At 70, actor, lawyer, business and political consultant, playwright, teacher, fundraiser and former elected official Peter Lawson Jones can look back at an eventful and accomplished life.
Except that he wouldn’t dream of doing that.
“People keep saying to me, ‘Why don’t you slow down?’ You know what I respond? ‘You’ll know I’ve slowed down when you see my obituary,’” he says.
If Jones’s face looks familiar, it’s because he recently co-starred in “A Man Called Otto,’’ playing Reuben, longtime friend of Tom Hanks’s cranky widower, Otto. Their characters are tight as ticks until a misunderstanding breaks up the friendship. “A Man Called Otto” explores a host of life issues affecting young and old, including how people can change at any age. The movie has been hovering between No. 1 or No. 2 on Netflix in May.
Yet years later when it matters, Reuben, by now a stroke victim who’s lost his ability to speak and walk, communicates with Otto by the power of his magnetic eyes and a tug on his old friend’s sleeve.
“I’ll be honest with you, people often make more of the acting ability to express physicality with facial expressions, probably more than actors deserve. Truth is, I simply believe that all of us have natural gifts, it’s just a matter of identifying them and then enhancing them.’’
Jones said his long experience as a politician in Ohio, his home state where he still lives, helped enrich his character’s verisimilitude.
The political life
“My career as an elected official for 22 years placed me in all kinds of human situations involving all kinds of human conditions, including visiting many a nursing home. For instance, you can witness first-hand stroke victims with a limited ability to express themselves but you can also see how they respond to various stimuli. They’re like Reuben; there’s definitely somebody still inside there!’’
Jones served several terms in the Ohio House of Representatives, where he was the ranking member of the House Finance and Appropriations committee, and was second vice president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus.
He served on the Shaker Heights City Council from 1984-1991, for two of those years as vice mayor. Jones was also a member of the Board of Cuyahoga County Commissioners, serving as president for three years.
He came to public service with solid credentials for dealing with Ohio politics: He is a 1975 magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, with a major in government, and a graduate of Harvard Law School, class of 1980.
Jones brushes off pats on the back for his political and academic accomplishments; he’d prefer to give credit to his father and his uncle, trailblazers who influenced his ascendancy in life. Jones was an only child.
“To talk of me being all that gifted, I have a couple of responses: My father was a Tuskegee airman, and he was offered a chance to go pro in baseball. If he had taken that contract, he would have been the first Black in the pro leagues, and he would have been celebrated rather than Jackie Robinson. He earned 13 letters in high school in four different sports. He was a gifted gardener and he knew all about being creative in home remodeling. I think of him immediately as being more talented than me!”
“My uncle — and this in the late 1920s and early 1930s — earned three degrees from The Ohio State University, including a degree in medicine. I would be surprised if he wasn’t the only African-American student in his class. As an OSU undergraduate, he was a long jumper on the track team, and Jesse Owens [who went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics] was his teammate. Even after my uncle became a physician, he played piano in jazz clubs around Columbus.’’
Jones’s father was Charles Whitman Jones; his uncle was Guilford “Burt” Hoiston. Jones’s mother, Margaret Diane Hoiston Jones, was a teacher and an attendance worker in the Cleveland Public School system for about 40 years.
Both sides of Jones’s family were part of the Great Migration of Black Americans that moved to the North pre and post-Civil War to escape enslavement: they were born in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
Jones says he was surrounded by high achievers at Harvard, including his roommate who was a painter and visual artist, and who encouraged Jones to try the stage.
“It was because of him that I started acting, in a play at Harvard in freshman year. He invited me to come to a rehearsal; they hadn’t cast all the roles, and I said I’d help out, so I read some of the roles, and I found I did want to play those roles! That kind of launched my career.’’
Jones says that from the age of 10, he knew he wanted to be either an actor, a professional athlete or politician — he was on the Student Council and ran track and played football in high school.
“I did not plan to be a lawyer, but I knew I was headed to law school. I knew I was a good writer and I could speak very well but my parents wanted me to go to med school. There was no way I would have made it through med school — biology held some interest but all that math would not have worked for me,” he says. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor because being a doctor was a secure job with prestige and a profession of clear value. And doctors were financially secure.’’
In contrast, Jones said, Black lawyers 50 years ago were often not in the elite areas of the profession.
“Black lawyers weren’t in large law firms and they were not doing corporate law. They might do basic contracts or real estate law, but there was not an abundance of opportunity,’’ he says. And yet, law appealed to him and to this day, Jones keeps his law license active.
