One Final Conversation With Reg E CatheyPosted by Nasser Metcalfe
February 11, 2018
On February 9, 2018 beloved veteran actor Reg E Cathey tragically lost his battle with lung cancer. People around the world who loved and admired him and his work mourned the loss. As fate would have it Mr. Cathey sat down with blackfilm.com’s own Nasser Metcalfe for an exclusive one on one interview just weeks before his unfortunate passing. He was courageously open and up front about all things including his life’s journey and what his illness has taught him. This article was near completion at the time of his passing so it will refer to him in present tense as he was still alive at the time it was written. The full article can be read here. Although he will always live in our hearts and minds, here is the last interview from a life well lived with a treasure of a man, Reginald Eugene Cathey. Rest Well King.
“There are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
On a crisp, sunny late January afternoon in his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, Reg E Cathey sits in a large cushy leather chair, dressed comfortably in a pair of stylish nylon sweatpants and a brown wool sweater. His activity is minimal and his voice now softer and more coarse than normal. Weight loss has transformed his physical appearance yet his sense of humor is as sharp as ever. Thin, bespectacled and bald he jokingly states “I’m looking like Ghandi now.” His brilliant mind seems to be more alive than ever with thoughts, opinions, memories and introspective reflection. “One of the more astounding things that I’ve come to know in this journey,” he offers, “I never had any idea how many people held me in such high regard. It’s just touching. It’s touching.”
It was only a few short months ago in late 2017 that Cathey’s life was drastically different from what it is today. After decades of grinding it out as a struggling actor in New York City, he was finally enjoying the fruits of his labor as his career was now in full bloom. With an Emmy win in 2015 for his stellar work on House Of Cards, numerous impressive film, television and theatrical credits under his belt with more offers to choose from, he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
Reg E Cathey initiates the proceedings by speaking into the device with his own disclaimer, ”I have to excuse my voice right off the bat. I’m suffering from cancer and I can’t project like normal. But I’ll do my best.”
Reginald Eugene Cathey was born August 18,1958 in Huntsville, Alabama. His mother, Eva a librarian at Alabama A&M University and his father Reginald, known affectionately as Red, was a celebrated officer in the United States Army who served in World War II as well as the Korean War and Vietnam.
“I knew I was going to be an actor since I was 14.” Cathey explains. “There was an acting teacher that once said ‘If you have to ask should I? You shouldn’t. If you have to ask ‘Should I be an actor?’ Then you shouldn’t.”
Upon graduating High School, he had been enrolled at the University Of Michigan and one spring break, Cathey and his roommate, David Alan Grier headed to New York City to enjoy some theatre and get a look at what the professional circuit looked like. Eventually they ran out of money and somehow ended up crashing on legendary Punk Rocker Joey Ramone’s couch. Another of his classmates was a local girl from Pontiac, Michigan named Madonna Ciccone whom he starred in a production of West Side Story with. After Michigan, Cathey went to the Yale School of Drama where his classmates included Charles S Dutton, Angela Bassett and Roger Guenveur Smith.
Getting noticed and starting the momentum of a promising career should be a foregone conclusion, right? “I didn’t work for three years,” he shares. “It was hard. I lived in one room in Harlem and shared the bathroom with everyone else on the hall. I had a little kitchen.”
When asked to reflect on how he coped with his, the reflection is coupled with some words of advice for any actor, “How I got through them, you won’t go through it that way. You’re going to go through your lean times the way your spirit wants you to go through your lean times. This is going to sound crazy but you’re going to have to go on your own vision quest. You’re going to have to go into your own journey into self to find out how to deal with what you call the lean times. Because it’s going to hit you and you’re going to have to deal with it. Maybe it already has. Maybe you’ve dealt with it.”
By the mid nineties Cathey had started to hit a bit of a professional stride with supporting roles in hit films like The Mask, Tank Girl, Seven and Air Heads amongst numerous others. Reg bid farewell to his beloved NYC and headed west for the bright lights of Hollywood. However once again, God had another plan in store for him. His description of his years in Los Angeles is anything but glamorous, “LA is where I lost my confidence. LA was a crisis of confidence for me. I was out in LA, really struggling. I couldn’t seem to get anything going. I had a little string where I had been working [back east] but then I didn’t work for two years. Nada. I worked one day in two years.” Consistent rejection was not part of that plan. It broke his spirit and Cathey was ready to throw in the towel.
“All my savings was gone. I started doing my day job again which was telephone sales. And I hadn’t done that since I was in New York and I hadn’t done that for 12 years since in New York. I was ready to go back to Alabama A&M and teach history with my father. My dad still worked at Alabama A&M. He retired [from the military] there. So where my childhood started would have come full circle. I was going to quit and people called me from New York and said ‘What are you fucking kidding?’ Come back to New York, I’ll hire you.’ Julie Taymor said ‘I’ll hire you. It won’t be for a while but I’ll hire you.’ They wouldn’t let me quit and it was a beautiful.” Like The Beatles song, Cathey got by with a little help from his friends. He returned to New York with a renewed sense of purpose yet still held on to some lingering questions of his worthiness as result of his experiences in Los Angeles.
“For the next three years I did nothing but stage, theatre, classical theatre and voice overs. Then Charles Dutton called me up to do The Corner. At first I refused. I said I don’t do that anymore. And he said ‘Yeah man. So we are going to do this thing and you’re going to play this part.’ And I was like ‘Nah man. I don’t do that.’ And he was like ‘Man you crazy? You’re going to come down here, you’re going to do this mini series and you’re going to make some money. Stop being an idiot.’ So I went down and I did The Corner. And Tom Fontana called me up to do [HBO’s] Oz. Then I did The Wire and I started doing television again. It’s funny how things will bring you back around.”
