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Why James Cleveland From Respect Looks So Familiar

Even the greatest of all time had to learn how to be great from somewhere. Nobody, not even Aretha Franklin, is born the Queen of Soul. Her immaculate voice, her skill at the piano, and her songwriting prowess did not arrive at their peaks overnight. They were honed throughout her childhood years, most prominently at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, C.L. Franklin, was pastor, and where the gospel legend James Cleveland served for a time as musical director. 

Among other ways of looking at its subject, the new Aretha Franklin biopic "Respect" traces the roots of Franklin's (Jennifer Hudson) considerable abilities, including Cleveland's role in shaping them. "It was a big brother/little sister type of relationship," Tituss Burgess, who played Cleveland in the film, explained to Rotten Tomatoes. "And when Aretha came into her musician self, there was a level of respect and a hands-off-ness that Dr. Cleveland had to acknowledge."

Six years after his breakout role, "Respect" allows Burgess to show off the full range of his abilities, which have run the gamut from comedy to drama to simply being himself on camera. Here are some projects you might recognize him from. 

Titus Burgess stole a show within the show on 30 Rock

Burgess got his start as an actor in the theater, appearing on Broadway in productions of "Good Vibrations," "Jersey Boys," and "Guys and Dolls" as well as originating the role of Sebastian the Crab in "The Little Mermaid" musical. But his first big-screen role came in 2011 as the scene-stealing hairdresser/stylist/party-planner D'Fwan on the seminal sitcom "30 Rock."

D'Fwan entered the series as a member of Tracy Jordan's (Tracy Morgan) wife Angie's (Sherri Shepard) entourage, all of whom feature especially prominently as she launches her own fictional Bravo reality show "Queen of Jordan" during the show's fifth season, where his role seems to be primarily wearing colorful hats and defending his queen bee. Still, Burgess got a lot of mileage out of his brief, four-episode stint on the show, as D'Fwan pursued Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) after some confusion about Jack's sexuality, launched a wine label (D'Fwine) meant to be thrown during reality TV fights, and also served as a judge with Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) and John McEnroe (himself) on the competition series "America's Kidz Got Singing," where Jenna savages each of the young contestants.

Burgess told Vulture in 2015 that he nearly missed his audition for "30 Rock," which undoubtedly would have changed the course of his entire career. Unsure of what to do when he got to 30 Rockefeller Center late, he happened to run into an old castmate from Broadway. "To this day, she's the reason that I got to the audition, and subsequently got '30 Rock,' and subsequently got 'Kimmy Schmidt' and an Emmy nomination," he recalled.

Tituss Burgess broke out on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

As Burgess himself says, you can draw a straight line from his gig on "30 Rock" to what would become his breakout role, playing the aspiring actor and terrible roommate Titus Andromedon on Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's Netflix comedy "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."

He may be fundamentally lazy and impressively technophobic, but when he's trying to engineer his big break as a performer or working to save a few bucks as a starving artist living in New York, Titus' creativity knows no bounds. He makes the ideal guide for former mole-woman Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) as she tries to make her way in the big city, deeply knowledgeable about some aspects of modern life while clueless about others.

But while "Kimmy" boosted his star, Burgess told The Guardian last year that it has been difficult at times to navigate people in the real world who expect him to be just like the character, something he bonded with series guest star Daniel Radcliffe about when they worked together. "I like to try and remind people that there's a public persona and that there's a private persona," he said. "I think our job is to get to work and try to create opportunities for ourselves wherever we can and to remind people that we're just actors."

Burgess was nominated four times for the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his work on "Kimmy," and nabbed another nod for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for the 2020 interactive special "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs the Reverend."

Tituss Burgess made sure everyone knew Dolemite is My Name

Burgess' most prominent film role prior to "Respect" came in 2019 in another biopic of an African American entertainment icon — the 2019 Eddie Murphy dramedy "Dolemite Is My Name."

"Dolemite Is My Name" tells the story of the inexhaustible comedian, musician, film star, and producer Rudy Ray Moore, who hustled his way from performing his character Dolemite in a small Los Angeles club to starring as him in a series of blaxploitation films. Burgess played Theodore Toney, a friend of Moore's who ends up becoming a producer on the film "Dolemite." Toney is often tasked with attempting to be the voice of reason as Moore pushes his motley crew to new and greater heights, but reining in Moore's ambition proves to be something of a losing battle.

Burgess explained to the Netflix Film Club his early exposure, or lack thereof, to Moore's work, specifically how his parents would shoo him out of the room so that they could watch "Dolemite" or its sequels. He explained how special it was to work with one legend to immortalize another in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, praising Murphy's work ethic and comparing his role as a producer on the film to that of Moore's on his films, always managing to be "macro and micro simultaneously ...That's exactly what Rudy Ray Moore did."

Tituss Burgess keeps the action moving on Sing On!

Burgess has done numerous voice parts, including a lead role on "Central Park" and appearances in movies "Smurfs: The Lost Village" and "The Addams Family." He's also been a regular on unscripted television, appearing as a panelist on "The Match Game," a judge on "RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars" and even co-anchoring an episode of "The Today Show."

In 2020, Burgess circled back to his brief stint on "30 Rock" by taking a hosting role on a Netflix television competition called "Sing On!," which sees teams of contestants collaborating together to sing a series of themed songs. The quality of their performance adds money to the prize pot, but after each song is done, the contestants get a chance to vote one of their team members out of the show before the next round. 

The show does not go out of its way to stack the deck with the best people who make it through auditions, which Burgess says helps it stand out, giving it more of a karaoke night feel. "This is not 'The Voice' or 'American Idol,'" Burgess told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "These are everyday Americans, which is part of the charm." 

He also explained in that interview that he was eager to add this new bullet point to his resume. "As people get more creative and content producers come up with different ways to incorporate all parts of me, it makes it easier to decide," he added.