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Twenty years ago “Girlfriends” premiered on UPN (which later became The CW) and earlier this month the sitcom became available to stream on Netflix, inspiring an enthusiastic rewatch of the classic show. What most people didn’t know is that one of its stars, Reggie Hayes, had just experienced a serious health scare.
The show that put Tracee Ellis Ross on the map, “Girlfriends” ran from 2000-2008 and it centers around the lives and loves of four Black women, played by Ross, Golden Brooks, Jill Marie Jones and Persia White. Playing their steadfast pal (who would occasionally become a bit more) is Hayes as William Jerrowme Dent, Esq.
On Sept. 18, Hayes was admitted to the hospital. “We’re still not sure what’s going on, I gotta take more tests,” he said by phone earlier this week. “But I have congestive heart failure and it was difficult to breathe. Here in LA, the sky has been orange with smoke (because of wildfires) and it was just really terrible. So I was in the hospital overnight, they were having trouble getting my blood pressure back down. Seems like the more they look, the more problems they find. The good thing is, I don’t have the coronavirus.”
Though he found success on “Girlfriends,” the last decade or so has been challenging. “It’s not my most proud time,” he said. Few TV actors make enough money to never have to work again, and Hayes said he wasn’t getting many opportunities when the show came to a close. “I had starred on this long running show but I wasn’t Matt LeBlanc or one of the other kids from ‘Friends’ who had doors opening for them after their show ended. Pretty much, I was just another guy.”
There had been talk of a “Girlfriends” spinoff starring Hayes, but that never materialized. “I was getting a lot of winks and nods about that, and it just didn’t work out.”
It was a difficult time, money-wise. “I had started a complete rebuild on my house and all of a sudden I didn’t have a job. But the house was on an amazing piece of land and I was able to sell it and break even. So I moved from a house on the hill down to a little bungalow in a sketchy area and people would come by: “What the hell are you doing here?” Those were pretty awful years. I made it work with my little residual checks for a year and then I ended up moving into my sister’s garage for six years.”
He would book guest roles here and there, “but it wasn’t really enough to get by. It’s hard, you can’t even get a day job because people come in and take pictures of you and put it on the internet,” he said, referencing “The Cosby Show” actor Geoffrey Owens, who was photographed while working a shift at Trader Joe’s in 2018.
“I tried being a bouncer for a while, and everyone in the club wanted their picture taken with me,” Hayes said. “I’m 6’2” but everybody knows I’m like a mouse; once you know me, you know I’m a pushover. So that didn’t work out. I also tried being a furniture mover, but I was in my 40s so that only lasted a couple of days. My back never would have survived it.”
He has since found some “nice roommates and moved to the Valley and I started to work a little more,” he said. “And with ‘Girlfriends’ on Netflix and everybody talking about it again, it’s a really nice warm feeling.”
Like most young actors who move to Los Angeles on a hope and a prayer, the stakes were high when he auditioned for the role of William.
“I was desperate for that job. I didn’t have next month’s rent and I owed a couple thousand dollars on my American Express card. I was scared to death. I was in very, very bad shape. And this job came and rescued me and turned everything around. William was described as a straightforward, educated guy and I remember was like, ‘That’s me!’ And luckily I had gone out and bought a suit — my dad said I should always have a suit in case someone died, so I had spent my last money on this suit — and I was looking really good when I came in for the audition.”
A Chicago native, Hayes was born on the South Side. “We lived at 82nd and Merrill, and then we moved to Highland Park when I was 11.” His father was an executive at Johnson Publishing for Ebony and Jet magazines: “He loved talking about who he met — like, Cicely Tyson flirted with him! — just tons of stories like that.”
The youngest of three, his childhood was marked by two devastating events: His mother’s death when he was 4, and then his father’s death when he was 14. Though his father had remarried, Hayes had a fraught relationship with his stepmother and without an extended family to lean on (both of his parents were only children) Hayes spent his remaining school years at a military school in Wisconsin.
