Actor Stephen McKinley Henderson knows he has lived a blessed life.
After all, he has spent a half-century walking the boards and facing the camera.
Henderson’s acting career stretches from the streets of Kansas City, Kan., to Broadway, to academia and to the silver screen, where he can be seen this awards season in two highly acclaimed film dramas.
In “Manchester by the Sea” he plays the manager of a Boston apartment building dealing with a temperamental handyman played by Oscar contender Casey Affleck.
And in “Fences” (opening Christmas Day) he appears with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in a screen version of August Wilson’s play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play in 1987.
“It’s been an incredible blessing to be a part of this film,” Henderson said by phone from Los Angeles, “and especially to have known August Wilson.”
Henderson has appeared in eight of the 10 plays Wilson wrote about African-American life, each one set in a different decade of the 20th century.
In 2010 he played opposite Washington and Davis in a Broadway revival of “Fences,” and that cast was reunited by Washington, who directed the film.
Once again Henderson plays Bono, best friend to Washington’s Troy Maxson, a former Negro Leagues baseball player and current trash collector who resents never having had the chance to play in the majors.
Henderson describes Troy as Bono’s mentor — “Troy got Bono out of prison and got him into the workforce.” But while Bono is loyal to his benefactor, he has trouble dealing with the dark side of Troy’s personality: womanizing, arrogance and a need to dominate those around him.
In some ways Bono serves as Troy’s conscience, Henderson said. “Sometimes a mentor has to be reminded of the principles he has tried to instill in others.”
Born in Kansas City in 1949, Henderson grew up in Kansas City, Kan., where he was a star of the acting program at Sumner High School. That led him to appear in a production of “A Raisin in the Sun” at Missouri Repertory Theatre (now Kansas City Rep).
He was befriended by Rep founder and artistic director Patricia McIlrath — Henderson fondly recalls her as “the velvet fist” — who sponsored his candidacy to be a member of the first class of acting students at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School.
Henderson became a member of Juilliard’s Group One. Among his classmates were Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and David Ogden Stiers. For years he has returned to Juilliard to teach a master class for acting students.
Over the years he has done scores of plays at regional theaters and on Broadway, made more than a dozen feature films (including Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”) and appeared on TV series like “The Newsroom” and the various “Law & Order” franchises, in which he has a recurring role as a judge.
He has also nurtured several generations of young actors. He recently retired after 30 years of teaching at State University of New York at Buffalo.
Filming “Fences” was a joyful reunion, Henderson said.
Washington chose to film in Sugar Top, an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh, where the play is set.
“Imagine you wake up one morning with a knock at the door, and when you answer, there’s Denzel Washington announcing that he’s going to be filming on your street for several weeks.
“Well, the locals were glad to be a part of it,” Henderson recalled. “They’d bring us food. They wanted to see Denzel and Viola, of course, but after a while they realized that the best way to help us was to keep out of the way or take Denzel’s direction.
“At the end of the shoot we had a pretty wonderful block party.”
Once again, Henderson said, he was reminded of the brilliance of Wilson’s writing.
“With just a few lines August can craft an entire character. Which is not to say he’s easy to perform. Wilson wrote in what I call ‘blues iambic.’ He’s writing for all of us, but he’s also writing from my cultural perspective, which is why I love his work so much.”
Henderson said that his retirement from teaching will only enhance his acting career. In fact, a move to Los Angeles seems to be in his future.
“My grandchildren have all moved to L.A., and I’m pretty sure my wife will see to it that we don’t spend too many more winters in Buffalo.”
Next summer, Henderson said, he’ll be back in Kansas City.
“I drop by every now and then. I’ve still got family on both sides of State Line. But I’m getting ready for my 50th high school reunion this summer. And I cannot wait.”
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.