Actor Glynn Turman is a cowboy at heart
New book tells the stories of the ‘Black Cowboys of Rodeo’
In this book excerpt, actor Glynn Turman describes how he got interested in horses as a boy, his history in competitive rodeo, and how, after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, he set up a camp on his Southern California ranch to introduce kids to horseback riding.
For five days in spring 1992, the world held its collective breath as it watched much of Los Angeles burn in the wake of four white police officers being acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. By the time a dusk-to-dawn curfew was lifted on May 5, and some semblance of order was restored, the riots had left 50 people dead, more than 2,300 injured, and more than 3,000 buildings either partially damaged or totally destroyed, according to various news reports. King’s beating had been captured by an amateur videographer. The acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers involved in King’s controversial arrest touched off what the History Channel has since characterized as the most destructive civil disturbance of the twentieth century and is estimated to have caused more than $1 billion in damage. The sustained rage and violence — which had not been seen in LA since the Watts Riots of 1965 resulted in 34 deaths — had less to do with King and more to do with a growing sentiment that the mostly white Los Angeles Police Department and its scandalous police chief, Daryl Gates, had been racially profiling minorities, especially in inner-city neighborhoods like South Central LA, Watts, Compton, and Inglewood.
In its aftermath, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and her husband’s friend and confidant Andrew Young — U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — called for a peace summit. They brought together civil rights and social justice leaders, well-respected Black actors and athletes and leaders from the city’s rival street gangs, the Bloods and Crips.
King levied a stern challenge to all in attendance: Before leaving the summit, everyone had to not only promise to help bring peace and unity to their communities but also conceive an individual way to accomplish that promise. Actor Glynn Turman, who owns a 20-acre ranch north of Los Angeles, was among those at the gathering. He made a promise to develop a summer camp for kids that would introduce as many as 100 kids to “a dose of fresh air and a different way of life” that included horseback riding.
Almost 30 years later, Turman described the annual Camp Gid-D Up and the work he’s done with his foundation as “one of the highlights of my life.”
Glynn Turman was born on the last day of January in 1947.
After his parents divorced, he and his mother lived in an apartment tenement in Harlem with two of her sisters and a brother-in-law. Turman was 8 or 9 years old when he and his mother moved to Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s. The sisters remained close, which helped Turman learn how to get around Manhattan. A latchkey kid, he would return to Harlem to spend some days with one aunt or head to the projects on the Lower East Side to be with the other. It was a lesson in independence that served him well years later on the rodeo trail and when his Emmy Award-winning acting career led him around the world.
But his true passion came to pass on the corner of 147th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
Too young to venture out into the streets of Harlem on his own, Turman would sit on the stairwell of the fire escape and watch as mounted officers from the New York City Police Department would ride south on horseback down Amsterdam.
Seeing those big bay horses — brown bodies with black manes, tails, and lower legs — from afar was magical.
On rare occasions, Turman would wait downstairs and run alongside them from 147th down to 146th Street. He wasn’t allowed to cross from one block to another on his own, but he would often steal an apple from an outdoor fruit stand to feed one of the horses while they waited to cross at the first corner. The risk of getting caught was worth the opportunity to interact with the horses.
He was amazed and fascinated by them, and even when he watched Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy shows on television, his interest was less about the cowboys and more about the horses. A friend of his mother’s once took him to a professional rodeo at Madison Square Garden. More than being a rodeo cowboy, he dreamed of one day owning a ranch and having horses. Turman was popular and athletic but hated school and was chronically truant. In those days, the kids played a lot of stickball in the street around the corner from where he lived in the Village. They would break off a broomstick handle, grab a ball with a great deal of bounce to it, and wait for the street to clear of traffic. Turman had a passion for the game and enjoyed playing alongside his friends.
Turman’s mother raised her son in an artistic community. They lived in a sixth-floor, cold-water flat with a shared bathroom in the hallway. His mom was friends with novelist James Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who arranged for the 11-year-old Turman to audition for the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun.