But he would return to Highland Park for his senior year of high school, where he met Barbara Patterson, a key figure cited by Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry in the founding of Steppenwolf Theater. She was Hayes’ introduction to acting and helped get him into Illinois State University, where he studied theater and acting. After college he was back in Chicago, where he worked with various theaters including the Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, Next and Goodman.
He also performed improv with a group called Bang Bang (which counted Tracy Letts and Michael Shannon among its members) and he also performed in “Hellcab,” a show that became a fixture in Chicago’s late-night theater scene in the 90s and early 2000s.
“I played all of the Black guys. And then for a couple of years I did play the cab driver,” Hayes said. When the “Hellcab” group brought the show to Los Angeles, Hayes went with them and that’s how he made the leap to Hollywood. (He’s in the 1997 movie adaptation as well, called “Chicago Cab.”)
He got an agent thanks to “Hellcab” and within four months booked his first pilot on a WB show called “Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher.” The job didn’t last long: “I got replaced after the pilot. Talk about a punch in the nose. The next year I got another show called ‘Getting Personal’ and that starred Vivica Fox and that one went for 13 episodes, which was enough for me to get my own apartment.”
He landed small roles after that, in the movie “Being John Malkovich” and on shows such as “Will & Grace” and “Roswell.” The role of William on “Girlfriends” — the loyal friend and straight-laced corporate attorney with a nerdy streak — was his big break.
“He’s like 90% me,” Hayes said. “I’m a lot like that; very shy, kinda geeky. So they would put things about me and my life into the character. When I bought a house in real life, I bought a house on the show. Little things like that. I had an episode where I donated sperm to my sister’s partner on the show and my sister in real life was having a baby at the same time — but her husband didn’t need me at all for that (laughs)!”
His newfound celebrity felt overwhelming, he said, even as he was fulfilling a childhood dream.
“When I was little, I wanted to be Fonzie (from “Happy Days”) because I’m really painfully shy and I thought that if I was famous and stuff, people would know me and like me right away. And that would let everyone’s guard come down and I would be able to be more out there and dating and going to parties. But I really just ended up staying in the house most of the time.
“I’m not complaining about my lot in life,” he continued. “But I was never really a very important person in the room, you know? Here I am, this Black guy who’s kinda nice and most of my friends were white and I just kind of hung out on the periphery. No one really gave a damn. I was never the center of attention before and no one really cared what I said. And then all of a sudden, I was on this show and it went to my head. And then it disappears and it’s like, God, I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I’d had more time to ease into it. That you have to save your money. And you need to develop good friendships with people that aren’t going to just go away. Try to find people who aren’t just after you for your money. And maybe pursue other interests.”
Excitement around the show’s resurgence on Netflix “feels like a second birthday.” Hayes said. “Watching it again, I’m surprised at how skinny I was! Because I never really thought of myself as a cool guy who had a lot of luck with the ladies, and now I’m like, ‘Why not, I was gorgeous!’
“I couldn’t watch myself on the show when I was on it; I think I had only watched 10 episodes when it ended. Your weight goes up and down, or you don’t have your contact lenses in one day your eye goes kind of wonky — it’s just hard to watch. But now I look back on it and it’s a love affair.”
His co-star Ross, who would later win a Golden Globe for her work on “Black-ish,” has talked about how “Girlfriends” was never given its rightful due by the Hollywood establishment, despite the fact that it was hugely popular among Black audiences and ran for eight seasons.
“There was definitely a lack of crossover into the general world of television,” Hayes said. “I always said I was the least important man on the least important show on the least important network on television.
“But it was such a blessing. It really changed my life. Of all the parts I could have played on TV, I think that was the best job I could have gotten.
“Looking back,” he said before we hung up, “I’m pretty proud of myself.
“Girlfriends” is streaming on Netflix.
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