Peter Lawson Jones has always enjoyed the stage, whether it’s been acting at Harvard University, arguing in the courtroom as a lawyer or serving as a state lawmaker and Cuyahoga County commissioner for two decades.
“There is an acting component in everything I’ve done,” he says. “You use your ability to be persuasive.”
These days, the 64-year-old uses most of his time and energy reinventing himself as a TV, movie, stage and voice-over actor and playwright.
Jones’ life took a dramatic turn because of the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal. While county commissioner Jimmy Dimora and county auditor Frank Russo were the leading bad actors, an unfair cloud of suspicion hung over Jones and others.
In 2009, Cuyahoga County voters scrapped the commission form of government in favor of a new charter with an executive and council. Jones lost two years of salary and benefits. And his legal practice at Roetzel & Andress took a hit. Familiar clients were no longer comfortable with him.
“I lost probably $200,000,” he says. “And certainly opportunities that would have been readily available to a former public official who served 21 years without a blemish were not available to me.”
Jones became disenchanted with public service. Overwhelming coverage of the county corruption scandal overshadowed anything positive he was doing. While he maintained a passion for theater, Jones was encouraged to try serious acting by former Karamu artistic director Terrence Spivey.
The Shaker Heights resident landed his first movie gig as a walk-on in 25 Hill, Corbin Bernsen’s 2011 film about the All-American Soap Box Derby. While his resume has about 60 credits in TV, movies and theater, many of Jones’ film roles are bit parts as a professor, businessman or doctor. “There are no small roles, only small actors,” he says.
He name-drops Matthew McConaughey, Tyler Perry and Cicely Tyson as actors with whom he has shared scenes. He appeared as a homeless guy on ABC’s Detroit 1-8-7, but it was canceled after the first season. “I went through a lot of preparation to land that role,” he says. “It was disappointing.”
Jones says he was poised to get a valuable role as a Secret Service agent on House of Cards’ final season. But by early November, that seemed in serious jeopardy because of the sexual misconduct allegations surrounding Kevin Spacey.
Next month, Jones hits the big screen in White Boy Rick, the Matthew McConaughey film shot in Cleveland last year. It’s the true-life story of the FBI’s youngest informant, a 14-year-old who gave the Feds info, then became a drug dealer after they stopped using him.
Jones plays the sentencing judge and hopes an improvised courtroom staredown with Bruce Dern, the boy’s grandfather, makes the final cut. Jones is hoping it’s a breakout role. “It was raw conflict, raw emotion,” he says, reliving the moment. “It was pretty intense.”
Jones says he won’t ever run for public office again. While he doesn’t miss the campaigning or fundraising, he does yearn for some aspects of public service. “I miss having a voice that matters on matters of the day,” he says, “and starting programs to help people in need.”