It’s been 25 years since the popular CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless became daytime’s top drama, and Kristoff St. John has been there for the better part of its reign. As Neil Winters, the New York City native has been flexing his thespian muscle as one of the most compelling characters on television for 23 years: a divorced (and believed to be widowed) recovering alcoholic who’s a loving father and grandfather and also a respected pillar of the community.
In Winters’s imperfection, he’s also had romances with two sisters, become embroiled in a paternity scandal, and then—years later—fathered a child with his brother’s wife and taken the blame for the sudden death of a one night stand. He’s helped his daughter battle cancer and also bedded all types of women in between.
Yes. Believe it or not, that layered image of a Black man can be seen on network television almost every single day (even via a work of fiction).
“I feel comfortable playing the character,” says St. John. “I cannot find the role of Neil Winters on any other program on television, or movies for that matter. This is the role of roles.
“It’s a funny parallel that life has, real life and my stage life—things that have mirrored throughout the years,” he adds. “But in no way, shape or form could I find the role of a Black corporate executive who has been the CEO of several companies, a thriving force in the corporate world commanding millions of dollars.
“We do not see Black men forging business deals necessarily on television or in the movies. Shall we go to the stereotypical pimp, hustler, drug dealer, detective? These roles that have been plentiful, that my father had to audition for and procure as a young man beating the streets of New York in the ’60s and ’70s?”
Unbeknownst to some, the 25-year soap veteran’s father is the groundbreaking Blaxploitation actor Christopher St. John, who also wrote, directed and produced the controversial 1972 film Top of the Heap (which subsequently caused him to be banished from Hollywood for its critical themes about the U.S. government).
“He called the entire NASA program a sham,” the junior St. John explains about the movie’s plot, which revolved around a Washington D.C. cop struggling with family woes and career stress, while also having a very vivid imagination. (He dreamed of becoming the first Black astronaut). “He dared to be different; he showed things of Hollywood and they didn’t like that at all,” St. John says of the obscure film.
“They called him subversive and they removed his film from the movie theaters and he faded away.” While Top of the Heap won an award at the Berlin Film Festival and was invited to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, it could be considered a tough trivia nugget—even for a staunch Blaxploitation fan.
“It’s really because of his blacklisting and his film being pulled and him not being able to get work, [that my] career was borne,” the son acknowledges of his father’s sacrifice. “God works in mysterious ways. His exit was my entrance.”
Though Kristoff St. John, who started off in soap operas with the groundbreaking serial Generations in 1989, is not recognized as a pioneer in the field, his character is arguably the longest-running, African-American character in the history of television. (S. Epatha Merkerson as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren is commonly referred to as that—with her 17 seasons on Law & Order.)
“It’s interesting that I’ve been on this show so long. I was a kid when I got there and certainly felt like one,” he says. “In a lot of ways I still feel like a kid, but I have three of my own now, and that’s a testament of the 23 years that I’ve been doing the show and a testament of the show itself.”
Though television genres like ratchet reality shows and celebrity-driven talk shows seem to have grown exponentially and garner most of the attention these days, St. John—who also appeared on Happy Days and Roots—is very aware of the impact the unsung daytime drama still has on its viewers. “I can’t think of a show that’s run as long as our show has,” he says. “You know, we’ve heard about shows like The Simpsons as the longest-running series primetime show, and we don’t get enough press, strangely enough, about CBS’s number one daytime drama for all these years. Why is that? I don’t know.
“It’s phenomenal that it has been that long. In fact, it’s probably a record that will never be broken.”
Outside of The Young and the Restless, St. John is also celebrating the release of a film he produced that’s currently making the rounds on the festival circuit. Titled A Man Called God and directed by his father, the full-length documentary started filming 30 years ago and chronicles the St. John family’s spiritual journey to Southern India to search for God. “We filmed a documentary that sat in a vault for many, many years because we lost our faith. And I took the material recently [and] spun a whole different story I knew would work.”
A Man Called God will next be screened March 31 at the American Documentary Festival in Palm Springs, California.
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in Jet, Playbill, Billboard, The Daily Beast, Essence and CNN.com. On Twitter, he’s @TontoKaru.