He made his acting debut as Travis Younger on March 11, 1959.
Turman found himself on Broadway acting with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee and 22-year-old Louis Gossett Jr. He was a preteen and, as such, was not aware of the historical implications of the landmark play, which took its name from the Langston Hughes poem Harlem.
While he enjoyed the experience, he did not like the fact that his mother had pulled him out of public school and enrolled him in a private school.
“I wasn’t very happy with that arrangement, because I wasn’t a show business-minded kid,” Turman said. “I would rather go to baseball practice than rehearsal.”
Prior to his 13th birthday, Turman quit Broadway.
Without the responsibility of acting professionally, he could return to junior high and attend a public school. For the next six years, his grades were good enough to play on the baseball team and participate in theater. His drama teachers in junior high and high school cast him in the lead roles.
He also continued to play hooky. If he happened to have a quarter, he headed down to the movie theaters on Forty-Sixth or Forty-Second streets. If his pockets were empty, he headed up to Central Park and offered to help a stable manager “shovel s— … if you let me ride a horse around the arena.”
It was there that the teenager rode a horse for the first time.
When his mother found out where he was, she was not happy, but she supported his passion. “Instead of getting pissed off, she took me to a stable to horseback ride up in the Bronx — Pelham Bay Park,” said Turman of the stable where he learned how to properly saddle a horse and ride. Though he was too young to know any better, Pelham Bay is where Black cowboys like Bud Bramwell, Charlie Reno, and Steve Robinson regularly rode in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, those same legends don’t remember befriending Turman, but each recalled how they would attract youngsters and adults of all ethnicities whenever they were around.
“It was a magical time,” Turman said. “Sometimes, I’ve got to pinch myself to see how a little Black boy from a tenement in Harlem got to, I mean, I’m talking to you from my ranch. It’s more than I could have ever imagined my life would be like.”
By the late 1960s and early ’70s, Turman was living in Los Angeles and was regularly guest starring on popular television series like Peyton Place, The Doris Day Show, Hawaii Five-O, and The Rookies. He also earned roles in a series of made-for-television movies and the cult classic film Cooley High. Then, in 1975, a year before he married Aretha Franklin, he auditioned with director George Lucas for a film called Star Wars, which would become one of the biggest films of all time when it was released in the summer of 1977. Turman did not know it at the time, but he was up for the role of Han Solo, which would have made him a cowboy of sorts in a galaxy far, far away. Instead, the part went to Harrison Ford because Lucas knew in subsequent films there was a romantic storyline between Solo and Princess Leia and the famous filmmaker did not want the racial implications of a mixed couple to distract from the rest of the episode, according to the biography Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas.
In recent years, Lucas confirmed the reason for the casting change when he and Turman attended a fundraiser together and Turman asked the filmmaker whether the story was true or not.
Turman spent much of the 1970s away from the bright lights and stress associated with a career in Hollywood. He became one of the top ten horsemen competing in the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile endurance race held annually since 1955. He has quite a trophy case chronicling his many accomplishments.
In 1984, Lu Vason, founder of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, called Turman and fellow actor Danny Glover to ask if they would serve as grand marshals on horseback and welcome the crowd at his Los Angeles rodeo. Not being a contestant allowed Turman to get more involved. As the rodeo unfolded, he was on horseback as a pickup man during the rough stock events, did some hazing during the steer wrestling and helped the rodeo hands gather cattle.
Once Vason and his staff saw how skilled the actor was on the back of a horse, they asked if he would be interested in staying involved. When the Bill Pickett rodeo was in Atlanta, Turman was in Atlanta. When the rodeo made its way to Denver and Washington, D.C., Turman made his way there, too. Even today, he will make himself useful when he attends a Bill Pickett rodeo.
