“Amen” alum, former Broadway star and voiceover actress Roz Ryan revealed more about her past as a Detroit nightclub singer, how she made her mark coast to coast, and how she has learned to embrace the next phase of her career and her life during the pandemic.
Roz Ryan may have entered into many homes when she landed the role of Amelia Hetebrink on “Amen” in 1986, but this was not Ryan’s start to acting or introduction to the entertainment industry. “When I was 29, I went to New York, but I had been working for 13 years. A lot of the time people think when you go to New York, you just popped out of an egg or when you come to L.A. and do a TV show that you just dropped from Heaven,” Ryan told Atlanta Black Star in an interview on Sept. 13. “So, it’s like you had no life, nothing before we saw you. So, that’s kinda just the way it is. People tell me, ‘I didn’t even know you sang’ and I’m like, ‘That’s what I did in the beginning.’ ”
Ryan had been very successful as a nightclub singer in Detroit after graduating high school. She even was very closely involved with Motown. “When I was 16, my cousins Tony and Zeta Robinson, and I we entered the WCHB Talent Show at the Fox Theater and we won. And it was $500 and a contract with Motown. So, at 16 years old — I was still in high school — we turned the contract down at the advice of David Ruffin, who told me that I would get lost in the shuffle because Motown was just blowing up and they had picked all of their top people.”
During this time, being so young and in the heart of this amazing city filled with up-and-coming artists, Ryan made many wonderful connections with some of Motown’s legends. “I took the money [from the contest] and I started singing in nightclubs and makin’ more money than I ever thought I could make in my whole life…at that time. It was good education. I met so many wonderful people. I mean, I was a little girl of 17 years old when I met Sarah Vaughn. So, yeah, I mean, I was privy to a lot of entertainers like The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Spinners. Those are all like my uncles and papas.”
It was in Detroit that she found out about auditions for the show “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” “I had never auditioned for anything in my life. I mean, I was a nightclub singer. But I went, got some sheet music, and 10 days later, I was on Broadway. Yeah, it was a Cinderella slipper.”
Ryan enjoyed the combination of singing and dancing and eventually landed one of her favorite roles as Effie White in “Dreamgirls.” Ryan could relate to the character and could really connect with all of the emotions to fuel her performance. “It was basically my story coming from Detroit and being a heavy girl. Being the one with the best voice but not the one with the body that they require in performing. It has to do with the look. That was basically my life story. I had some of the same pain. some of the same rejections. Some of the same comments that were nowhere based on talent. Because the talent — God gave me that — I was aware of that. Not to be vain or to be arrogant or anything. It’s just that when I realized that…the rest of it was just a hurdle I managed to climb.”
After being a nightclub singer and a Broadway performer, yet another medium was calling for Ryan to dazzle. While Ryan was in “Dreamgirls,” she auditioned for a movie called “Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling.” She was told that they liked her but that she was too young. Carmen McRae ended up winning the role as Grandmother. However, she had made an impression on one of the top casting directors at the time: Reuben Buchanan. “He did say he would find something for me. I had left ‘Dreamgirls.’ I was coming to Florida doing a show and he called me. About a week later, I got a call to fly to California to audition for the network and for Ed Weinberger and I went to the audition and I got the show [Amen]. I don’t even know how. I called my mom…and my mom said they must have seen something in you that you don’t know. And the rest was history.”
Being on a TV show in Hollywood — jetting back and forth to her home in Florida — Ryan thrived and really began to feel what it was like to have a stable gig and she learned so much being a part of the “Amen” cast.
Ryan remembered Sherman Hemsley in particular was very jubilant and a jokester. “Sherman — I called him ‘Germ’ — he was a prankster. He was just busy. He was a kid. He was a happy kid and he played pranks, jokes.” One day on-set, Ryan called out, “Does anyone need anything?” Sherman’s response was, “Bring me an alligator.” Ryan said, “I literally went home on my break and I got a caiman alligator about yay big, put it in a cat cage and brought it back. And he was stunned. He named it Theodore and he kept it until it was about six feet long and he built a pond in his backyard and he kept it.” Ryan fit right in with the cast and crew and took what she learned from the veteran actors on the set of “Amen.”
By 1995, Ryan was quite accomplished and had never dreamed of entering the world of animation and voice-over acting. So, when she was offered to audition for Walt Disney Company, she was shocked. “Hollywood wanted Nell Carter, Patti LaBelle, Whitney, some others. They wanted five movie and television muses. Alan Menken, who wrote the music, wanted Broadway girls. He wanted pure singers. You know, actresses. He was serious about Broadway girls. He did the picking. Alice Dewey saw me in “Blues in the Night” and she sent [John] Musker and [Ron] Clements, who wrote it — ‘Hercules’ —she sent them to see the show and they saw it and they said ‘We’re going to send you to New York to see Alan Menken and if he likes you, you got the role.’ ”
Her role as Thalia in “Hercules” opened up many future opportunities. Some included animated roles on the Disney Channel. She also ended up becoming a character named Cake on the long-running animated series “Adventure Time.”
Other than this upcoming project, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ryan has had a bit of a slowing down in her life and her attitude toward work. “I’ve never been home this long and what this pandemic did is it allowed me to stay home to start to do some of the things that we take for granted. You know, like Disneyland is down the street and the ocean is over there…I’m always packing and leaving this place…I want to go and I want to enjoy some of the places.”