When his middle school alma mater faced a proposed co-location this spring that threatened its performing arts program, Reno Wilson joined the intense battle to fend it off.
Co-location would be “devastating to the young minds and psyches of the children” and deny them the “opportunity for success that we had,” Wilson said during the fight to protect IS 285 Meyer Levin in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The school’s arts program, he said, was a “beacon in the community” in the early 1980s, just as it is today.
In the end, the school community succeeded in thwarting the co-location and saved the arts program.
For Wilson, Meyer Levin was “the turning point in our lives that set us up for success.” So instrumental were those middle school experiences that Wilson and his childhood pal, Leroy Tyndale, now a television producer, are collaborating on a documentary about it.
Wilson was 19 when he made his television debut as Howard, Theo Huxtable’s college friend, on “The Cosby Show.” This past spring, he wrapped up six seasons as Officer Carl McMillan, Mike’s pal and partner on the sitcom “Mike & Molly.” Over the years, he has appeared in more than a dozen television shows and several films. He has been the voice of characters in three “Transformers” movies.
He lives with his wife and their two children in Los Angeles, his home since 1993. But Wilson hasn’t forgotten the New York City public schools that nurtured his talent.
I grew up in a very artistic household. My dad was a blues musician with his own band. My mom sang with the Metropolitan Opera. I had a drum set in the living room. I saw my three sisters perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Growing up, I thought there were the Jacksons, the Osmonds and us.
I’ve been doing plays and shows since 3rd grade. Performing is the only thing I’ve ever done.
At PS 244 in East Flatbush, I played Fagin in “Oliver” and my best friend, Leroy Tyndale, played Oliver. Mr. (Eddie) Gentile and Mr. (Michael) Pearlman, who ran the performing arts program at Meyer Levin, came to see the shows and scouted us. PS 244 was like their farm team.
That was a really magical time. The PS 244 principal, Jerome Tiegel, was a father figure to us and he was really supportive of the arts. Leona Binder, one of our teachers, played piano at 244. She loved the kids who went on to Meyer Levin so much she got a job there and played for those shows.
When we were in performing arts at Meyer Levin, we became a tight-knit crew. Fast forward to today: about 90 percent of everyone who was part of the program went on to become successful. One is a brain surgeon and there are architects, engineers, a beekeeper — and all of us go back to that special time at Meyer Levin that was the foundation that gave us the confidence, the desire to achieve things. One girl is a professor now. She says to be able to communicate your thoughts effectively is your power.
Performing in front of people gives you confidence and helps you communicate your thoughts and ideas clearly. Yet for some reason, arts education is the first thing they attack in school, the first thing they get rid of. But the arts help make a person whole.
Leroy is a TV producer, and we’re working on a documentary about Meyer Levin. Mr. Gentile videotaped absolutely everything. He sent me all that old footage. Some of it is even in black and white.
In 9th grade at Meyer Levin, we did “Barnum” and I played Barnum. The summer before, we trained with the Big Apple Circus and the New York School of Circus Arts to prepare for that show. After “Barnum,” they turned Meyer Levin into a magnet school. People had noticed our work. We used to go to other schools to see what they were doing and they couldn’t touch us.
In 10th grade, I went to the School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, which is now LaGuardia. It was Meyer Levin on steroids, basically. It was a great time, great teachers, great training. I was surrounded by all kinds of different people there. It was the first time I saw mohawks; it was kind of a culture shock.
I got my first job, a commercial, when I was a junior. I didn’t think about getting paid for acting until then. That was the first time I ever thought about it as a career.
— As told to reporter Suzanne Popadin