Turman was introduced to the competitive side of rodeo by a stuntman named John Sherrod, who also introduced the actor to Reginald T. Dorsey. Turman and Dorsey became fast friends while honing their skills as team ropers. They mostly competed in California and would sometimes travel to Arizona and Nevada. At the time, Turman could be seen in a series of guest roles on everything from The Paper Chase and White Shadow to The Love Boat and Fantasy Island before taking another turn on the big screen in Gremlins. You could also see him on T.J. Hooker, Riptide, The Twilight Zone, Matlock, and Murder She Wrote. Then came a five-year run as Col. Brad Taylor on the television series A Different World, from 1988 to 1993.
By then he had sold his property in Malibu and in 1992, he married his current wife, Jo-Ann, a full decade after separating from Aretha Franklin and finally divorcing in 1984.
In addition to a new home in Los Angeles, the couple bought a 20-acre ranch in Lake Hughes, California. Together, they formed the IX Winds Ranch Foundation following a challenge from Coretta Scott King.
King thought Turman’s idea to bring 100 kids to his ranch for a weeklong summer camp was a wonderful idea. He challenged the Crips and Bloods to help identify some at-risk children ages 9 to 18 who would benefit from the experience. And so began the annual Camp Gid-D Up, which continues almost 30 years later.
Turman approached a trio of his A Different World co-stars — Kadeem Hardison, Sinbad, and Dawnn Lewis — to ask for the initial donations he used to fund the camp. “I thought I was going to do it that year and that would be that,” said Turman, looking back on nearly three decades of camp experiences. “The look on the kids’ faces — they had such a good time and I couldn’t believe they were enjoying something we were able to provide, so we did it again and again. It just grew and grew and grew.”
As an actor and a philanthropist, Turman’s life could not have been much better for him and his family.
By the late Nineties, he was a member of the U.S. Team Roping Championships, and in 1999 he and his partner, whom he has since lost touch with, won the region and qualified for the tenth annual USTRC National Finals in Oklahoma City.
Turman drove out early and stayed with Jesse “Slugger” Guillory. Guillory won all-around rodeo titles in the Texas Rodeo Association, Southern Cowboy Association, and Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo and was Vason’s righthand man for two decades before going to work for Dodge. Charlie Sampson, who had already become the first African American to win a world championship in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, was there, too. Sampson was a pro rodeo bull rider and also pretty handy when it came to calf roping. More importantly, Sampson knew what it took to win.
Before the trio left for the finals, Sampson said, “Glynn, you’re looking good. Horse is looking good. You’re doing great.”
Then he added, “But I hate your saddle.”
Turman was not sure if Sampson was serious or kidding until the 1982 world champion bull rider said, “That saddle is not a champion saddle. If you’re going to be a champion, you got to be a champion all the way.”
That’s when Sampson gave Turman one of his own saddles to use. In rodeo, for a world champion to give another competitor his personal saddle is the ultimate show of respect.
Turman finished the national finals event a career-best fifth in the world. To this day, Turman, who won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama for his part in HBO’s 2008 series In Treatment, still has Sampson’s saddle at his ranch — the same ranch where he continues to introduce kids to horses, the outdoors, and Western culture. And he’s been on screen more in the past two years than, perhaps, any other two years since arriving in Hollywood. He had 11 credits in 2019, including his Emmy-nominated arc on the television series How to Get Away with Murder, eight more in 2020, beginning with The Way Back with Ben Affleck, and 11 episodes from season four of Fargo alongside Chris Rock. In addition to these, Turman was named Best Supporting Actor by the LA Film Critics Association for his role in the critically heralded Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The film, which was produced by Denzel Washington, co-starred Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
It’s been a life well-lived. Turman has gone from being that kid sitting on the fire escape dreaming of owning a ranch to having former campers — and their parents — come up to him in public and thank him for changing their lives. Whether they took up the sport or not does not matter, so long as it kept them off the streets.
“It’s a wonderful gift to be able to share with others,” Turman said.
Excerpted from Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West by Keith Ryan Cartwright by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2021 by Keith Ryan Cartwright. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu.