Since abandoning the Twin Cities theater scene for Hollywood, Cedric Yarbrough has enjoyed his fair share of success, getting deputized into the ranks of “Reno 911!”; stealing scenes in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Meet the Fockers”; lending goofy gravitas to animated series such as “Family Guy.”
“Speechless,” one of the season’s most promising network comedies, will almost certainly be his ticket to talk-show couches, commercial endorsements — and a little more love from his hometown press.
“Where have you been?” the Burnsville native said by phone in mock anger, a few hours before heading off to shoot scenes for the highly anticipated sitcom and “The House,” a 2017 feature film starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler.
Truth is, Yarbrough did get noticed while bouncing from one Minneapolis stage to another, most notably for his role as the puppet master in a 2000 production of “Pinocchio” at Children’s Theatre.
But the attention level will rise to a new level after Wednesday’s debut of “Speechless,” especially since it’s sandwiched between “The Goldbergs” and “Modern Family,” two of ABC’s most popular series.
At first, his role as a school groundskeeper who stands up to Minnie Driver’s overprotective mom appears to be just the latest in a long line of steady work as a recurring actor on network sitcoms.
“I enjoy your ‘Blind Side’ energy,” he quips without a hint of joy.
But in the series’ most gratifying twist, his character, Kenneth, is hired to serve as a mentor to Driver’s randy son, who has cerebral palsy and can’t speak or walk.
“I didn’t want to be the magical Negro who comes in and saves the family, like Bagger Vance,” said Yarbrough, nursing a bit of a cold. “I wanted him to be flawed, to make mistakes, but ultimately have genuine care for this kid.”
Creator Scott Silveri said he originally wrote Kenneth as just a foil to Driver’s character. Then Yarbrough auditioned.
“When I heard Cedric do two lines, there was this immediate, ‘Oh, forget what I was absolutely sure I wanted for a year — that’s better! Do that!’ ” Silveri wrote in an e-mail. “He’s hilarious, sure, but he’s got a lot of heart, substance and intelligence. So we gobbled that up and put them into the character.”
Yarbrough was the first actor hired for the series; Silveri jokes that they once considered giving him all six major parts.
Not as absurd as it sounds.
Yarbrough considers the opportunities presented to him in Minnesota — from musicals at Mankato State University to Mixed Blood productions — as his acting school. He is particularly fond of a 1998 Brave New Workshop revue, “Saving Clinton’s Privates,” staged shortly after the then-president found himself entrenched in Monicagate.
Jim Detmar, who codirected that production, remembers rehearsing the opening scene in which the president’s PR team is scrambling around like it had just landed on Omaha Beach.
“I don’t think physical comedy was his first line of comedic defense at the time, but he ended up bounding all over the stage,” Detmar said. “He embraced it and the audience embraced it. That’s when he reminded me of Wayne Brady. He had that little glimmer in his eyes.”
Push it to the limit
Yarbrough may have been ready to tackle anything when he moved to Los Angeles in 2000. Whether Hollywood wanted to take advantage of it was another matter.
Yarbrough had appeared to be on the fast track moments after unpacking his bags when he landed a part in the largely improvised series “Reno 911.” But the pilot was rejected by Fox and not picked up by Comedy Central until two years later. The show developed a cult following, and some cast members graduated to the A-list, most notably Niecy Nash, who has been nominated for two Emmys for her work on HBO’s “Getting On,” and Wendi McLendon-Covey, the best reason to watch “The Goldbergs.”
Yarbrough is convinced that the success of the series helped him avoid a traffic ticket during the show’s run — and perhaps more.
“I was going 37 in a 35 mph zone when I once got pulled over by the Minnesota police. I kid you not,” said Yarbrough, who posted on social media shortly after the Philando Castile shooting in Falcon Heights that he had suffered his own problems with law enforcement. “I don’t know what would have happened had I not been recognized. I’ve never been beaten, hurt or anything like that, but I have found that Minnesota police will pull me over and be a little more strict and want to know more about what’s going on.”
A late bloomer
Professionally, Yarbrough couldn’t bust out of guest-star jail.
“At some point, I thought that maybe I’d be a recurring character the rest of my life,” he said. “That would have been fine, but that’s not what I aspired to be.”
Melissa Peterman, who became fast friends with Yarbrough during their time together at Mankato State and the Brave New Workshop, said it was just a matter of time before the fellow Burnsville High alum landed the kind of showcase role she did in 2001, playing a brash rival to Reba McEntire in the long-running sitcom “Reba.” It just took longer for him.
“I’m sure he was way frustrated,” said Peterman, who recently had Yarbrough on as a guest on “Baby Daddy,” her current ABC Family series. “But we have a lot of friends who attend our backyard barbecues that are way more talented than anyone we know and they are still auditioning all the time. There’s the luck part of being in the right place at the right time in front of the right person. Matters just had to align for Cedric. This sounds perfect.”
“Speechless” may be the closest one gets to a sure thing in the unpredictable world of showbiz, but Yarbrough is keeping busy with other projects. In addition to the Ferrell movie, he performs monthly in Los Angeles with the Black Version, a troupe of top African-American improvisers who re-imagine scenes from popular movies. He also hopes to return to the Twin Cities theater scene during a summer hiatus. His dream role? The Moor of Venice in Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
That may sound like too radical a departure from a family-friendly sitcom on network TV. But don’t bet against Yarbrough. Not anymore.