Barney is one of the most recognizable dinosaurs, costumed characters and children’s show icons there is. When Barney & Friends first aired in 1992, kids went nuts and Barney merchandise flooded stores and homes alike. New episodes of the series have not run since 2009 but PBS stations still continue to show re-runs of Barney & Friends to this day as children are still enjoying that special half hour with their friend Barney.
The man who played Barney himself took some time to talk with UTG as he told us the story of how he became the big purple dinosaur and what effects the experience had on him along the way. Read through and take a nostalgic trip with David Joyner, the man inside Barney!
You have an extremely versatile resume; from being a live mannequin to a software analyst to a motivational speaker, but you had no previous experience as a costumed character before becoming Barney, right?
None whatsoever [laughing].
How did you get involved with the job?
As a matter of fact, when I was initially asked to audition I turned it down. The short version of the long story is that I was working for Texas Instruments as a software analyst and when they hired me, they asked me how long I planned on being there and I said, “Well, my goal is to be here at least five years and then quit to pursue entertainment full time.” After the fifth year I really wasn’t ready to quit and the sixth year came up and I thought, “Okay, this is the year.” So I got involved in an acting workshop and the gentleman that taught the acting workshop for adults, his wife owned an acting school for kids. They needed a substitute teacher one day and they asked me to fill in. I went and subbed and fell in love with working with these kids. The age range at the school was 3-and-a-half to 18. The first class that they gave me was a bunch of 4, 5 and 6 year olds and I just fell in love with working with these kids and teaching them acting.
This was down in Dallas – every year they had a Hollywood showcase where they flew in casting directors and agents from Los Angeles to work with these kids on a two-day seminar. They do commercials, comedy and monologues. I was preparing these 4 and 5 year olds for the actual showcase and this casting director from Dallas by the name of Shirley Abrams was also invited to the showcase and she came in and saw me working with these kids. One of the things I used to do as a mannequin, as you’re standing there frozen, one of the exercises I did with the kids in class was this freeze exercise where they’d have to freeze like a mannequin and while they’re frozen, I’d have them slate. They could be in any type of position while they freeze but they would have to slate as if they were standing straight up and looking into the camera. So she saw me working with these kids and she was like, “Oh my god! How is he able to do that with these kids?!” She was pretty amazed and asked if I could get her a resumé and I said, “Sure!” I gave it to her and we kept having showcases throughout the year where we would invite her so she saw me interact with the kids constantly at the school.
This was in May of 1990 and I decided that I was going to quit my job at the end of the year. I went to my boss and I asked him if he’d put me on a severance package; we were about to have a big lay-off and he said, “No, I can’t do that,” so I picked up my calendar, closed my eyes and pointed… to September. September 28 was my last day. Now, this is May. So from May until September I’m telling people at work that I’m gonna quit my job, get into entertainment full-time, I’m gonna act. They’re like, “What do you have lined up?” I say, “Nothing.” “How do you know you’re gonna make it?” I said, “I just know it! I just know it!”
In August, the same casting director called me for an audition for America’s Most Wanted. I go into the audition and I end up booking the part and we were gonna go to Arkansas to shoot this scene but a week before we’re supposed to go she calls me up, she says, “Dave, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is they caught the guy, the band news is now we don’t need to shoot it.” I learned a valuable lesson that day; don’t go around bragging to people that you’ve booked this role and gonna go do something. Anyway, she says, “I really love your work. I wanna bring you in on something.” I said, “Okay, great.”
The day I turned in my two weeks notice at Texas Instruments, I go to the acting school, a week later I get this fax to audition for Barney. Back then, Barney wasn’t heard of. They had done some home videos and it was a home video series but really, nobody had heard of Barney. When I got the fax I was like, “Barney? What the heck is Barney?” The young lady that ran the acting school explained to me, “A couple of moms in Allen, Texas came up with this character,” and some of the kids in the school were on the show! Like the original Lucy and Derek, they were all kids at the acting school. So I asked the kids about it and they were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we do a couple of videos,” so I said, “Okay.”
The audition criteria said, “Work well with children, good actor, animated, costume character.” I go, “I’ve never been a costume character! I don’t wanna do this!” So I call Shirley and I say, “Shirley, I really can’t do this. I’ve never done costume work. I don’t wanna do this,” and she’s like, “No, David, you don’t understand! I think you’re perfect. I’ve seen you work with these kids and I think you’re perfect!” I say, “But, Shirley, I’ve never done costume!” She goes, “I don’t care! You can do it!” [laughing]. So she says, “I’m gonna send you some videos. I want you to study these videos so when you come to the audition you’ll be well prepared.”
