Courtney B. Vance reflects on Detroit Country Day years

Native Detroiter and Emmy nominee didn’t act in high school, but he credits the private school for opportunities

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

At Detroit Country Day, Courtney B. Vance played football, basketball and ran track, led the student council as president and joined so many clubs that he sometimes spent 16 hours a day at the private Beverly Hills school.

“The whole time I was there I was so appreciative of being able to go — it was my dream — that I did everything I possibly could there and didn’t understand why people weren’t doing more like I was doing,” he says.

Vance, a 2016 Emmy nominee for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for his role in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” did everything — except theater.

“It wasn’t on my radar at all until I got to college,” he says.

He did, however, have a minor role as an insane asylum director in the play “Arsenic and Old Lace” his senior year. During a telephone interview from Los Angeles, the 56-year-old native Detroiter remembers competing in a track invitational the same day as the play. The school had a two-passenger plane fly him back in time for the opening.

He “stole the show,” says Beverly Hannett-Price, Vance’s English teacher for three years.

“He came on stage and was so absolutely riveting, just the way he spoke and held himself,” says 81-year-old Hannett-Price, who’s in her 59th year of teaching. “He didn’t have many lines, but he really did make an impression.”

When he graduated in 1978, Vance promised the drama teacher he’d pursue theater at Harvard University. The first year, he didn’t — opting to run track. But he auditioned for shows his sophomore year. When Vance’s aunt came to one and told him, “You should do this as a career,” he took her words to heart. He earned a master of fine arts at Yale University — choosing to finish his degree instead of accept a role in “Native Son” starring Oprah Winfrey, says Hannett-Price, whom he consulted on the decision.

Passing up the role didn’t hurt his career. Vance has starred in the 1990 drama “The Hunt for Red October,” the TV series “Law & Order Criminal Intent” and won the 2013 Tony for Best Featured Actor in “Lucky Guy.” In the Broadway play “Fences,” he acted beside James Earl Jones, whom Hannett-Price sat next to at Vance’s wedding to Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett.

“I watched Courtney as he watched Angela come down the stairs,” Hannett-Price says. “Oh, you should have seen the tears running down his face.”

A poster of Vance hangs in the back of her classroom. A 1993 news story featuring him is posted above a “Journey of Odysseus” map. The ebullient teacher has kept in touch with her star pupil over the years, even attending the premiere of the movie “The Preacher’s Wife” shortly after he proposed to Bassett.

“He called me at the hotel and said, ‘Can I come to see you? I want you to meet Angela Bassett. We just got engaged,’ ” she says.

The next day, Hannett-Price, the Country Day headmaster and his wife attended the red carpet premiere and after-party, where they met Vance’s co-stars, Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington. Hannett-Price is still starstruck.

“I’m an English teacher!” she says. “I graduated from Albion College in 1958, and yet here I was.”

She notes that Vance hasn’t let stardom go to his head.

“He has led his life the same way he conducted himself here at school, with dignity,” Hannett-Price says, launching into a story about when he accepted the role of Jim in the 1993 film “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” “He said he would agree to play (the part), only if he could play Jim with great dignity,” she says. “He would not play him as a slave, but as a man.”

In his role as O.J. Simpson’s defense attorney, Johnnie Cochran, Vance says the hardest part was figuring out “how to approach the character” — a man who took on African-American police brutality cases and defended celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Snoop Dogg and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

“I was, of course, intimidated by him in life, so I made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to watch footage because that would make me start to imitate him, as opposed to be him,” says Vance, explaining he instead read a lot about the attorney.

“Getting the lines down,” when shooting three episodes at a time, was also a challenge, he adds. “With the amount of dialogue on a daily basis coming at you, you really couldn’t think about anything but the verbiage.”

Vance admits he had “no idea” the FX 10-part series would be well-received.

“People had seen everything,” he points out. “They had lived through it.”

When he found out he was nominated for an Emmy, he was getting his 10-year-old twins ready in the morning.

“It was a shock,” he says.

Though he’s up against castmate Cuba Gooding Jr., who played Simpson, Vance says he’s happy no matter who wins the category. Fellow nominees include Bryan Cranston (“All the Way”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock: The Abominable Bride”), Idris Elba (“Luther”) and Tom Hiddleston (“The Night Manager”).

“We have already won with the way people have embraced us, and if a little hardware comes with the post-celebration, it’s all wonderful,” he says.

That humility traces back to his time at Country Day, when teachers drilled manners and values into him. Hannett-Price recalls one morning assembly he led as student body president.

“I thought he was getting a little too loose with his humor and antics,” she says. “It wasn’t quite the sharpness of leadership that we always expect of our young men and women.”

After class, she pulled him aside.

“Toe to toe, eye to eye, I said, ‘Courtney Vance, you are a young man of promise, you have great ability and you are a leader. You must lead with example. Never expect anything but the best of yourself.’ He thanked me, and he sharpened up how he conducted the assemblies thereafter.”

Forty years later, Vance still looks to Hannett-Price (who “can’t imagine retiring”) for guidance. This summer, he asked her for a reading list for his teen nephew.

Vance credits Country Day for opening up the path to opportunities, and thanks the late George Browne, his Detroit Boys and Girls Club camp counselor who encouraged him to apply for a scholarship. After one visit, “I fell in love with the school,” he says.

But even with the scholarship he earned to enroll in the ninth grade, the cost would have been a hardship for his family, so he forced the school out of his mind. Then one conversation while cleaning the basement with his dad “changed my life,” he says.

“He asked me in passing, ‘Where you going to high school in the fall?’ I said, ‘I’m going to St. Mary’s of Redford. I know we can’t afford for me to go to Country Day.’ He told me, ‘No, your mother and I spoke about it. And we’re going to send you to Country Day.’ I was ecstatic.”

From that day on, Vance says he became a “Country Day boy.”

“I couldn’t get enough. I would ride my bike for 25 miles up there for football camp in the summer,” he says. “It was my home away from home.”

“He is the scholar athlete artist from that era,” says headmaster Glen Schilling, who keeps in touch via text. He pulled up a recent message in which Vance praised Hannett-Price, telling the headmaster, “Thank you for continuing to acknowledge the angel in your midst.”

Shilling just has one grudge: “I haven’t forgiven him for moving to California because his children could be here if he lived closer,” he says, laughing.

In 2013, Vance returned for the Distinguished Alumni Assembly, where he presented the Courtney B. Vance Theatre Arts Cup to the best theater student that year and spoke to students. In the middle of his speech, he called out one teen slumped in his seat.

“He said, ‘Young man, sit up! I was a student at this school. I have spent weeks preparing this speech. At Country Day, we were taught manners. You sit up and you listen,’ ” Hannett-Price says. “The audience gave him a round of applause.”

Soon after that visit, Vance’s mother joined him to live in Los Angeles. (His father passed in 1990). Though nearly 2,000 miles away, Vance says Detroit is “always in his heart” and he’s “praying for the resurgence of the city.”

“(It’s) going to come back bigger and better than ever,” he says, “We’re very excited about the future of Detroit. My mother, Ms. Leslie Anita Vance, sends her love to the city and love to Country Day.”

His final words: “Go Yellowjackets!”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards | 7 p.m. Sunday | ABC (WXYZ-TV, Channel 7)