Backtalk with James Pickens Jr.

Acclaimed actor and star of Grey's Anatomy shares his passion for cattle roping

pickensPerhaps best known as Chief of Surgery Richard Webber from ABC’s medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, James Pickens Jr. has earned four NAACP Image Award nominations and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Drama Ensemble playing Seattle Grace Hospital’s top dog. Pickens has been part of the award-winning cast since the show’s inception in 2005 and is one of the few African Americans in a lead role on network television. Returning for its sixth season in the fall, Grey’s Anatomy received the 2007 Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Television Series and multiple Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series for 2006 and 2007.

Many admirers know Pickens for his work on the big and small screen, but few know that for more than 15 years his passion behind the scenes has been cattle roping. As a member of the United States Team Roping Championship and a regular participant in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the nation’s only touring black rodeo, the 56-year-old Cleveland native talked to black enterprise about his unusual passion, its history, and his mission to pass on the legacy of cattle roping to others.

What sparked your interest in cattle roping?

I’m a child of the ’50s and my father was a big fan of TV westerns. Back then each network had at least 10 or 11 westerns, and my brother and I would try to watch all of them. The horse has always been my favorite animal. It’s so beautiful and powerful. There’s something about them that epitomizes freedom. Back in Cleveland the closest I had gotten to horses was the merry-go-round at the amusement park, but when I lived in California in the ’90s I had the good fortune of meeting a gentleman who was leasing a horse. When he could no longer care for it he asked me to take it over. While out there I ran into some guys who were rangers and cowboys who took me under their wing. I started out team penning and then graduated to team roping. It’s a great way to relieve some of the tension and craziness of Hollywood.

How does the competition work?

In team penning, three cowboys sit at one end of the arena, and 30 cattle, numbered 1 to 10 in three groups of 10, are pushed into a herd at the opposite end. The announcer calls out a number and you and your fellow riders go into the herd and pull out the three cattle with the number the announcer called without making the rest of the herd scatter. You have 90 seconds to cross the finish line and push them into the pen. In team roping you have two cowboys—a header and a heeler. I’m the header and my job is to rope the steer around its horns and neck, or one horn and the neck. If I catch him, I turn my horse left, wrap the rope around my saddle hook and pull the steer across the arena and set him up for the heeler, who will try to rope the two back feet. If he accomplishes that then we face our horses with the steer in the middle and then that’s time. These are the only team competitions in rodeo.

Is it challenging?

It’s not easy at all. It takes a long time to perfect, but I love it and it’s nice to know that I can help keep it in the public’s awareness that there are more facets to us than people may realize. African Americans were very much a part of the West and still are.

The contributions of black cowboys are rarely highlighted. Is this your way of educating people about the work black cowboys did and keeping that history in view?

It’s something I enjoy doing and it’s great therapy for me, but it’s definitely something that’s been left out of the history books. A lot of those towns around Oklahoma were predominantly black. One-fourth to one-third of all cowboys on the great cattle drives of the 1800s were African American. The Bill Pickett Rodeo celebrates that. It perpetuates the mystique of the black cowboy and shows that we were a big part of the opening of the West.

You’ve shared your passion with youth through the James Pickens Jr. Foundation. Why is it important to give back?

I’ve been so blessed in my career, and my wife and I wanted to try to help other individuals. For two weeks over the summer we partner with Camp Gid D Up, founded by fellow actor Glynn Turman, and give a group of at-risk youth with gang affiliations or who come from broken homes an opportunity to experience the cowboy lifestyle. They’ll ride and get the chance to see something other than what they’ve been seeing most of their lives. It’s an incredible adventure and a lot of them go back changed forever.

This story originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.