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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Black Hall of Fame 2018 inductee Brent Jennings (left) chats with fellow actor Wyatt Russell during a scene from the AMC series Lodge 49. Although he has a long list of feature film and television credits, Jennings’ roots are in the stage. “I was a theater rat” when living in New York during his younger years, he says.

The feature films and TV shows in which Brent Jennings has starred run the gamut: Brubaker, Witness, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Children of the Corn 4, Life, Moneyball and TV shows such as Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, American Gothic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER and Medium.

Which speaks -- firmly -- to the sheer versatility of this classic character actor.

"It really is about the part more so than the genre with me," Jennings says.

He doesn't even like horror movies, but, he points out, he made two of them.

"Sometimes you just want to put food on the table," he says. "But I like things that are more character-driven opposed to big-action stuff. I like stories that are really more about people and people trying to live their lives ... What it means to be a human being and the struggle that we face as human beings."

Jennings' latest acting gig fits right in with that. He co-stars in AMC's Lodge 49, which premiered Aug. 6. Written and created by author Jim Gavin and executive produced by Paul Giamatti and Peter Ocko, Lodge 49 is "about a disarmingly optimistic local ex-surfer, Dud (Wyatt Russell), who's drifting after the death of his father and collapse of the family business," according to its press materials. Jennings plays Ernie, a plumbing sales representative who serves as "Luminous Knight" of the seen-better-days fraternal lodge in Long Beach, Calif., on whose doorstep Dud lands. Ernie takes Dud under his wing.

But it's for his entire, four-decade career that Jennings, 67, will be inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame during its 26th annual Ceremony and Show. Taking place Saturday in the Robinson Center Performance Hall in Little Rock, the black-tie gala honors people with Arkansas roots who have made names for themselves in their chosen fields on a national and/or international basis.

A VIP reception, at 5:30 p.m. in the grand ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel, will give ticket holders the opportunity to meet the inductees. The main event, at 7:30, will feature a performance from R&B recording legend and Little Rock native Lenny Williams.

Others to be inducted: Kevin Cole, painter, printmaker, sculptor and member of the celebrated AfriCOBRA artists collective; Lt. Gen. Aundre F. Piggee, military leader; Darrell Walker, college and NBA player and current head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Mary Louise Williams, educator, sorority leader and political leader; and the late Florence B. Price, symphonic composer.

Proceeds from the event will be used by the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Foundation to provide grants to organizations that help improve black and underserved communities in Arkansas.

A FAMILY HONOR

How did Jennings react when he found out about the Black Hall of Fame honor? "Well, I was quite, quite pleased," he says. "I'm almost getting emotional answering that question.

"I look at it as a representation of our family. And all the Jenningses that have gone before me. I come from them." It's about his father, Enlow Jennings, the son of a sharecropper who passed away in 1972 when Jennings was still in college. It's about his mother, Loretta Jennings, who just turned 100 and who he comes home every couple of months to visit at Briarwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. It's about his late brother James Jennings, a professor at Hendrix College in Conway and one of two siblings Jennings has lost.

"We've come up out of the dirt of Arkansas; we've come up out of the soil ... [gone through] the ups and downs of being there for years and years ... and somehow, we've all accomplished something that everyone can look at and take encouragement from."

Jennings found his love for his craft in Arkansas ... taking acting classes, discovering a love for theater and beginning his career here. He occasionally does workshops and classes at the Arkansas Arts Center and, being a 1969 graduate of Little Rock Central High School, says he plans to return next year for what will be his 50-year reunion. (The day after his induction, Jennings will be the Men's Day speaker at Cross Street Christian Church.)

Jennings' induction into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame puts him in an elite club that includes the Little Rock Nine, singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, the late Maya Angelou, William Grant Still and Ebony/Jet magazine publisher John H. Johnson.

"It's full circle in a lot of ways," Jennings says. "It's quite an honor to be honored in your home, and people in your home to say, 'Well done; we respect what you've done and what you've tried.'"

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

Among those roles he has taken on, what has been his most memorable? Right now, he cites his part in Lodge 49.

"It was a great opportunity artistically. It's just a great part and it's such a treat to get an opportunity like this at this stage in my career -- when, in my mind, everything is sort of winding down."

He praises Jim Gavin, the show's creator and executive producer. Gavin, he says, has a unique perspective on the ups and downs of life ... everyday people fighting to achieve their dreams, who keep getting knocked down but continue to get up and move forward. "There's no antagonist, no bad guy, no good guy necessarily," Jennings says. "Just people with their own idiosyncrasies."

Another memorable role for Jennings was that of kowtowing prison guard Hoppin' Bob in the 1999 Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence comedy-drama Life. "It's turned into a cult hit," with people having memorized the lines, he says. Other favorites include A Lesson Before Dying, a 1999 Emmy-winning TV production about a young man (Mekhi Phifer) in 1948 rural Louisiana who has been sentenced to death for a robbery and murder he didn't commit. "I play the town minister who's trying to make sure he's [Phifer's character] confessed his belief in Christ; Don Cheadle plays a teacher who's been brought in to give him dignity," Jennings says.

Witness, the 1985 feature film starring Harrison Ford, came "very early in my career," Jennings says. "I learned a lot on Witness and Brubaker."

Then there was The Serpent and the Rainbow, a 1988 horror film shot in Haiti. At the time, he was a bit scared of the role because of the movie's dark theme and the fact that his character, Louis Mozart, was a Vodou practitioner. But "that in itself made me also want to play [the part]," he says. "It's [one of those] parts that kind of stretch you in some way or push you in a direction that you're not comfortable with and you meet it head-on and have some success with it."

HAPPY WIFE, HAPPY LIFE

Jennings is also among that elite club of Hollywooders who can boast of a long, healthy marriage. His wife of 34 years, Juanita Mahone, is an actress (Moscow on the Hudson, Airwolf). She's working on three TV shows -- including Fox's Star and the forthcoming USA show Second City. Jennings credits their marital longevity to the fact that "we made a pact when we started that we would respect each other's [career]," he says. "We would support each other and not force each other to leave the business, for whatever reason. And we try to put God in our life first."

The couple's sons, Derek and Aaron, are also in show business: Aaron is an actor, Derek is a producer/writer. "They're at the point where they're starting their careers and paying their dues," Jennings says.

What advice would Jennings give to aspiring actors in Arkansas? "Study your craft and pay attention to that process of learning." And if you want to commit your life to your dream, do what you need to do, even if it means leaving the state.

One thing about show business -- "It chooses you; you don't choose it," Jennings says. "And if you feel it has chosen you, and you can't be happy unless you do it, do it. But if it hasn't, don't put yourself through changes and disappointments. ... Don't do it unless you can't live without it."

Hollywood character actor and Little Rock native Brent Jennings (left photo) will be inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame during its 26th annual Ceremony and Show, which takes place Saturday at the Robinson Center Performance Hall.

Style on 10/21/2018

Print Headline: Actor's new gig: Arkansas Black Hall of Famer

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