WJBF – Tony Wicks was a beloved character on the hit TNBC sitcom, California Dreams, which aired on NBC from 1992 to 1997; however, the actor who portrayed him has traded his drum sticks for a doctoral degree.
Dr. William James Jones takes a trip down memory lane as he discusses his time as an actor on California Dreams, and he chats about pivoting in his career and now walking in his calling.
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us on Celebrating Black Excellence. Now, my first question, I know this was a lifetime ago for you, but how did you get started with acting?
I think as of this week, 31 years ago is when the show [California Dreams] premiered. My gosh! Wow! And the fact that we have such wonderful, loyal fans still… it’s incredible. But anyway, I was a young child actor in Chicago. I went to high school called the Chicago Academy for the Arts, and there, I got to engage in theater, music, dance, and art pretty much all day until about 4:30. That prepared me well. I was pretty involved in the theater scene in Chicago for quite some time. I did a couple of plays at the Goodman Theater, like Shakespeare’s 12th Night and so on, and so I thought of myself as a young, serious thespian. Then, this was really fun show came along, and my agent at the time said, “You know, you’re a serious actor. Are you sure that you want to do a comedy?” I said, “Yeah. It sounds like fun.” And it was! It was a blast! I don’t regret it at all. I was able to literally just have the most amazing, expressive version of myself on that show, and I’m glad that people are still wanting to know how we’re doing and wanting to come see us.
Now as I mentioned in the beginning, you portrayed the character of Tony Wicks. What was the audition process like for being a part of the show?
So, they did a national search for my character. I think two of the other characters were L.A. casting. I think it was Kelly’s character, and Sly was casted up to L.A. But I was in Chicago at the time, and so I had to audition on tape. They wanted me to sing because it is a show about singing with a high school band, and that’s what we’re going to be doing: we’re going to be singing together. So, I put together an audition of Johnny Gill’s “Rub You The Right Way” and pretend that I was performing for 10,000 people and singing about stuff that I had no clue about at 15-16 years old. Peter Engel, the executive producer, absolutely loved it and flew me out to L.A. to what they called Network for the final audition for all the network executives. I got to tap into that comedic sensibility that I developed a little bit of in the theater world, and the rest, as they say, was history.
As we as we mentioned, the show is about a group of high school kids, and they’re in the band. So, we have to talk about the songs because the songs are definitely iconic. My three favorite songs were “Rain,” “Next Big Thing,” and “She’s Not You.” Did you have any favorite songs?
I mean, all of those are definitely up there, and I loved “Rain.” “The Next Big Thing…” I had a blast doing that. It’s a fan favorite, and it’s definitely one that we’ll be doing at the reunion. So yeah, I think the “Rain” experience was great because it reminded me of the kind of R&B music light that I enjoyed in the 90s. When I got to put the music video together, I wanted that to be my “Bobby Brown-coming out” moment, you know. Because we were a teen Saturday morning television show, they wanted to keep it teen. So, we had to have these marionette puppets, and I had to sing to a doll a couple of times in the video shoot. I was so sad about that. I kept thinking, “You all are ruining my Bobby Brown moment here. Bobby Brown wouldn’t sing to a doll.” But they wanted to keep it really PC. Anyway, it ended up fine, and we got to dance a little bit on video, but that that is by far my favorite: “Rain” and “The Next Big Thing.” Oh, and then of course, the theme song. People love that theme song. As soon as they hear it, they just it takes them back to a special place in their childhood.
So, how do you feel about the fact that your show does have an impact on people? How do you feel that people still love the show and still love the songs? How does that make you feel as an actor on the show?
Yeah, I mean, I hung up my acting chops a few decades ago as I transitioned into the mental health field, but I will say that it’s special because our show was really wholesome if I dare say that. It always had a meaning and a point kind of like a Scooby Doo episode where there was some kind of take away at the end about humanity and about doing what’s right and the multiculturalism that was evident in our show. I mean, you know, Peter Engel was one of the first to really have a multicultural cast and to introduce the kind of relationships that would be problematic. Well, they’re not problematic today. They were definitely problematic back then. I get all kind of mail about the different, you know, sketches and scenes that they were creating for us. So, you know, I think it was ahead of its time, and people can appreciate a show with a message. We all loved each other. We get along. It feels like high school, like a high school reunion for me. I was 15 when I started, and we were, you know, really close, especially Jennie [Kwan] (who played Samantha), Kelly [Packard] (who played Tiffani), and Michael [Cade] (who played Sly). We’re all really close friends still to this day.
Speaking of reunion, you guys have one coming up: a meet and greet coming up soon. Can you please tell us about that?
