Photo by Frederick Johnson
“If you do memorable work you will be remembered beyond your time.”
Leon’s path changed before he realized it. In a way, film and theater served as a way for Leon to live out his ambitions and dreams. He grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, a suburb outside of The Bronx. His all-boys Catholic school, Mount Saint Michael Academy, was mostly Italian and Irish. When his sister’s high school put on a rock and roll revival, Leon convinced his school to put on their own version. He played Chubby Checker and one of his friends played Elvis Presley. Leon choreographed the entire production. It was a hit. Upon further reflection, Leon recalls the times he snuck into the Wakefield Theater, where they showed Elvis Presley films. Elvis became the catalyst for Leon’s acting ambitions. “He sings. He acts. He kisses pretty women,” Leon jokes. “I thought, ‘I could do that.’”
Photo by Ogata
Growing up, Leon’s dad placed no limits on his son’s dreams. “My dad pushed me to be the best I could be,” Leon says. “I remember him telling me, ‘Son, don’t worry about it. Just do your best. The cream will always rise to the top.’” His father didn’t know his son would become an actor, but his advice has helped Leon deal with the uphill battle that comes with being a working actor. “In this business, ‘no’ is something you hear 9 out of 10 times and that’s only if you are very successful,” he explains. “So you have to have a lot of faith in yourself. You have to believe in yourself for other people to believe in you.”
In the early years of Leon’s career, his first agent, Miriam Baum, from Artists First and the agency’s attorney sat him down to give him a serious chat about the industry. “He said there are thousands of actors across thousands of sound stages,” Leon recalls. “When you are on screen it doesn’t say $40,000 or $100,000 or $4 million on your forehead. All they will remember is your role and the story you told. If you do memorable work you will be remembered beyond your time.”
“You have to believe in yourself for other people to believe in you.”
His agent’s advice turned out to be true. Role after role, people noticed Leon’s charisma and artistry on screen, even some of Hollywood’s greats. Leon recalls the time he met Sidney Poitier at the California African American Museum (CAAM). Before Leon could introduce himself, Poitier referred to him by name. ‘‘I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you knew who I was,’” Leon recalls. “Mr. Poitier said, ‘You are a very good actor. You played my friend Little Richard and I loved it.’” This was coming from a man who Leon looked up to as an actor. Poitier’s appreciation for Leon’s acting reminded Leon of the importance and value of his work.
Photo by Frederick Johnson
Leon’s roles in Cool Runnings, Above the Rim, The Five Heartbeats, and The Temptations have made him an icon. However, Leon is hesitant to use “icon” to describe himself. “When words like that are used around me, I am very flattered because I don’t see myself to be one,” he says. He references the sleeper hit Five Heartbeats. It was a commercial failure due to a lack of marketing but became a success on home video over the years, especially in African-American households. “You have to realize as much as the Five Heartbeats has become instilled and ingrained in our people as our movie that we like to watch at family reunions and holidays, it was still not a broad success in white America. If a white girl saw the Five Heartbeats, it was because she went out with a brother; not like she saw it on her own,” he laughs.
“If you can tell the story without my character then I am usually not interested.”
In his latest film – A Day to Die – Leon plays the villain Tyrone Pettis. It is in this role that Leon shines as a multi-layered character with a redemption arc. Leon was initially drawn to the role because of its relationship to the plot of the film. “At some point in this movie, it is everyone against me,” Leon explains. “And realistically, if I am not on screen in this movie, they are talking about me. The actor in you always wants to play these kinds of roles. You want to be the character that flips the plot on its head.” Leon picks roles based on their importance to the film’s plot and not necessarily for its size. “If you can tell the story without my character, then I am usually not interested,” he says affirmably.
A Day to Die is Leon’s first time working with director and writer Wes Miller. He appreciated Wes’ openness to listening to his actors. “When you have a director who listens to you, then you feel free to be in your character and know that he is going to allow you to do things scripted or unscripted,” Leon says. “Wes knows what he wants to do on screen, but he isn’t close-minded.”
In his latest film – A Day to Die – Leon plays the villain Tyrone Pettis.
Leon is an extremely versatile and talented entertainer even beyond the big screen. He is the lead singer of his band Leon & The Peoples. Just before COVID, they released their sophomore album, Love Is A Beautiful Thing, with two top 20 singles on Billboard’s Hot Singles chart. His band couldn’t tour due to COVID restrictions. Accordingly, he is planning some dates for a tour, which he hopes will bring more positivity to the world. He also has several undisclosed producing and acting projects on his plate.“My belly is full, but I’m hungry,” Leon says smiling.
As an actor’s actor, Leon cautions young people who want to be serious actors to refrain from getting involved in the fickleness of social media. “You can have five minutes of fame on social media,” he comments. “But five minutes is not a long career.” He gives two pieces of advice: apply yourself to stand out from the competition and figure out what you have to offer the industry. “What you have to offer this business is your unique self,” Leon says. “If you do not understand what you bring to the table then you do not have anything to offer.” This is essentially Leon’s blueprint to success.
Photo by Ogata
“You may know a better actor, a better singer, or even a better person than me,” he says. “But there is no better Leon because I give you uniquely me.”