In ‘The Wonder Years,’ Dulé Hill Looks Forward, and Back

Dulé Hill joined “The West Wing” in 1999, not lengthy after it debuted. He performed Charlie Young, a private aide who quickly begins a relationship with the president’s youngest daughter, Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss). Charlie is Black; Zoey is white. The hate mail arrived nearly instantly.

“It was shocking to me,” Hill, 46, mentioned throughout a latest video name from his Los Angeles house. “I said, ‘Wow. It runs deep in this country. It runs deep.’”

Hill requested these letters and taped them up in his trailer as a peculiar sort of inspiration. If he performed the half to the perfect of his skills, he hoped, he might make it simpler for the following actor of shade to be employed. And tougher for the following slur to be mailed.

“We’re all on this journey, trying to move the ball forward,” he mentioned.

Sometimes transferring ahead can imply trying again. This fall, Hill, an actor of agility, magnificence and goofball appeal, will seem in a reimagined “The Wonder Years,” which premieres on Sept. 22 on ABC. Set in Montgomery, Ala., in 1968, it stars Hill as Bill Williams, a music professor by day and a funk musician by evening. A loyal guardian and an formidable artist, Bill tries to equip his kids for a world that received’t at all times acknowledge their full humanity. Playing Bill encourages Hill, who just lately grew to become a father, to show his rangy presents — comedic, dramatic, rhythmic.

Though this new “Wonder Years” stays a nostalgia-driven, half-hour comedy, it additionally pushes Hill to confront themes that his earlier TV components — callow younger males, cheerful neurotics, tack-sharp professionals — hardly ever allowed. Because Hill is aware of how blessed he’s, professionally and personally. (He will let you know all about it, his grin blazing by means of the pc display screen.) But he additionally is aware of what it means to be a Black man in America.

“You appreciate this country and you love this country,” he mentioned. “But you also realize that this country doesn’t always love you back.”

With “The Wonder Years,” Hill “wanted to tell the deepest story that hopefully could relate to where we are today,” he mentioned. With, from left, Laura Kariuki, Elisha Williams, Allen Maldonado and Charity Jordan.Credit…Erika Doss/ABC

Hill signed onto “The Wonder Years” solely a handful of months after the killing of George Floyd as a result of it appeared extra essential than ever to point out that loving Black households have at all times existed and will at all times exist, even within the midst of battle.

“As I go along in life, I see that out of bad and challenging times, there’s also a beauty and a brilliance and a light that comes,” he mentioned. This present, he thought, might be a part of that gentle.

Hill has been an entertainer just about since he might stroll. His mom, a dance trainer in central New Jersey, began him on faucet, ballet and jazz dance when he was three. At 9, he was forged as an understudy within the Broadway musical “The Tap Dance Kid.”

Even so, he didn’t plan on an appearing profession. After highschool, he studied enterprise administration at Seton Hall University. Then in 1995, throughout his junior 12 months, he booked a job within the off-Broadway manufacturing of the dance musical “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk.” When a efficiency conflicted with a midterm examination, he requested the professor if he might take the examination early. The professor refused, saying that Hill ought to take into consideration the place he needed to be, at school or in present enterprise. He selected present enterprise.

In 1999, he landed “The West Wing.” Aaron Sorkin, the present’s creator, recalled his audition. “There are a few things that even a good actor can’t fake, and two of them are ‘smart’ and ‘funny,’” Sorkin wrote in an e mail.

Hill’s work to that time had concerned largely majority Black casts. As the uncommon actor of shade on “The West Wing,” he felt a accountability to excel. “I wanted to be one of the one of the steps along the way to making change,” he mentioned. His ambition, his nerves, his inherent goodness — “He radiates goodness,” Sorkin mentioned — he poured all of it into Charlie.

Hill signed onto “The Wonder Years” partly as a result of it appeared extra essential than ever to point out that loving Black households have at all times existed, even within the midst of battle.Credit…Michael Tyrone Delaney for The New York Times

When “The West Wing” ended, he requested his reps to search out him a comedy. They discovered “Psych,” a zany procedural on USA. James Roday Rodriguez, his ostensible co-star, drove to Hill’s home for a chemistry learn to see if Hill ought to play Gus, the anxious sidekick to Roday Rodriguez’s antic detective, Shawn. Hill had minimize his tv enamel on Sorkin’s precision-tooled dialogue; Roday Rodriguez had an improv background. The learn was bizarre.