Yes, back by popular demand. We did one back, I think in 2019, 2020. There was a California Dreams reunion. Actually, the first one was right before that. Jimmy Fallon was a big fan of our show, and he wanted to have a California Dreams reunion. So, he brought us all out to New York on his show to do that because there was a Saved By The Bell reunion, and he wanted a California Dreams reunion. For those that didn’t watch the show, it came on right after Saved By The Bell. Anyway, so we did a reunion concert here in L.A., and it was wildly successful. It sold out in like 10 minutes, and we had to add another show. We were going to simply do a little mini tour after that and then COVID happened plus a few other factors. Now that that’s kind of winding down and/or over, the fans still want it. They still want it. And, you know, the girls – Kelly and Jennie – have done little mini concerts here and there. I’ve not been involved. I’ve been very focused on my clinical work, but this one, they asked me if I would do it, and the fans really want me there. I just couldn’t say no, and I want to be there. I mean, there are people who have done covers of “Rain” that send me shots of it. They have done covers of our different songs, and they’ll send it to us. They have some of them watching it on YouTube with their kids. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say, but it feels like a kind of a cult classic for some people, and I want to give some that love back. So, that’s why we’re doing the reunion concert. That’s why I’ll be there, and the whole cast for the first time – everyone from the very first season – will all be there. We’re going to sing all of their favorite songs and basically give the fans what they want.
Now I have a character question. In 2023, what do you think Tony would be doing right now?
Well, if you remember the last episode, Tony got into Yale, so I think my actual life now wouldn’t be too far off. I’m a professor, and I’m a clinical psychologist. So, I’d like to think that he would be doing something like that or maybe he’d be the principal of a school or something or the theater group.
Now let’s just talk about that. You actually did a pivot in your life. You are now Dr. William James Jones with a PhD in clinical psychology, and you are the CEO and clinical director of the Jones Psychology Group. What made you go into this direction?
The best way to explain it… it’s a calling; it’s a nudging. I had always been interested in philosophy, theology, and psychology, and I just kind of considered it a hobby. I love reading books. I’ve always enjoyed reading books. When I started a small theater company called the Jones Theater Workshop, back in the days of my acting time, I would write little plays, and I would directly work with actors who wanted to be part of this group of 20 members at that time. I started this coaching division where basically for any of the actors that wanted to work with me one on one. That was a kind of a separate thing, and I started to really enjoy working with the actors as people one on one and helping them figure out their lives. That was just something that really lit a fire inside of me. People just tend to, at least at that time, come to me for just coaching or life questions or some kind of mentorship. So, I was volunteering at a church in Inglewood many decades ago, and I was just a lay counselor. There was a gentleman that was fresh out of a long-term incarceration, who was living in a halfway house, and he wanted someone to talk to. They had licensed counselors there, but they have lay counselors. I was just a lay counselor, meaning not formally trained but just someone with a heart who wants to be there for people. And this guy was really in a state of questioning his life and only wanted to talk to me. I kept trying to push him to other people who were professionals, but he just wanted to talk to me. So, I would talk to the elders and say, “What do I do? And they said, “Give him this resource. Give him that.” And I kept thinking, “I don’t know what to say to this guy. I don’t know how to really help them.” That inspired me to go and take the psychology class, and literally it was that psychology class at a community college here in L.A. that just awoke something. Then, I went to take another class and another class and another class. So, I said, “I’m going to get a degree in this thing.” And I mean, the rest of this is history. It just lit a fire that has not stopped. I love what I do. I work with a lot of people in the business people and everyday folk too, if you will. California Dreams has given me insight into a world that I can blend all of that together with people who are various eccentric and different who think differently and behave differently, and it just all works together.
My final question for you: mental health is something that we constantly are talking about now, which is very important, especially in the African-American community. How important is it for those of us to take care of our mental health? How important is that for us to focus on that?
It’s as important as doing your annual physical at the medical doctor: your primary care physician. Mental health is as real as anything else going on. Just because people cannot see it, doesn’t mean it does not exist, and I’m really happy to see that society is shifting quite a bit nowadays, especially the Black community, becoming more and more accepting of it. You know, our nation needs support. I mean, if you think about all the anxiety and depression and people who are abusing substances, especially through COVID. There are so many marriages that suffer, and there are some people who are addicted to things. They were drinking way more than they normally would because of the isolation. The anxiety has been spiking through the roof, not just here in the U.S. but around the world. The World Health Organization has all kind of very jarring data about depression globally. So, we need more people to check in with themselves and lean in and engage in psychotherapy if it’s needed for them. So, I’m a big proponent of it, clearly very biased, but I’ve seen lives transformed by getting the proper help they need at the right time, and it’s out there that help is available.
If people want to follow your journey and what you have going on now, how can they do so?
Well, you know, I’m not really much on social media, but my kids convince me to keep at least an Instagram so they think they can follow me there. It’s just @williamjamesjonesphd. It’s a private account, but I let people in however that works. But also, I’m doing my mission, and I’m doing my work. You know, I will do interviews like this from time to time, but the most important thing that I do is teach the next generation of psychologists and also work with patients, who are a good fit for me and my colleagues, who I’ve hired in my practice, and we are doing our part to make the world a better place.
If you’re in the New York area, the California Dreams Reunion Meet and Greet will take place Friday, October 13th at the Stitch Bar & Blues at 247 W 37th Street in New York, NY. For more information, you can click on the link: bit.ly/90sdreams-wjj.