editor Juan Morales brought the two buddies together for a conversation about friendship, family, the power of love and Henley's recent pivot to producing with the acclaimed documentary 100 Years from Mississippi, now available for rental on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and Vimeo on Demand.
How did the two of you meet, and how has Bob Hearts Abishola brought you closer together?
Billy Gardell: First of all, I love this man. And I have grown to love him more every day. Working with him is a bonus. But I had never met him before Bob Hearts Abishola. So, his body of work walked in the door far before he did.
I made a list last night. These are some of the leading men that Barry Shabaka Henley has worked with: Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Russell Crowe, John Goodman, Warren Beatty. And that doesn't scratch the surface. And now he wants to work with me. So, yeah, I felt a little pressure when the man came in.
But there was such an immediate connection, and such a fast friendship was forged. The thing I love about him — and I knew when we first started working together — is he's just open. And there's a trust. When you have that in an acting partner, it's so much fun. Then it's about the art.
One of our bonding points was that we both love jazz. And we had a mutual friend in Keb' Mo'. And we've both been known to steal some soup from the set when they make it.
Barry Shabaka Henley: It gets called appropriation. [Laughter]
Both of you tend to play Everyman characters. Is that something that connects your careers?
Henley: I'm not sure if it connects our careers. But to me, there are a few actors who bring a kind of truth that is unvarnished. Billy's one of those actors — he examines, and he brings truth. An old acting teacher of mine who's long since passed said the only thing you have to do as an actor is arrive at the truth. It doesn't matter how you get there.
How does that apply to Bob Hearts Abishola and the story of an American family embracing a Nigerian immigrant family?
Gardell: Bob looks at people like you're either a bad person or you're a decent person — because there are no perfect people. And he gravitates to the decent.
He's also fearless in what he wants. When he falls for Abishola, there may have been a little bit of a [Florence] Nightingale effect: he was on the brink of death, and he wakes up, and there's this beautiful Nigerian nurse. But there's something else about her, a strength that really charms him.
But he quickly learns that in the Nigerian culture, the patriarchs, the elders of the family, call the shots. And that's for marriage all the way down to what kind of coffee you're going to buy. The elders run the game.
I found it both romantic and humbling that Bob's unafraid to approach that because this woman has struck him so much, and he's willing to do whatever he needs to do to ingratiate himself to this family. And his relationship with Tunde at the beginning of the show is what allows this show to work because he wins Tunde over. And the only way he could win Tunde over is by what Barry was talking about — truth, honesty.
Barry, you're an American playing a Nigerian elder. How did you approach that in terms of truth and authenticity?
Henley: Years ago, when my son was born, I did my genealogical chart. My father's side of the family is where all the European blood in my clan comes from — an Englishman by the name of Henley, who was my great grandfather. But on my mother's side of the family, the African blood is very strong. It was traced back to northern Nigeria, the Hausa tribe. So, I am ancestrally a Nigerian.
Barry, what have you learned about the Black immigrant experience compared to your experience growing up in the United States?
Henley: Well, it's changed. I lived in Louisiana the first few years of my life — I was 10 years old before the Civil Rights bill was passed. So up until that point, I lived under complete segregation in New Orleans.
And at that time in the early '60s, in a segregated setting, if you came into a restaurant and you were from Nigeria or someplace like that, there's a strong chance that you would be admitted into the restaurant because you were not an American Black. You were considered a foreigner.
It's like my grandfather telling me about, when he was in the army, guarding Nazi prisoners of war, they could go into restaurants that he couldn't even go into. Back in that time, Africans from many countries had access that Black Americans didn't have. That's changed now.
The majority of Nigerians who live in the United States are accomplished people — professors, doctors, lawyers. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, lives in the States. So, for me, I always saw Africans, and particularly Nigerians, as accomplished people.
I think it was as much about class as it was race back in the day. But I think all immigrants have a tough time, and Black immigrants probably a little tougher. But against all odds, there are still people not only surviving but thriving.
But getting into Nigerian culture from doing Bob Hearts Abishola and learning from the amazing minds on the show, you see the intricate balance between being who you are and being an American. And for me, the show has shown a positive assimilation. These accomplished people from Nigeria come to the United States, and they become Americans, but they still hold on to their culture, whether it's through their food or the gatherings they have or their families.
