Thanks to conspiracy theories, a feral pet cat, and a rowdy visit to a 76ers game, William Stanford Davis has quietly become one of the funniest parts of Abbott Elementary. On the ABC sitcom, Davis stars as Mr. Johnson, an eccentric janitor and former nude model.
“Tastefully nude,” Davis clarifies. Shortly after the show’s big wins at the SAG Awards and the NAACP Image Awards, the character actor hopped on a Zoom with The Daily Beast’s Obsessed to chat about his role on the show, the accolades he’s won, and being upped to a season regular in the hit show’s sophomore season.
On a mantle behind Davis, I spot his newly minted SAG Award, for being a part of the ensemble to win Best Comedy Series. Next to it is a faux “baby Emmy” he was given while working on a movie a few decades ago, though he doesn’t reveal which film. Davis hopes to win its older sister one day, he tells me—and his chance has escalated, seeing as he was just nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Abbott Elementary.
“I’m glad Tyler [James Williams] won,” Davis says, overjoyed for his co-star, who plays Gregory on the show. “If I didn’t win, I’m glad he won. Just to be considered was an honor. Everybody says, ‘Well, you should win.’ No! I was considered one of the funniest guys on TV this year. That’s cool.”
Though Davis is quick to pass the compliments over to the show’s writers for giving him such a fun character to play, his spirited portrayal of Mr. Johnson has been blowing this minor role completely out of the water. Mr. Johnson began by telling a gaggle of students the Illuminati were real in the pilot—a line that he says “changed everything” for him—and now has full-episode story arcs with corny teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti) and principal-in-training Gregory. On this week’s episode, Mr. Johnson gets to push Leslie Odom Jr. (playing an evil charter school boss) off a stage with his big broom.
Audiences have celebrated his increased role in Season 2, but Davis says not much has changed after becoming a season regular. He simply enjoys being a part of Abbott Elementary, no matter the capacity. “After the first couple of episodes, I was treated more like a regular in the first season than a guest star,” Davis says. “It’s a great group. Everyone’s fun, generous, kind, and I’ve fallen in love with everybody—from the crew, to the cast, to the directors.”
Fans of Abbott Elementary have taken to him too. They recently rejoiced when Mr. Johnson won a cash bonus at a 76ers game, after being thrown a trivia lowball: “Name 10 cleaning products,” an announcer asks him. Easy! Only Mr. Johnson—who somehow won the tickets on Teacher Appreciation Week, even though he’s not a teacher—would have such luck.
“Mr. Johnson is the smartest man in the school. And he’s very outspoken,” Davis says. He’s always looking for ways to elevate the already hilarious script: “This is very funny, but what can I do to give it a whole other level of comedic timing? [I want to] be generous to the actors too, give them something that they didn’t see coming and see how they’re going to respond.”
Another top Mr. Johnson moment is when he and Jacob argued over what to name a tabby cat that showed up at Abbott; while Jacob vied for Cinnamon Cupcake, Mr. Johnson went with Milton. “I love giving animals those types of names, because I think it fits them,” Davis jokes, giving a handful of his own pets human names: Norman, Gertrude, Miles, etc.
There’s a bit of a backstory to Mr. Johnson, as we’ve learned in some episodes. He’s worked around the world in plenty of odd jobs, from being a tastefully nude model to corporate management. “He’s educated,” Davis says of his role, “but he’s kind of nuts. He’s a conspiracy theorist.”
The conspiracy theories range from the moon not being real to believing in lizard people. Mr. Johnson isn’t afraid to teach the kids about his wild hypotheses—especially as he does in the first episode, training the kids that the Illuminati run the world. His character was inspired by a number of different folks in Davis’ life, but for the most part, he takes after his grandma.
“My grandmother was nosy. She knew everything and she challenged you on everything. She had these wild conspiracy theories about these things,” Davis says. “Child, you know so and so and so and so didn’t happen!” he jokes, mimicking her voice as he recalls her old conspiracies. “Whatever it was, she would have to be right. I kind of got Mr. Johnson from that.”
Davis rattles off a few other people who’ve had an impact on his role—his aunt, a teacher who took money from her own pocket to stock her classroom with pencils and erasers, and another janitor he knew growing up—but there’s his own career history to thank too. Before he got into acting, starring in shows like Ray Donovan and Snowpiercer, Davis spent his college years working as a janitor.
