James Pickens Jr. sits behind the roping box at the South Point Hotel and Casino during the Thunder EquiGames to watch the team roping. He's not there with an entourage. He hasn't required special seating or security. While the world knows him as Dr. Richard Webber on ABC's hit Grey's Anatomy, today he is a team roping fan.
Just like everyone around him, he speaks to his friends without ever taking his eyes off the action in the arena. In the 15 years since he first picked up a rope, he's quietly become a dyed-in-the-wool student of the game.
Being a big fish in the small pond of roping was never a motivating factor for his interest in the sport. From the time he was a little boy he had an affinity for the West.
"I always loved horses," he said. "Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, it wasn't a place that you would think is conducive to horseback riding, but I've always loved the West. As a kid of the mid-50s and 60s, I grew up watching all the Westerns with my dad on television. I always pretended to be a cowboy fighting the bad guys."
After working his way up through the acting ranks, he moved to California in 1990 and hit the big time playing in movies such as Traffic, Nixon, Bulworth, Ghosts of Mississippi and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
"I got out to California and was fortunate enough to get involved with horses on a more serious level," he said. "It's been a lot of fun, it's a great escape from the craziness that is Hollywood. It's been a nice therapy for me, even if I'm not roping, to get out on the trail with your horse and get away from the madness. It's had a real therapeutic effect on my life."
He began trail riding and team penning, but there was something about team roping that called to him. Then, in a twist of fate similar to how the late Ben Johnson became a Hollywood actor, Pickens found roping.
Johnson brought a load of horses from Oklahoma to Hollywood in 1940 and fell into a career as a stuntman and actor.
For Pickens, a transport driver from Oklahoma was killing time on the set roping a dummy.
"The guy was a roper and he carried a roping dummy in the cab of his truck and between takes he'd have it out and be roping," Pickens said. "I had no idea what I was doing, but it intrigued me. I had team penned before that, so I was aware of it and team roping was always something I was interested in. I thought team roping had a little more of an adrenaline rush than the team penning, so I picked up the rope and started fooling around with it. I found myself catching this thing. I hooked up with some guys that were really handy and it's been 15 years now."
As anybody who has swung a rope?or tried to help someone else learn to swing a rope?knows, it's not something you learn in an afternoon.
"I didn't take up riding until I was 40 years old and my wife, Gina, kids me and says, ?You waited until you were 40 years old to decide you wanted to start playing in the dirt'" Pickens said. "But I had such a love for horses and I really wanted to dive into it headfirst so I really practiced a lot and I would bring my roping dummy to the set. Folks kind of looked at me and asked, ?What's that?' You'd explain what team roping was and some folks would get it and some would just say, ?Oh, O.K.'"
But he didn't let that stop him. He took lessons from Jimmy Perez, bought DVDs, read voraciously and practiced.
"I just practiced a lot and I got to the point where I'm not bad," he said. "The work schedule that I have makes it tough to get practices in. You take two steps forward and then there's a long period of time when you're not roping and you take two steps back."
When he couldn't practice, he dove into horse pedigrees and recognizes bloodlines as good (and in many cases better) than the average roper. After all, it was a love for horses that led him to the sport.
His first stick was a Hancock-bred red roan he called Smokey.
"I lost him to colic one day while I was at work so it was pretty tragic," he said. "He was pretty solid as far as a head horse was concerned."
Now, he rides a sorrel Driftwood-bred horse he calls Reno.
"He's real kind," Pickens said. "Kind of a goofball, likes to get in your back pocket. He works solid for me, a guy who doesn't get to rope everyday. I need a horse that I can trust. He was started really well. I'm pretty comfortable when I back in the box on him. He scores really well and he's got a nice size. He's just turning eight this year. He's a solid horse.
"During the summer I was roping once or twice a week, which is a lot for me. My hiatus usually starts around the end of April and goes through mid-July and I get a lot of roping in then. But during the season it's tough to do. Sometimes I can sneak out if I get a day off."
