A side never seen

A SIDE NEVER SEEN: “I wanted to show some range. To make you both laugh and cry,” says Tracy Morgan, right, of LeeJohn, whom he calls a knucklehead. (Tony Rivetti Jr. / Screen Gems)

IN his costarring turn in the urban comedy "First Sunday," due in theaters Friday, Tracy Morgan delivers a performance that's bound to surprise the career funnyman's fans. Which is to say, the seven-season "Saturday Night Live" alum, who is currently on a writers strike-mandated hiatus from his NBC sitcom "30 Rock," took a stab at -- gulp -- drama.

"I wanted to show some range," Morgan said. "To make you both laugh and cry."

Tearjerking is hardly Morgan's default setting. Possessed of one of the most elastic mugs in the business -- a face that can register Mephistophelean mischief and recall the Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz" to equally comedic effect -- he has tended, in films such as "The Longest Yard" and on his short-lived TV comedy, "The Tracy Morgan Show," more toward bumbling slapstick than serious actorly emoting.

However, his "First Sunday" character -- a career petty criminal named LeeJohn whose choices lead him perilously close to a three-strike prison sentence and grievous bodily harm at the hands of a posse of Jamaican gangsters -- doesn't strike only one note. He's goofy but also serious as a heart attack; in certain scenes he's both at the same time.

Morgan describes the character as a "knucklehead," a "lovable guy" and a "tragic character" -- a victim of his inner-city circumstances who accidentally discovers his humanity while attempting to rob a church and hold its congregation hostage (alongside his co-conspirator Ice Cube).

To wit: In one of "First Sunday's" most emotionally freighted scenes, LeeJohn confides to one of his captives (played by Loretta Devine) that he doesn't know when his birthday is, having grown up shuttled in and out of group homes throughout his youth. Devine responds to the news with a simple but poignantly sympathetic gesture, announcing to the other hostages that "today" is LeeJohn's birthday. And she sings him "Happy Birthday." There in the middle of a botched robbery, Morgan weeps bittersweet tears.

The exchange cuts to the heart of the movie's central themes: that bad guys are never all bad and that personal accountability often leads to redemption. So how did Morgan prepare for the moment?

"I lost a puppy when I was 6," he said. "A German shepherd. I thought about that."

"First Sunday's" writer-director David E. Talbert recalled Morgan getting into character differently. "Before that scene, Tracy said, 'I'm ready to cry, D! The real comedians, they cry. Look at Richard Pryor! I've been waiting to cry all my career,' " Talbert said. "I said, 'No, Tracy. You can't. In the emotional arc of that scene, you have to unravel years of not ever knowing when your birthday is. Once that's done, you're swelled with emotion. That's why the tears come.' "

Talbert added: "The best comedic actors have a lot of pain they carry. If they ever allow you to access it, that's where the magic comes from."

After the scene's final take, Morgan fled the set to make a phone call.

"Me and my mom hadn't spoken in a few years," Morgan said. "That scene just made me miss her. I told her I loved her and what a great job I did. That was LeeJohn. That's what made me do it."

chris.lee@latimes.com