So I get these videos, and every time I tried to watch the video, Brian, I’d fall asleep. Every… single… time. I’m like, “What is goin’ on?!” I could not get through one video! I’m like, “This is boring!” Barney’s like barely moving, he’s waddling, and the voice is like [in deep, slow motion voice],”Whoo-hoo-hoo, hello boys and girls.” The night before the audition, I tried to watch the video again and I fall asleep. So I go to bed at night and I have a dream, and in this dream, Barney passes out and I give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. So I wake up the next morning and I’m like, “Okay, what was that about?” I’m on my way to the audition, true story, on my way to the audition, I stop at a stop light and I look up and I see this billboard and it says, “Breathe life into your vacation. Southwest Airlines.” It just caught my attention, no big deal. So I pull into the parking lot where the audition is, close to the airport, and I look up and I see the same billboard. I’m like, “Why am I looking at this billboard?” It dawned on me as I’m walking across the parking lot, “That’s why I couldn’t watch Barney; he’s dead. I’ve got to breathe life into this character!”
So I go to the audition and there’s about 70 people in the room. The premise of the audition was that we had to watch this video of the kids performing “Hey, Mr. Knickerbocker” and we had to basically go in and do this same choreography. They give you this Halloween mask to put on then you go into the room and you do this choreography. So my whole thing now is to breathe life into this character with as much energy as possible. I go into the room and I say to myself, “I gotta set ‘em up for this.” So I go into the room and I’m very mild mannered, very nice, “Hello, how are you? Nice to meet you,” and Shirley says, “This is the guy I was telling you about.” Of course I’m thinking, “No pressure, Shirley.” They ask me a few questions and ask if I’m ready and when the music starts it was almost like “Pop Goes the Weasel.” I just started doing all these animated movements and jumping around and acting all crazy doing the choreography! They’re like, “Whoa! Hey!” After a series of auditions, I think it was like five, they gave the part to a young lady. They asked me if I’d mind being a back-up and I said, “Not at all!”
Well what happened was that before the contract with PBS had even come up, there were Barney concert performances and this young lady did one live appearance and apparently she couldn’t stay in the costume for a long period of time and she needed to get out and some more kids were coming and they asked if she could stay in just a little bit longer and she freaked out in front of the kids and had to get out of the costume. After that, they never heard from her again. So then I get a call asking me if I’d still consider being Barney and I said, “Sure!” The very first appearance they had me do was a live appearance in Providence, Rhode Island. So I go to the choreographer’s home, I learn the choreography for the whole show and she says, “When you come out on the very first show, do whatever you want. Just jump around, clap, dance, whatever you wanna do.” At the time, I was also performing in night clubs in Dallas. There was this one private club I’d go in every Thursday and I’d do a different act. I’d do an MC Hammer act, I’d do a Prince act, then the next week I’d come in with a top hat and cane and do a Fred Astaire act or I’d come in with my live mannequins and we’d do this whole mannequin act performance, moving mechanically. One of the things I would do is jump and do a 360 and land.
So the first live show, I’m standing behind this curtain and the announcer comes out and she goes, “Who did you come to see?!” and you hear this, “BARNEY!” I’m like, “Woah! This is bigger than I thought!” You hear this beating on the bleachers and you hear this rumble, then the music starts and the curtain opens and it’s just me and I start jumping and dancing, and then I think, “I wonder if I can do a 360 in this costume…” So at the very end of the song I jump up and do a 360 and land and I hear this, “WOAH!” After that, I’m in the dressing room totally exhausted and one of the producers comes back and she’s like, “Oh my God, that was amazing!” I’m like, “Thank you, thank you!” [laughing] That’s what started Barney’s 360!
What would you say kept you in the costume for a full decade?