Gardell: I would not dare to say I understand the Black immigrant experience. But Chuck Lorre said something at the beginning of this journey that was great: "Immigrants make America great. We've all been immigrants. If you go back far enough, we're all immigrants."
There are certain folks out there nowadays that have kind of turned the word "immigrant" into a bad word. And what makes me so proud of our show is that it shows the immigrant story that is more the norm — the people who came here, gave up everything to come here, and now are not only headed toward or living the American dream but honestly believe in it more than some of the people who live here. To me, that's a powerful, touching thing. And it's a representation that should be seen.
I just find that the more you're around different people and the more you're around different cultures, you realize that we all want the same thing. We want food. We want shelter. We want a way to take care of our families. That's the most noble fight there is, as far as I'm concerned.
Family is at the core of your show, with the merging of two families from different cultures finding common ground.
Gardell: That's another beautiful thing that our show points out without being preachy: it doesn't matter if you marry someone from Mars; when you marry someone from Mars, you're going to get a cool uncle; you're going to get a crazy sister; you're going to get a drunk brother.
I think showing that humanizes us. It makes us realize that we all come from crazy families. And when you marry someone, you marry their whole family. And you have to navigate that. It doesn't matter what it looks like. When you say, "I do," you say "I do" to that family, as well.
Barry, family is also an important part of the documentary you recently produced, 100 Years from Mississippi, about an amazing woman named Mamie Lang Kirkland. How did that come about?
Henley: Mamie's son, Tarabu, is like a brother to me. She lived in Buffalo, New York, and she would come out every Christmas and stay until May. We all became close to her, and she would tell us amazing things about her life. Everyone called her Mom, and I used to say to Tarabu, "You've got to get Mom's story."
Finally, about six years ago, he decided, "Okay, let's try to put something together for Mom." He started doing interviews, hundreds of interviews. But we kept thinking that [Mamie] was really the most interesting part of the film. So, we refocused it on her.
The reason I got involved is simply that I've never met a person like her who was endowed with so much of the power of forgiveness. She was a person who didn't have a malicious or vengeful bone in her body. And she healed the hurt that had followed her through her life in a way that I've rarely seen.
I thought, Black History Month is coming, and a lot of different things are going to be happening, and a lot of different human beings from history will be highlighted. But this is a person who lived 111 years of Black history. She accomplished so much by just being alive for all that time.
The film in many ways turns out to be a testament to her and her power of forgiveness. But it's also the history of the 20th century in America. And she has lived every aspect of that, from being chased out of her home as a seven-year-old because they were going to lynch her father and his best friend, and then leaving the South and going to St. Louis. Red Summer happened while she was in St. Louis. We call it a riot. But in reality, it was a pogrom.
So, the dark racial history of this country followed her everywhere, up to the North. And she incorporated all that hurt and pain into a healing that became this magnified love.
Through telling her story, she tells all our story — and not just the story of Black people in America but the story of this country and a story of humanity. This little four-foot-ten-inch Black woman was a powerhouse who represented the best of what we have to offer in this country and survived the worst.
Gardell: Barry was kind enough to let me come to a screening, and it is a beautiful film about a beautiful person. It confounds me and confuses me and amazes me how someone who dealt with so much hatred against her for no reason other than the color of her skin turns into this person who, as the film goes on, you can't believe it's real that someone can hold on to love and inspire others through all of that. It's an unbreakable love. It's hard to put into words. You have to watch it because you see how powerful this tiny woman is and how she inspires everyone she runs into.
Bob Hearts Abishola was recently renewed for a fourth season. Where do you go from here?
Gardell: For one thing, I get to hang out with this dude and a wonderful, beautiful cast. We have great writers. Look, the secret sauce is love. And when you feel that, it's hard to turn away from it, you know?
Henley: I'm grateful. Grateful for where I am in life, grateful for my brother Billy Gardell and the amazing people we work with on the show. As we were saying earlier, love is the answer, and it's the motivating factor. It's even in our title: Bob Loves Abishola.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
More articles celebrating Black History Month.