“This dude is all over the place,” Hill remembered pondering. “He’s on the ceiling, underneath the couch. I’m like: ‘What is up, my man? Are you trying to sabotage my read?’”

Roday Rodriguez additionally remembered that day. “I was probably his worst nightmare,” he mentioned. But because the present continued, Hill grew looser and extra spontaneous. “Luckily, we had eight seasons for him to become the next Jerry Lewis meets Richard Pryor meets Rowan Atkinson,” Roday Rodriguez mentioned.

Matt Shakman, a frequent director on “Psych” echoed this. “Dulé is full of endless surprises and is the really rare actor who can do anything,” he mentioned.

Anything contains some skilled faucet routines, which Hill used to apply on set, on any obtainable flat floor. “Like, we get it, you can tap,” Roday Rodriguez quipped. “We understand that you have that skill. You don’t have to do it between every single take.”

“Psych” wrapped in 2014. Hill did a stint on “Ballers” and one other on “Suits.” He performed towards kind as a sinister drug provider in “Sleight,” a low-budget thriller. He married his “Ballers” co-star Jazmyn Simon in 2018, adopting her teenage daughter. The subsequent 12 months they welcomed a son. Roday Rodriguez famous how marriage and kids had modified his good friend.

“The difference is, how fricking happy he is just to open his eyes in the morning and be alive,” he mentioned.

Amid that happiness, Hill, along with his faucet footwear laced, was exploring a Black entertainer’s ache. In 2019, not lengthy earlier than his son was born, he starred in a bio-musical, “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” exhibiting what respectability politics had value Cole. Colman Domingo, who co-wrote that present, felt the resonance between Hill and Cole, males of shade navigating a majority white trade with sweetness and grace.

“There is dynamite underneath that sugar; I wanted to explore that dynamite,” he mentioned. “Dulé was not afraid of that at all.”

Hill has by no means been afraid of that. But on a profession path smoothed by private appeal, alternatives for exploration have been few. (An exception: his starring flip in a 2007 revival of “Dutchman,” Amiri Baraka’s incendiary play about cyclical racism.)

Hill, with Moira Kelly and Bradley Whitford in “The West Wing,” joined that political drama shortly after it premiered. “He radiates goodness,” the creator Aaron Sorkin mentioned.Credit… Eric Liebowitz/NBC, through Getty Images

He knew that “The Wonder Years” might be yet another. When he learn in regards to the pilot order, he turned to his spouse and he advised her that if he have been going to do a community comedy, this might be the one. After Floyd’s homicide by police and the protests that adopted, the struggles of the Civil Rights period felt very close to.

“I wanted to tell the deepest story that hopefully could relate to where we are today,” he mentioned.

The authentic “Wonder Years” premiered on ABC in 1988. It starred Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold, a middle-class 12-year-old in 1968, navigating adolescence as America got here of age, too. Amanda Ann Klein, a professor at East Carolina University, has written admiringly of the present. But in a latest interview, she famous an issue with it: “A big hole was its ability to deal with race,” she mentioned. So she was excited to see its premise utilized to a Black household.

“I don’t think you often see Black Americans getting the opportunity to be nostalgic,” she mentioned.

Saladin Okay. Patterson, the showrunner of this new model, needed to point out how these identical years may have an effect on a loving middle-class Black household. “We felt like that was going to be a story of strength and resilience and perseverance,” he mentioned throughout a video name. He drew on his circle of relatives’s historical past, modeling Bill on his father, Bill Patterson, a musician and music supervisor who spent his profession stardom-adjacent. He considered Hill instantly.

“We wanted to make the Bill character very cool, make him very good at what he does,” Patterson mentioned. “And the real Dulé is very cool, so he’s tapping into a real place.”

Still, it took a little bit appearing. “To be honest, his character on TV is a little more laid back than he is in real life,” mentioned Elisha Williams, the 12-year-old actor who stars as Bill’s son, Dean. (He additionally referred to as Hill “one of those cool dudes because he’s been around so long.” Ouch.)

Hill hopes that this leg of his race will educate viewers one thing in regards to the political upheavals of the 1960s — how they birthed the world we all know at the moment, how Black love has persevered. And he expects it’s going to assist him to know one thing about himself and the life he needs to make for his kids.

“When you’re playing a Black father and you are a Black father, the story is going to hold up a mirror to yourself,” he mentioned. “It’s going to make you ask questions about things: ‘Who am I in this? And who do I want to be?’”