A Tribute to Tim Reid: Venus Flytrap and more.
Timothy Lee Reid was born on December 14th , 1944. He’s 75 now and has become one of the greatest(and most underrated)African American actors in the business. He’s also a film director whose directed films like Once Upon a Time… When we were colored based on the Clifton L. Taulbert novel of the same name as well the 1980's children’s program Bobobobs.
But Tim is a man of many talents and is a household name for many iconic television roles including Detective Marcel “Downtown” Brown in classic 80’s detective series Simon and Simon, Steven Hyde’s black father William Barnett from the hit Fox show That 70’s Show and as Frank Parish of Frank’s Place, the short lived CBS comedy\drama about a former Brown University professor who inherits a restaurant in Louisiana. The series received quite a few awards: Creator Hugh Wilson who also developed WKRP in Cincinnati and Tim won the Television Critics Association Award for outstanding achievement in comedy in 1988 and the series was nominated and won a few Emmys and NAACP awards. Reid was even nominated for a Primetime Emmy for outstanding actor in a comedy series.
But there were two specific television roles in particular that stand out the best and for me showed why Tim Reid is such a legend in his own right:
- Venus Flytrap, WKRP in Cincinnati:
The smooth, sharply dressed, perfect Afro wearing, lady killing evening and early night time DJ at WKRP radio station in Cincinnati(who also became the assistant program director later in the series) was a signature role at the time for a black male actor on television in the 1970’s. He was one of the few black leads featured on a prime time television show at the time along with Ron Glass’s Detective Ron Harris of Barney Miller fame and Robert Gulliame’s Benson Dubois from Soap and Benson.
Reid has said of the character:
“My character is one of very few in television today. It’s not just regression, it’s a push backward….My character has had some growing pains. My character went against the network’s set pattern for a black character.” He elaborates that Venus Flytrap “started out as a subordinate character, but he’s grown with each episode….I’m a follower of Taoism and I’ve been able to work some of that into my character. He’s relaxed, and sometimes you’ll see the yin-yang (opposites that create all) symbol in the background. The character is being seen, but most people still seem to have a problem venturing into what a black person is really like. It would be interesting to go into that character’s home.”
Venus Flytrap (WKRP in Cincinnati)
Venus Flytrap is a character on the television situation comedy WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82), played by Tim Reid. He is…
Many fantastic episodes of WKRP featured Venus front and center including “Who is Gordon Sims?” Which was the first real backstory episode of Venus about how he essentially deserted the Vietnam war after a traumatic experience and his past catching up with him when he is forced to turn himself into the military officials.
In the episode “Changes,” when Venus learns that he is going to be interviewed by a reporter from a militant black magazine, he fears that the article will expose the fact that “All I know [about black culture] is what I see on The Jeffersons.” He tries to fool the interviewer by adopting what he thinks of as a more typically African-American wardrobe and way of speaking. To his surprise, the reporter (Reid’s former standup comedy partner Tom Dreesen) turns out to be white: the only white employee at an otherwise all-black magazine. Before the interview starts, the reporter explains his situation, which parallels Venus’s exactly, and pours out his feelings and, by extension, Venus’s: he cares for the people he works with, but he feels a little uncomfortable at being the odd man out. The reporter laments that there are two gorgeous women co-workers, but because they are black and he is white, he doesn’t feel he could ever ask them out; Venus does his best to look nonchalant at the humorous inversion of his own situation.
In the episode “A Family Affair,” whose script is credited to Tim Reid. The episode touches on the relationship between Venus and Andy: they are friends who like to assume that they have “put all that black-white junk behind us,” but when Venus goes out with Andy’s sister Carol, Andy gets angry without fully being able to explain why. In the end, Andy has to grudgingly admit over drinks that there was a racial motivation to the way he reacted, and goes overboard trying to prove that he does not, in fact, object to Venus dating his sister, forcing the two of them to dance together at the bar just so he can show that he doesn’t have a problem with it. Andy and Venus finally patch up their differences by teaming up to punch out an unapologetic racist objecting to Carol and Venus dancing.
A very popular episode focusing on Venus is “Venus and the Man” (originally called “Venus Flytrap Explains the Atom”), an episode written by series creator and showrunner Hugh Wilson. In it, Cora Isley, the station’s cleaning woman, tells Venus that her son Arnold (Keny Long) is planning to drop out of high school, and Venus offers to talk to the boy.
