“SNL” Alum Garrett Morris Recalls Getting Arrested for WWB: 'Walking While Black' (Exclusive)

The actor, who was the first-ever Black cast member on 'Saturday Night Live', tells PEOPLE he's faced plenty of racism throughout his life —  both on screen and off

<p>netflix</p> Garrett Morris


Garrett Morris

Before Garrett Morris found stardom in 1975 as the first Black cast member on Saturday Night Live, the 87-year-old comedian faced plenty of discrimination during his childhood in a segregated part of Louisiana.

"My mom had me at 16, so I was raised by my grandparents," he tells PEOPLE of his childhood. "My grandfather pastored at different churches, during the time that there were definitely Black parts of town and white parts of town. It sort of reminded me of Texas and June 19th, when they said they didn't know slavery had been abolished — people pretended they didn't know segregation was supposed to be over."

To counterbalance the daily reality of the Jim Crow South, Morris decided to lean into his church choir background and become a professional entertainer.

Related: SNL Alum Garrett Morris Celebrates Long-Hoped-for Walk of Fame Star on His 87th Birthday: 'Had to Wait a While!'

<p>John Salangsang/Shutterstock</p>

John Salangsang/Shutterstock

By the time he'd been picked to be a part of the Belafonte Folk Singers, who were a touring group of rotating singers who occasionally sang background for Harry Belafonte, he was used to racism being part of his life.

"One time we were in L.A., and we were playing the Greek Theatre," Morris recalls of his time with the Folk Singers. "We'd usually tour around but this time we were going to open for Harry, so we rehearsed for the week beforehand. One day after rehearsal, I decided to go for a walk around Los Griffith Park."

Looking back, he says wished he hadn't. "Now, why did I do that?"

Related: See the SNL 1975 Cast Side by Side with the Real-Life Saturday Night Live Actors

Morris says at some point during the walk, he heard a car honk behind him. He ignored it, but it was a cop car. They policemen pulled over, and said the five words that Morris says are rather familiar to young Black men in America: "Up against the wall, motherf---er."

"They were asking why I was there, what I was doing walking around," Morris says. "It was just WWB: Walking While Black. That's what I was doing."

Morris says he kept explaining that he was a singer, and the cops just laughed. "I remembered I had the key to our hotel so I went to show them. Well, when the copy are patting you down, you don't reach into your pocket without telling them what you're doing and why."

The next thing he knew, he was face down on the ground and getting handcuffed, then dragged off to the precinct.

"I kept saying, 'What are you arresting me for?'" and they said, 'Burglery, a--hole.' I tried telling them I'd only been in town for three days, and I wouldn't be so stupid as to burgle a house without casing it first."

<p>NBCU Photo Bank</p> Dan Aykroyd, Broderick Crawford and Garrett Morris on 'Saturday Night Live' in 1977

NBCU Photo Bank

Dan Aykroyd, Broderick Crawford and Garrett Morris on 'Saturday Night Live' in 1977

Related: Producer Stephanie Allain on Being a Black Woman in Hollywood: ‘I Couldn’t Help but Be an Activist’ (Exclusive)

The cops didn't think it was funny, and threw him into a cell while they checked his records both in New York City and with the FBI — both of which were completely clean.

"Eventually they said they couldn't find anything on me, and that's when I told them to check the itinerary in my pocket. It said the name of Harry Belafonte, who was one of the most internationally famous singers at the time. Suddenly they were calling me 'Mr. Morris.' But they did not apologize.

Morris was released, but the experience soured his "naive" idea that the West Coast was all progressives. "In the real world, there was still a significant amount of racism everywhere," he says, adding that that certainly included showbiz.

<p>NBC/NBCU Photo Bank</p> Dan Aykroyd and Garrett Morris on 'Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update'

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Dan Aykroyd and Garrett Morris on 'Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update'

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When he got to Saturday Night Live as a writer, he said he faced more racism but it wasn't overt — more like a white writer trying to steal his ideas, including for one of his most famous sketches about donating to the "White Guilt Relief Fund."

Related: Jennifer Coolidge Recalls How Garrett Morris Taught Her to Be 'Grateful' for Role on 2 Broke Girls

Morris eventually left the series after five seasons, and went on to work on TV show's including The Jeffersons, Diff'Rent Strokes, 227, Hill Street Blues, Martin and 2 Broke Girls.

On his 87th birthday last Thursday, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at a ceremony attended by his 2 Broke Girls costar Jennifer Coolidge, among others.

He laughed about having to wait so long for the recognition, but noted he didn't actually mind.

"Whenever it comes is all right," he said. "I'm grateful."

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