“The school I went to had a lab school, and I had to clean that up every day as a part of my work study to pay my tuition. It’s tough,” Davis says. “Another job I had as a janitor was cleaning up Kmarts at night. You know how big Kmart is? We were waxing the floors and mopping them every night. Hats off to janitors. It’s not easy.”
But all this inspiration leads to why it resonates with so many people. While plenty of teachers have commented on the accuracies of Abbott Elementary’s busted public school, a handful of janitors have also reached out to Davis to tell him his portrayal of their occupation is spot on.
“I’ve gotten [compliments] from janitors’ kids who’ve told me I’m right on the money,” Davis says. “I’ve gotten them from janitors’ wives who say, ‘My husband comes home and tells me some insane things that I’ve seen you do. All janitors feel like they know more than the teachers because they can fix things that the teachers can’t.’”
Davis really felt the love after the show’s Halloween episode, “Candy Zombies,” aired back in October. The actor was “honored” to see a young actor dress up in a Mr. Johnson costume and try to pull off his gruff, low voice in the show. Even better: Inspired by the episode, a handful of Abbott fans dressed their babies up in Mr. Johnson costumes for Halloween and shared their creations online.
“I was so happy, it brought me to tears. Wow, the people loved it that much, they cared so much about this guy,” Davis says, recalling the costumes he saw online. “Oh man, to have been in this for so long and to have played all sorts of roles, this is the real icing on the cake, to see these types of things happen at this age and see how much joy you’re bringing people.”
Filming the Halloween episode is Davis’ favorite memory of Season 2 thus far, particularly because of the love from fans, but also because he got to say one of his favorite lines in Abbott Elementary history. This one might even top the beloved “That’s who runs the world, kids!” line.
“I had to call a kid a son of a bitch,” he says, chuckling as he references when Mr. Johnson threatens to sue the student who dresses as him for Halloween. “I thought they were going to scratch it. It’s ABC, come on! Of course, they bleeped it. Every time we’d do it, everyone would be laughing because they’d be like, ‘Wait a minute, are we really saying this?’”
Fans love to share Davis’ performances on social media, and Davis loves the recognition he’s (rightfully) earning. When I ask if he’s shocked to be the favorite Abbott Elementary character of so many, Davis admits that he sort of is.
“But we’re all great [on the show],” he says. “To pick one [character], it’d be like trying to pick your favorite child. Everybody’s so funny, everyone has their moments, and each character is so well-defined. I’m honored that people feel that way, but I think everybody has their moments.”
Davis then walks through every actor on the show, listing why they’re great. He loves working closely with Perfetti and Williams. He’s shell-shocked by Quinta Brunson’s comedic timing and ability to wrangle kids. Lisa Ann Walter is the improv queen—though he’ll never forget the day Sheryl Lee Ralph came up with the iconic line, “Sweet baby Jesus and the grown one too!” And Janelle James? Well, Davis can’t even get a word out before he starts laughing, as if she were in the room with us, telling a joke.
Still, that doesn’t mean Davis isn’t afraid to lean into the outpouring of support from Abbott Elementary fans. “Everyone keeps asking if there’s going to be a spinoff,” he says, clearly excited by the idea. “I don’t know anything about Mr. Johnson’s personal life. Does he have a love interest? Maybe that’ll go out into the universe and get into the writers’ ears.”
As Season 2 heads into a brief hiatus (the show returns on April 5), Davis has been asked to speak at a handful of school events, like at Teacher Appreciation Week at a school in North Carolina and a career day for elementary and high school students, where he’ll talk about acting. That’s exactly the legacy Davis wants Abbott Elementary to have—lifting schools and young actors up—and he’s ready to help lead the charge.
“I hope the show not only makes people laugh, but that it gives them a glimpse into the reality of what schools and teachers go through, and what we need to change [about] them—not to take things away from them,” Davis says. “When I was at the awards shows, I was like, ‘Everybody in here who’s doing their job, learned their job from a teacher, on some level.’ Teachers should make the type of money that doctors make. They save lives, just like doctors do.”
Before we part ways, Davis lists the advice he wants to give to aspiring actors who are still learning: “If it’s something that you really really love, don’t quit,” he says. “Take risks. Be willing to look silly. Be willing to fall on your butt. If you’re willing to do that, I promise you, it will pay off.”