Turn on the TV, choose a channel, and you’ll likely see the work of Leonard R. Garner Jr.
The Scranton native is a television director and actor who worked in the entertainment industry for 45 years, starting with guest roles in Cheers, Moonlighting and Beauty and the Beast. Garner also worked as a second assistant director on the feature film The Blues Brothers in 1980 and plays the security guard in the film.
Since then he has directed episodes of more than 70 TV shows, including Wings, Sister, Sister, Just Shoot Me !, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Rules of Engagement, Girlfriends, The King of Queens, My Wife and Kids, according to Jim, Ravens Home, True Jackson VP and many more. He traces his success to the lessons he learned in northeastern Pennsylvania. Growing up, he says, there weren’t as many blacks or people of color in Scranton as they do today, although there is still a black community. All of this has been a melting pot of blue-collar workers from different ethnicities and origins, as well as different personalities, which he believes have benefited him in his career.
I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with all kinds of people and it has helped me to this day working with all kinds of people, he said in a recent phone interview from home in Los Angeles. which he shares with his wife, Robin Hinz Garner. I had a lot of them in Scranton.
Garner was born in Baltimore to the late Leonard R. Bob Sr. and Rosearle Garner. His parents worked for the Army Department in Baltimore and transferred to Tobyhanna Army Depot when Garner was 2 years old. The family moved to Scranton, where Garner attended Scranton Day Nursery, Washington Elementary School, and James Madison Junior High. He was also involved with the YMCA and attended Camp Brooks, where he eventually became a counselor.
After graduating from Scranton Central High School in 1970, Garner didn’t want to travel too far from his family to attend college. A huge football fan, Garner knew Syracuse University through his favorite players, Jim Brown and Ernie Davison, and he admired the way black athletes in Syracuse represented themselves and the university supported them.
Garner was also drawn to the Syracuse drama program. Although he didn’t participate in any plays or musicals in Central, he formed a theater group with friends, putting on a play called The Black Experience which focused on open housing in Pennsylvania. Back then, Garner explained, black people couldn’t rent in some areas. The group performed the show in churches and community theaters, and Garner officially caught the theater bug.
Syracuse did not need auditions then, and Garner was accepted into the school and its program. Acting was an entirely new experience for him, and Garner had a rough time early on, especially compared to his classmates, who had acted on high school shows. One day, Leonard Drianski, his scenography teacher, dismissed him. He told Garner that even though he felt late, many of his classmates had already reached their full potential. They weren’t willing to learn something new because they thought they knew more or less everything. Garner, however, was a blank canvas and ready to take the lead in becoming a better actor.
In my case, he saw that I was just eager to learn and open to any ideas or whatever they were teaching me. What I thought was my weakness was my strength, he said. I didn’t go with prior training, and it really benefited me because I was learning. I was learning and taking the notes given to me to become a better actor.
After a life-changing trip to Europe that broadened his worldview and graduated from Syracuse, Garner knew LA was his destiny. While he enjoyed working on the stage, television and film captivated him, and so he and a classmate planned to move to the West.
When the plan failed, Garner moved to his home in Scranton to regroup. He toyed with the idea of staying in town for a year to save money, but Richard Waters, a mentor and photographer in Scranton, dissuaded him.
He said to me, you’re gonna get a job, get into a routine and before you know it you meet a girl and a year turns two, three and before you know it you’re right there. It will be easier to justify staying here, Garner said. If I was going to pursue this dream, I had to go now. I couldn’t wait and had to bet on myself.
With $ 200 in his pocket, Garner traveled to Los Angeles. He stayed with a family of friends, even though the job he had lined up failed. He took a day job at the Ministry of Water and Energy, but then heard about the Deputy Directors training program. Managed by the Producers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America, the program was invented to encourage women and people of color to enter the business and production sector of industry, which is usually filled with nepotism. Garner applied, took a test, and was one of 15 people selected from 1,500 applicants that year.
I was so grateful for this program as it was going to be a way to get into the business and learn how the business worked, he said. So when I got into the program on the first day they put me in a van and they sent me there on a show called Mobile One. And since then, I’ve been in the entertainment business.
A typical week in the life of a TV show begins with a new script and a new table read with all the cast. After a few days of rehearsals and usually a fair amount of rewrites from the writers, producers and the studio, the show is filming on Friday night. Before the pandemic, most of Garners’ shows were filmed in front of an audience. It’s an electric feeling to be in front of a live crowd, especially in comedy.
Comedy is harder to do than drama, in my opinion, he said. I think taking problems serious and making them fun is a difficult thing. If you do it right, however, you can get people to sometimes open their minds a little more or a little easier when they’re laughing at something than if it’s still dead, right in front of them. If you do it right, that’s a beautiful thing.
Garners’ favorite genre is the multi-camera sitcom with an audience that laughs and reacts to the show. There is a rhythm that affects the actors, he said, and it depends on how long the actors have to wait for the laughter to stop and how the actors interact with the audience.
It’s the wild card, he said. You never know what you’re going to get when you bring that audience into the mix, and it’s like magic when it all comes together.
Some of her favorite memories involve starting behind the camera on The Streets of San Francisco and The Rockford Files. The Car Wash movie also stands out, as does the work on the Miami Vice season one. He’s also had incredible experiences directing dozens of episodes of Wings, working with actors to create creative and fun moments on more emotionally vulnerable stages.
Garner has also worked on children’s shows including Disney Channels Liv and Maddie and Jessie. While children’s television comes with its own challenges, like any job, the energy of young actors is fun to experience and usually involves some sort of physical comedy, he said.
He also enjoys being a part of the Blues Brothers movie in Chicago and working with John and Danny (aka John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) as well as Carrie Fisher. Garner has worked with dozens of well-known actors over the course of his time, including some early A-listers in their careers. He remembers working on The Duck Factory with a standing comedian from Canada. It was the first acting work in comedy in the United States. His name was Jim Carrey.
Garner also directed episodes of Two Guys and a Girl, starring a young Ryan Reynolds.
He was just that charismatic guy, and he was so funny, Garner said of Reynolds. He was one of those where you immediately know they will go far.
As COVID-19 has slowed the industry down a bit, things are starting to move again. And Garner doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon, either. Most recently, he filmed a project for Nickelodeon as well as episodes of CBSs The Neighborhood, starring Cedric the Entertainer (whom Garner previously worked with on The Soul Man TV show) and Max Greenfield.
It was really cool working with Max. It’s the first time I’ve worked with him, and he’s really cool and fun to work with, Garner said. Cedric is awesome. I love Cédric. … He is very funny, but also very intelligent, and he knows comedy. He knows if something isn’t working and what to do to make it work.
When he looks back on his life and career, Garner is grateful for all he has done to get to where he is today. He met his wife in Los Angeles, and the two raised their sons, Clayton, 30, and Colton, 26, there. He passes on to them the lessons he’s learned, including those of the value of working hard and expanding your worldview beyond what’s right in front of you. It also gives the importance of surrounding yourself with good people and staying humble.
In this business, many people do not have long careers. This business can really change for you, Garner said. I’ve been in the Directors Guild since 1977, and it’s pretty amazing to think about it. Im very blessed and very lucky.
He’s proud of his Scranton roots and Garner tries to get back to town when he can, usually visiting old friends and places where he grew up. Even though he’s been gone for a few decades, Garner can still name the streets and imagine the buildings where he created memories. Her life and career are in Los Angeles, but part of her heart remains with Scranton.
I will always have love for Scranton, he said. It was a piece of my life and my history, and it all got me to where I am today.