You know, after getting the role and then getting the PBS contract, then traveling around the world doing different types of appearances, there was something about Barney and we knew it in the studio. The very first time we shot that first home video… oh, I forgot to tell you, when I got that call for the audition, it was just to shoot two home videos. The first time we got in the studio to shoot this very first video, well, the first video was a Barney live in concert. The second video was when we were actually in the studio. As we were in the studio shooting this video, we were all kind of like, “Wow, this is something really special we’re doing here.” We all knew it. Unbeknownst to us, they were working on a deal with PBS, and I even said, “Man, if this thing ever gets on television it’s gonna go crazy!” So after we shot a couple videos we get word that we had just signed this contract with PBS for 30 episodes. To do 30 episodes in a six month stretch was pretty unheard of, but we had to basically do it like a machine. We got these 30 episodes out and Barney started airing and it became the biggest hit for PBS; the ratings flew out the roof, then they canceled the show…
We didn’t understand the whole political aspect behind canceling the show. One of the program directors that used to work at Sesame Street was now in charge of programming at PBS and they decided to cancel the show. So we go on this grass roots campaign calling up everybody we knew in every city asking them to talk to, or petition, their local PBS station to get Barney back on the air. Once Barney got back on the air then it just became this phenomenon, you know? Everybody got wind of it. It became like this national headline. Because of that and because of the family orientation of getting all this back on the air, and the camaraderie of everyone working together, it became this big family and this jell. To be honest with you, it wasn’t even money and of course there was no fame involved because nobody knew it was me, but it was all about this thing that we were doing and we knew that we were creating something special. The jell that we had in production with the production crew, the cast, everybody, was a huge family. That’s what kept us in it for so long.
After the 10 years, I decided that as an actor and as an artist you always want to do more and you want to move on and we were about to go on a hiatus for about a year and I thought, “Well if I don’t move to Los Angeles now to pursue my real acting career, I’ll never do it.” That’s why I decided it was time to leave but of course I told the Barney people, “If you need me, I’m here for you but once I move to LA and join SAG, I couldn’t do any more Barney television shows,” because it’s non-union but I was still able to do personal appearances and train other Barneys. So we worked out a deal with SAG and Barney called me back and we started doing more personal appearances and I started training other Barneys. But to answer your question, it was just that family value that we knew that we were creating something special.
Were there ever any times in the 10 years that you wanted to leave the show?
No, not at all. Not at all, and like I said, the only reason I decided to leave was because I knew that it was time to make that move to Los Angeles because getting older and as an actor, I didn’t want to be in the costume for the rest of my career, so to speak.
What was your favorite thing about being Barney?
I love traveling. I love being able to interact with people all over the world and the great thing is that Barney got all this notoriety and fame, and I didn’t receive any but from only a few people who really knew who I was. So I was able to interact and mingle with a lot of people and they had no clue, but then when they found out, they were like, “Oh, this guy is really cool. He’s really nice.” It was almost like being an ambassador for Barney. Even when people would shun Barney or talk bad about Barney and then they found out that it was me they’d be like, “Oh, now I see Barney in a whole new light.” I would break it down for people like, “There’s something very special about what we’re doing. We’re teaching kids that they’re special. We’re teaching kids that I can love you, you can love me, unconditionally, and it doesn’t matter.” Of course for me, being very spiritual as I am, I would always pray before I got into the costume and I would ask God to allow His spirit to flow through me, through the costume and let that draw the kids. That it not be me but just be that spirit, and it worked every single time. Every single time.
Do you have a lot of Barney memorabilia from the show?
Oh yeah. I have a storage full of stuff. I’ve got a bunch of little plush Barneys, I’ve got a huge poster from the movie, Barney’s Great Adventure. My ex-mother-in-law used to make this 3D art and she made me this 3D art poster of Barney’s Great Adventure movie. It’s pretty awesome. Actually, I even have all the VHS tapes, too; all autographed and signed, and most of the scripts, locked away.
Did you ever get any criticism for being on the show or playing Barney?
Yes, I actually did. The Ku Klux Klan found out that the guy that played Barney was African American. Yeah, this was back in, I wanna say ’94. They banned their kids from watching Barney. I remember at the time I was getting asked to do a lot of interviews and they wanted the mystique to stay as it was and I didn’t know this but they were turning down some major interviews. Oprah wanted to interview me, you know, and they were like, “No. No, no.” Then this came out and of course whenever someone wanted to interview me, it’s like, “Okay, we gotta let them do the interview.” So as it turns out, they just decided that the guy that plays Barney is black and the whole story was basically another black guy taking a job from a Caucasian man. It was all based on how blacks are taking all the jobs [laughing].
I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent PBS issues with funding and such. What are your thoughts on the situation?
Yeah, you know, PBS has always been, well, with the different cities pledging and everything to keep PBS on the air… PBS is like a foundation. I grew up watching PBS. I grew up watching Sesame Street. It’s a huge fundamental part, I believe, in our generations, it’s a huge fundametal part of our learning. Sesame Street was like the biggest thing out there. Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and I remember the first time meeting Maria from Sesame Street and I was like, “Oh my gosh! You know I’ve had a crush on you all my life?!” [laughing]. You know, I personally, I would not condone getting PBS off the air. I think it’s a grass roots of our American culture.