Despite not roping as much as he'd like, he manages to stay very involved in the sport. He attends the Wrangler National Finals regularly, has become friends with the top ropers and provided guest analysis during the team roping for ESPN's broadcast of the Wrangler NFR for the past two years.
"I met him at the NFR when I won one of the go rounds, he gave away the buckle," said eight-time World Champion Speed Williams. "When he introduced him, I made my wife come up on stage with me. She's a fan of the show and she and her girlfriends are big McDreamy [actor Patrick Dempsey's Grey's Anatomy character] girls. Ever since then, we've stayed in touch. He invited us out to the set, but I haven't made it yet. From the beginning, I was very impressed by his knowledge of our sport."
As were viewers of the ESPN broadcast and producers of the show.
"It's the actor in me," Pickens said. "I just started watching various guys and how they roped and how they rode their horses and I've got one of those memories that things just kind of stuck. I'm such an admirer of these guys and what they do, they have such skill, and sometimes it transcends skill and for the really good guys it becomes art. When the horse and the cowboy are together, it's almost beautiful in its simplicity?and the history of it and what it came out of. I try to stay up on my stuff."
Part of that comes from staying in touch with guys like Williams and Britt Bockius, as well as learning from Jake Barnes, Clay O'Brien Cooper and Trevor Brazile.
"I think a lot of the guys were intrigued by a guy who came out of Hollywood and showed more than just a cursory interest in it, but really wanted to get involved in it and really talk to the guys and pick their brains," he said. "And I think they were interested in finding out about what I do. It is a far cry from what they do. And I found that they were really genuine guys. What you saw was what you got. I came in there with no airs or pretensions and I was an open vessel. I wanted to let them know how much I appreciated them and in return, they became fans of the show. Or their wives and girlfriends became fans of the show.
"I was just intrigued by these top-level guys who could make a living roping. I always thought my job was hard, being an actor, but then to watch these guys go to all these rodeos and try to make a go of it not knowing if they'd make enough to pay their entry fees or get down the road?it is remarkable."
So the next Thursday night you come in from roping or work and flip on the TV to see Dr. Webber embroiled in the drama of Seattle Grace Hospital, you can look at the man playing him and say, "I've got something in common with him."
James Pickens and his wife of 25 years, Gina, started the James Pickens Jr. Foundationover a year ago to make an impact in their communities by bringing "increased value to the lives of people of this generation and the generations that follow."
Primarily, that's meant partnering with agencies that benefit children in difficult situations. The primary charities they've partnered with are Grandparents as Parents, Hands for Hope and Camp Gid D Up.
Camp Gid D Up is a member of the American Camp Association and was founded by fellow actor and team roper, Glynn Turman and his wife, Jo-An, to expose inner city youth to the western way of life.
"They bring kids from the inner city, kids at risk, up to their small ranch an hour or so north of Los Angeles and for a week and they introduce them to the cowboy lifestyle. They ride, they camp out under the stars and they hike. I've been involved for about 10 years and they just do incredible stuff. I wanted to be a part of that and bring more attention to what they're doing."
One of the ways Pickens is accomplishing this is through the first annual James Pickens Jr. Foundation Charity Roping. Happening April 22 in Osbourne, Calif., the roping is a USTRC Affiliate and will feature an open five-steer. There is $5,000 added and entry fees are set at $250 per man. Half of all the proceeds will benefit the foundation.
"As far as the team roping is concerned, it was the perfect marriage between Camp Gid D Up and my love of team roping," Pickens said.
Grandparents As Parents helps facilitate grandparents who, for whatever reason, have gained custodial care of their grandchildren. Hands for Hope provides resources for single mothers.
"My hope is this roping will spark interest and guys will want to come back," Pickens said. "We want to make it an annual thing. I see that these cowboys have a heart for children and want to see the best for them. Kids have taken a low rung on the priority list now and so we just want to bring some attention to that and try to make a better life for these kids."