With his athletic build, heavy-lidded expressive eyes and attractive good looks, Omar Epps frequently was cast as sports heroes and troubled teenagers early in his career, but as he amassed more credits and demonstrated his range, he moved on to more substantial dramatic fare. The young actor made a promising film debut as star of “Juice” (1992), cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s directorial debut, a violent and tragic take on four young men growing up in Harlem. Co-starring the late rapper Tupac Shakur, “Juice” showcased Epps’ developed emotional range with his nuanced performance that maintained the appropriate restraint. He followed as a running back in the college football drama “The Program” (1993). Remembered more for the copycat incidents of young men imitating a scene in the film in which players lie in traffic to prove their toughness, the film featured a sympathetic but often overlooked performance by Epps. The following year, he switched to baseball as co-star of “Major League II”, taking over the role of Willie Mays Hayes from originator Wesley Snipes. His next athletic endeavor was playing a runner in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” (1995), an unflinching look at the brutal politics of college life. Epps’ character, a track star on a sports scholarship, quickly finds that his academic performance matters little to an administration that sees him merely as an athletic advantage.
After some notable television work, Epps returned to the big screen in 1997 with a brief turn as a giddy moviegoer who ends up an early victim of a psycho slasher in the blockbuster sequel “Scream 2”. 1999 saw him take on legend-of-cool Linc in “The Mod Squad”, the odd feature adaptation of the dated TV series most memorable for placing Epps in attractive but uncomfortable and decidedly unfashionable tight pants, a subject frequently raised by the actor in interviews promoting the film. While “The Mod Squad” proved a critical and box office bust, Epps later 1999 effort “The Wood” promised to put the actor back on the map, offering him a serious and multi-dimensional role quite unlike his cartoonish turn as the pyro-turned-cop of “The Mod Squad”. Following a group of middle-class African-Americans from youth to adulthood, “The Wood”, the debut effort from director-screenwriter Rick Fumuyiwa, co-starred Sean Nelson and Taye Diggs and received a push from co-producers MTV Films that ensured turnout of a sizable youth audience. Also in 1999, Epps was featured alongside Stanley Tucci and LL Cool J, playing an undercover detective who finds himself dangerously caught up in the illegal goings-on he is investigating in “In Too Deep”. A busy year for the young actor, 1999 saw him lens the 1950s set murder mystery “When Willows Touch”, with James Earl Jones and Jada Pinkett Smith, and the drama “Love and Basketball”, featuring Alfre Woodard.
While his film work has been substantial, Epps got his start on television, and has chosen his small screen projects wisely, racking up numerous credits in acclaimed productions. The actor was featured (credited as Omar Hashim Epps) in the especially topical “ABC Afterschool Special” (and PBS co-production) “In the Shadow of Love: A Teen AIDS Story” (1991). The following year he had a two episode guest stint as a neighborhood tough whose girlfriend (future hip hop sensation Lauryn Hill) has been spending time with the at first unknowing and later terrified ‘T’ (Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell) on the short-lived Malcolm Jamal-Warner comedy “Here and Now” (NBC). He made his first acclaimed HBO original film in 1993, with a co-starring role in “Daybreak”, a fatalistic look at a future America, marked by invasive government, domestic warfare and a deadly epidemic. He was next featured as Kingsley Osofu, the sole survivor of “Deadly Voyage” (HBO, 1996), the shocking true tale of the senseless slaughter of eight of nine African stowaways on a Ukrainian ship bound for the United States in 1992. Remarkably assured and centered for a person of his relative youth and inexperience, Epps nevertheless capably pulled off portrayals of shaky and confused characters, notably as a featured cast member for the 1996-1997 season of the hospital drama “ER”, in which he played a newly arrived surgical resident for whom the pressures of the emergency room and the various personal dramas and secrets of the staff prove too much to handle. His troubled, but highly sympathetic character came to a shocking and heartbreaking end in one of the series’ more compelling sequences. Epps returned to HBO in 1997 as star of the fact-based “First Time Felon”, playing a small-time criminal who goes through Chicago’s boot camp reform system and undertakes a heroic flood rescue, only to then be faced with the adjustment of re-entering society with the mark of ex-con.
After supporting roles in the films “Scream 2” (1997) and “Breakfast of Champions” (1999), Epps graduated to top billing among ensembles with his appearences as Linc in the 1999 update of the TV hit “The Mod Squad” and as Mike, the narrator and one of two groomsman who must help his childhood friend overcome wedding day jitters in the warm-hearted reminiscence “The Wood” (1999). He would subsequently headline the crime thriller “In Too Deep” (2000) as a rookie undercover officer too deeply embroiled in a Cincinnatti drug cartel, and in the well-received “Love & Basketball” (2000) as Quincy, the NBA hopeful who has a stormy relationship with an equally adept female basketball star (Sanaa Lathan). The actor kept busy in supporting roles in a series of films ranging from dreadful—“Dracula 2000” (2000)—to amusing—“Big Trouble” (2002)—to impressive—the telepic “Conviction” (2000)—before landing the juicy role of drug-dealer-turned-prizefighter Luther Shaw who falls under the tutelage of boxing promoter Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan) in the biopic “Against the Ropes” (2004).
In addition to a prolific acting career, the ambitious and creative Epps has also worked as a songwriter, producer and performer with the hip hop group Wolfpack as well as writing (along with childhood pals Marlon and Shawn Wayans), the main title theme song for The WB series “The Wayans Bros.”.
- Bio of Omar Epps courtesy Yahoo! TV
News, Notes and Reviews
SHORT list of TV and Film credits
*You can find an entire list of credits for Omar Epps on IMDB.com
2004: Against the Ropes
2002: Big Trouble
2000: Love & Basketball
1999: In Too Deep
1999: The Wood
1999: Breakfast of Champions
1999: The Mod Squad
1997: Scream 2
1997: First Time Felon
1996: Deadly Voyage
1996: Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood
1995: Higher Learning
1994: Major League II
1993: The Program