Arnold comes to the station to see Venus, and turns out to be the huge, muscular leader of a street gang. Venus has to figure out how to make him believe that education is worthwhile when Arnold is already making more money than he could at any “respectable” job. He explains to Arnold that everything in life is a matter of either “survival” or “conquest,” and that Arnold, who is mostly interested in conquest, hates school because it has “conquered” him. Arnold admits that he hates the feeling of being weak and powerless that he gets when he can’t understand something in school, but Venus offers to prove to him that it doesn’t have to be that way: he bets that he can teach Arnold the basics of the atom in two minutes, and Arnold agrees to go back to school and finish out the year if he can.
In a memorable sequence, Venus explains the structure of the atom by pretending that the protons, neutrons and electrons are rival gangs competing for control of a neighborhood that consists of “block after block of nothing.” Before Arnold realizes it, he is able to recite all the features of an atom. He then admits that it feels good to know something most other people don’t, and Venus explains that the learning is itself a form of conquest. Arnold keeps his part of the bargain and goes back to school, but Venus warns Cora that the odds are against Arnold continuing in school after the year is out. The episode is also a moment of triumph for Venus, who proves himself as a teacher (a profession he failed at earlier) and earns the respect of a boy who had accused him of “sounding white” on the air.
Venus Fly Trap was the role of a lifetime for Reid and the importance of that representation of an intelligent and successful yet hip, smooth and all black was of key importance to the representation of black male characters on television. This was all just a long winded way of saying: Venus is DA MAN!
2. Ray Campbell, Sister, Sister:
Tim may have been Venus in the 1970’s but in the 1990’s he was well known as Ray Campbell, Tamara’s adoptive father and Tia’s surrogate dad in the classic family sitcom Sister, Sister. The series starred Tia and Tamara Mowry as twin sister separated at birth and adopted separately by the stylish, fun loving and no nonsense Lisa Landry played by the iconic Jackee Harry and Tim Reid’s Ray Campbell. When the girls finally meet fourteen years later they become inseparable and Tia and Lisa move in with Tamara and Ray and they all become one big crazy but happy family.
The character of Ray Campbell was a widower who adopted Tamara as an infant. Ray was uptight, highly educated, conservative, cultured and somewhat geeky but was also a very successful businessman who owned his own Limo service “Ray’s Limos”. This was a character far from Venus Flytrap which was the perfect role for Reid who definitely couldn’t say he was type cast due to the complete opposite natures of the two roles.
Many talk about the greatest sitcom dads. Among the top of the lists usually are James Evans Sr. from Good Times played by John Amos, Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air played by James Avery, Officer Carl Winslow from Family Matters played by Reginald Vel Johnson, Dan Conner played by John Goodman from Roseanne and Al Bundy from Married with Children played by Ed O’Neill. But I feel that overlooking Ray Campbell is a doing a major disservice. What Ray Campbell represents as a adoptive father and certainly as a surrogate is of crucial value because it’s one thing to love, raise and guide your own flesh and blood but it takes an amazing individual man to be a father to a child whose not his by birth let alone one who he didn’t even officially adopt. Ray was as loving and devoted as he was tough and strict with rules which was a perfect balance and what a wild child like Tamara needed and a more structured young lady like Tia wanted.
Ray Campbell along with Floyd Henderson played by John Marshall Jones in Smart Guy, Frank Mitchell played by William Allen Young from Moesha, Flex Washington played by Flex Alexander, Robert James played by Duane Martin from All of Us and Julius Rock played by Terry Crews from Everybody Hates Chris are the often overlooked sitcom dads but certainly are among some of the best representation of black fatherhood in television history.
But there’s more to Tim than just Venus or Ray, he’s also he founder and president of Legacy Media Institute, a non-profit organization “dedicated to bringing together leading professionals in the film and television industry, outstanding actors, and young men and women who wish to pursue a career in the entertainment media”. On July 2011 he was named to the board of directors of the American Civil War Center at Tredegar Iron Works. On May 10, 2014, he received a VCU honorary doctorate for his many outstanding and distinguished contributions. He delivered a commencement speech during the ceremony. During the 1980s and 1990s Reid served on the advisory board of the National Student Film Institute. He’s also been married to actress Daphne Maxwell Reid since 1982. She’s appeared in all three of his shows: WKRP, Frank’s Place and Sister, Sister, and the two are still going strong today.
I’m not one for corny tributes but this brother is someone very special and worth doing one for. Tim Reid has contributed a lot to the entertainment industry as well as contributed a good amount to the representation of African American community as well as provided quality entertainment for the community. Tim may not get enough of the credit but, hey, the true heroes do what they do in the shadows without the Thank yous because the work speaks for itself.