“I still practice law although I have a modified practice now, mostly transactional matters that can be handled without going to court. I have a nice consulting practice that has grown out of being an elected official, and contacts with government entities or quasi-government entities. They will place me on the team to help win a contract because I know the decision makers. Then I do public engagement by reaching out to stakeholders, elected officials and citizens of a community to see how they feel about a project.’’
With all that, show business lured him back at 55, when he returned to the stage after a 30-year absence. He also has appeared in about 30 films and TV shows, playing a range of roles including a priest and a minister, a police officer, a guidance counselor, a judge, a homeless man, and appropriately, a lawyer.
Jones has appeared in such films as “White Boy Rick;’’ “Alex Cross,’’ “The Assassin’s Code,’’ and “Starve.’’ His network TV credits include “Detroit 1-8-7,’’ and “Chicago Fire.’’ He has done national TV commercials for Marathon Oil and Kia.
Jones, who has a daughter and two sons with his wife, Lisa, is executive producer of the documentary, “Fatherhood 101,’’ which explores fatherhood and its responsibilities through the stories of men from multiple cultures.
And he is a playwright: His drama, “The Bloodless Jungle,’’ was produced at the Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights, and received staged readings at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., the Dallas Convention Center and at the National Black Theatre Festival, among others.
Jones’s most recent work, “The Phoenix Society,’’ had its premiere in 2022 at Playwrights Local in Cleveland. It was commissioned by the Life Exchange Center, a non-profit agency that assists men and women recovering from mental health and substance abuse challenges.
His first play, “The Family Line’’ was produced at Karamu, Ohio University and Harvard University. He received the 2012 African American Playwrights Exchange Artist of the Year award.
He admires plays such as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,’’ James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner,’’ Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,’’ and Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined.’’ His political heroes are Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter.
Among actors, he is a fan of Ruby Dee and Halle Berry, as well as veterans Anthony Hopkins, Eli Wallach and Christopher Plummer.
“They’re men who acted well into their 80s and were winning Oscars then,’’ Jones said.
First among equals
At the top of his list among acting heroes is his co-star, Hanks.
“We’d sit in makeup in the morning and talk. He is extremely funny. There was a wonderful tone on the set, extremely collaborative. We’ve kept in touch by email and old-fashioned USPS,” says Jones.
Marc Foster, director of “A Man Called Otto,’’ who has worked with screen titans such as Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, praised Hanks. “Marc talked about the actors he’s worked with and he said of all of the actors, Tom Hanks is the best of the best, the first among equals,” says Jones.
“My son Evan asked me if I ever thought I would be acting with Tom Hanks, and I said, ‘Heck no.’ When I was doing scenes with him, I’d look at him and think, ‘This is Tom Hanks’; it was truly surreal.’’
In January of this year, Jones was host of a red carpet showing of “A Man Called Otto,’’ near his home outside of Cleveland. The money raised, about $35,000 from an audience of 500 moviegoers, benefits a scholarship fund he established to honor his parents.
“I still see myself as leading-man material, even though I’m 70. But in ‘Chicago Fire,’ I play a police officer struggling with retirement, and now I’m playing a stroke victim; obviously, casting directors do not see me as I see myself!”
“After the movie, we did a Q&A and the local news anchors interviewed me. I still see myself as leading-man material, even though I’m 70. But in ‘Chicago Fire,’ I play a police officer struggling with retirement, and now I’m playing a stroke victim; obviously, casting directors do not see me as I see myself!”
“I like to think that through auditions and what people see of me on tape, they can see that I can undertake a variety of roles, that I don’t have a single lane in which I can operate,’’ says Jones.
He says he is shooting several films in the summer, including one in Atlantic City, about father-son relations.
“Those things are definitely helpful leverage in my ‘Man Called Otto’ moment. I’m hopeful that being in ‘Otto’ will help create other opportunities,’’ he says.
Beyond that, Jones is already thinking ahead to other pursuits carrying him along for another decade, at least.
“I still have a whole lot of energy and there are still so many things I want to achieve. Of course, my continuing legacy is my kids, but also through tangible items that I leave behind, such as the plays I have written and the shows I’ve been in. And I do things that one does to make society better and helps a neighbor. In my 80s, I think I’d like to be an ambassador,” he says.
“On any given day, there are dozens of phone calls to return — it might be related to a legal matter or my practice or giving counseling. I’m at websites to apply for roles, or I’m rehearsing or acting or pitching,” says Jones. “I have five agents around the country, but no one is going to be a better agent for you than yourself.’’
In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was the movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.