You’ve done a ton of other television beyond Barney. What have been some of your favorite shows to work on?
ER was a really good show to work on. I was a dialysis tech and they’d bring me back once a year. One of my things too, I would teach the kids, is that when you book a job, that’s one thing, but try to get the job to where they’ll call you back. Even if you book for one episode or just a co-star role, go in and do the extra to whatever it takes that they’ll be so impressed that they’ll call you back. Same thing happened with ER, same thing happened with Young and the Restless. It’s like, I go in for this one role for one day and it turns into a reoccurring thing. I love to act. I love to perform. The great thing also about my agent that I work with is that I don’t necessarily have to audition for the gang stuff, prison, thuggish black guy role. I get to go audition for doctors, lawyers, police officers, you know, people that work in a hospital. That’s my personality and that’s who I am so a lot of the roles that I’m able to audition for are basically roles that fit my personality. I really accredit that to not only my agent working with me but just the attitude I try to portray as an actor. So I guess to answer your question, I really don’t have a favorite, but as an actor, being able to work [laughing], and being able to put on many hats.
So your last work was with Scooby Doo: Curse of the Lake Monster?
Yeah, I was actually Sinister the Clown. Yeah, that was the last thing I had done, man. I’ve done some independent stuff. I did this web series that hasn’t come out yet, with Rick Fox, playing a police officer, and I’ve done a couple of independent films. I just actually booked a co-star on Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 that we’re gonna be shooting next week. Yeah, as a business man. But yeah, it’s been a dry spell.
You’re sticking to it though.
Yeah, man, it’s like breath to me. It’s like breathing. Plus, I actually work for a production company also; C to the B Productions. Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard of this character, Hip Hop Harry, but it was on Discovery Kids and TLC for a few years then Hasbro bought Discovery Kids and they changed all the childrens formatting. We’re currently trying to get Hip Hop Harry back on another network but we still do live appearances all across the country. Just recently I was in DC performing at the Library of Congress National Book Festival and before that I was in Minnesota performing at their Target Book Festival, so we still get Harry out across the country.
All in all, what has been the biggest blessing for you having the experience with the Barney character?
The fact that I haven’t done the character since ’05 and I’m still recognized as the guy who was Barney and to me that is a true testament of the work that I did. When I left the show, someone else took over the position, still he didn’t get the notoriety that I got for being a character. Being Barney, to me, wasn’t about just an actor inside of a costume, and this is something that I tried to train the other guys being Barney, is that you can’t just be a performer and get on stage or get in front of the camera. You have to live this, you have to breathe it, it has to be imbedded in you. You have to really love what you’re doing. Not just being in the costume but to truly love kids. Kids read energy and they read it very well and if your energy’s not coming across very genuinely, they’re gonna pick up on that. It’s gonna be picked up on stage, they’re gonna pick it up on television. My thing is that when I walk around daily, I want to bring joy. I want to bring laughter and love to people because I’m a happy person and I love being around happy people. This is who I am. This is who I’ve been since I was a kid. My step-mom always said, “You know, God created you for this position.” I’d say, “Really?” “Yeah, no matter what you do for the rest of your life, you’ll always be Barney.” [laughing]
I’ll tell you one quick story, too. My mom passed away in ’94. She had cancer and she was having a surgery. I was living in Dallas and this was in Illinois, so everyone rushed home. My mom and I were really, really close. She confided in me with a lot of things. So, the day of the surgery, they’ve got her down in the anesthesiologist area and they’re prepping her for the surgery. We’re all sitting in the waiting room and there’s an announcement on the intercom; “David Joyner, please report to the nurses station.” So I go to the nurses station and she says, “Your mom needs to tell you something. She’s down on the basement floor. Can you take the elevator and go down?” I’m like, “Well do you know what it is?” and she says, “No, but she needs to tell you something.”
So I go down this elevator and all these thoughts are going through my mind like she thinks she’s gonna die and has something she needs to tell me, something hidden. I’m like, “What’s going on?!” So the elevator opens and there’s all these nurses standing there and some of them are smiling and others are looking at me and staring at me and I’m like, “What’s going on?” So I see my mom lying on this gurney so I go over to her and by now she’s all drugged up and I say, “Mom, what is it? What is it?!” and she says, “Baby, could you give these nurses an autograph? I told ‘em who you were…” [laughing loudly]. That just jerked my heart right there. That was a pretty crazy moment. That was special. Then they wheeled her off and she goes, “I promised ya’ll he would do it!” [laughing again].
Written and conducted by: Brian Lion – Follow him on Twitter