By 2006 Reg E Cathey joined the cast of HBOs The Wire as Norman Wilson, a shrewd and calculating campaign manager for an underdog mayoral candidate in Baltimore. By 2013 he joined the cast of Netflix’s House Of Cards as the avuncular Freddy Hayes, proprietor of a modest DC neighborhood Bar B Que pit where high powered Washington insiders surreptitiously conducted high powered business. It would be this role that would come to mark his pinnacle of achievement for all of the years of consistent hard work, sacrifice and struggle.
It is the 2015 Emmy Awards, and Cathey wins for the Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama Series category for his work in House of Cards. When he gets to the stage, Cathey leans into the microphone, “Thank you. I’m thrilled” he states, turns and exits the stage. He explains why he chose to accept his award in such a manner, “The reason I did the short speech was for one I wasn’t expecting to win. I didn’t have anything prepared. Two, I’m a babbler as you can see. I will babble and I wasn’t going to babble on national TV. Three, I’m a weeper. I cry really easily and I was not going to cry over winning a damn award. You know my country, strict, military rearing reared up. There are things one does not do. One does not cry in front of a bunch of white people. One does not babble. Unless you have something to say, don’t speak. Unless you’re itching, don’t scratch. There’s certain things you don’t do in front of the white people. And [you simply say] ‘Thank you. I’m thrilled.’ No one else was going to say that so I got to be the unique brother.”
He would continue to work consistently on numerous quality projects for the next two years until that fateful fall afternoon when a trip to the doctors office set him on a completely different course. Yet sometimes angels need other angels. His rock along this journey has undoubtedly been his partner of the last three and a half years, Linda Powell. An accomplished actress of stage and screen in her own right, Powell and Reginald seem to share a sublime connection that only the two of them truly understand. Perhaps it is the commonalities. They both practice the same craft. They both have highly decorated career Military fathers. She is the daughter of former Secretary of State, Chairman of The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Security Advisor Colin Powell.
Describing what Linda Powell has meant to him, Reginald Cathey displays a tenderness seemingly reserved for just her, “I’ve learned so much in the last month and a half. It’s indescribable how she saved me. It’s indescribable. She saved me, period. I’m dying and she saved me. I say I’m dying. I should stop. But I’m dealing with life and death. It’s something that you just can’t brush off. Dying is when God looks at you and says ‘Deal with me. Look at me. Deal.’ Wow. It said to me ‘Deal with me.’ Everything hits you like that.” Yet, he is still truly amazed at how miraculously selfless Linda has been throughout this ordeal. “When I was first diagnosed, we were at the doctor’s office. She said ‘Well I guess it’s clear, you’re coming home with me.’ We didn’t live together. We were happy. We were young to middle aged, Black and happy with our careers. Happy to be single and living by ourselves. We were happy and she said, ‘Well it’s clear you’re coming home with me.’ And it was and I did and I haven’t been home since. Then I said, ‘You can’t be [a full time caregiver]’ And she said ‘Hold up. You don’t get to tell me where I get to love. You don’t get to navigate someone’s course of how they love. Shut up and get in this cab. I’m taking care of you.’ That’s one thing that this has taught me. It’s taught me about the friendships [I’ve had]. I had no idea I affected so many people. So many people are coming by to say hello, to say ‘Fuck You’, you know to tease me one last time maybe. Hopefully not. Again, it’s mind blowing.”
Also Cathey is now applying his dramatic acumen in a different yet familiar manner. He is now a budding playwright. As Linda Powell prepares to head out of the apartment to start her day, she welcomes in Reg’s long time friend actor, director and writer Clark Johnson to look after him while she’s gone. Although he and Cathey were castmates on The Wire as Johnson portrayed newspaper man Gus Haynes in the 5th season, he and Cathey have known each other for over 20 years. Currently they are collaborating on writing a play together which Johnson patiently awaits our interview to conclude so they can begin a writing session.
When speaking of his friend Reg, Johnson says, “I’ve known Reg for twenty years. He is so knowledgeable about so many things that it takes me a minute to catch up. From Greek Mythology to British Soccer to what’s happening down the block, he’s got an interesting take on it or some great knowledge on it. That’s why we’re writing this play because Greek Mythology is his thing. The brother never ceases to surprise and amaze me. That’s why I come around here.”
Regardless of his dire condition health wise, Cathey continues to live a rich creative life on his own terms, refusing to let his diseases disrupt that. When asked his thoughts on what type of legacy he hoped to leave Cathey considers the prospect but has no real definitive answer because he chooses to remain in the present, “Well just to be remembered is one thing. Who remembers Canada Lee? A lot of young black actors don’t know him or Rex Ingram. It’s hard to talk about stuff like that. It’s hard to think about. I’m still in it. If I’m still living next year you come by and talk to me. I’ll have something different to say.” He further laments, “I don’t know yet. I’m still in it. Too soon. I’m still [doing the] rope a dope,” He does light punching gesture to make his point. “I haven’t brought my right out yet,” as he punches the air with his right hand. Reginald Cathey looks at me, cracks a smile and nods in agreement, “I hope I get it brother.” We do too, good sir. We do too.
Nasser Metcalfe is an actor, writer and producer living in New York city.