Vernee Watson can’t remember her life before the arts were a vital part of it. As a kid growing up in New York City, dance classes and piano lessons were part of the family routine (“My father used to make us practice piano two hours every day, and if we didn’t, we’d get punished for weeks on end”), and she and her siblings “were always performing some place,” she recalls. But her true passion, acting, she discovered on her own, when she accompanied a friend to her acting class. “I was about 16, in my junior year of high school, and that was it. I was hooked.”
While her brother and sisters all ended up in medical professions, it was clear to Watson’s parents that, as she puts it, “I was a little different. I couldn’t stand to go to a doctor’s office. I would pass out whenever we had to visit somebody in the hospital. Even now I get very dramatic when I have to get blood drawn!” So, even though she got a full scholarship to New York University in math, after two years at the School of Commerce (“I was bored out of my mind, believe me”), she transferred to the School of the Arts, where Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis was one of her teachers. “She was a crazy lady!” Watson exclaims fondly. “But very passionate.”
She began her professional career while still in school (earning her SAG card when she was 17 for one line of dialogue in the film Cotton Comes To Harlem) and ultimately booked so many jobs that she took a leave of absence from NYU — and never returned. “A lot of my classmates felt that I was selling out because I was doing commercials and stuff, but I had a business sense about me and I enjoyed making that money!” she chuckles. “Especially not really having much coming up. I did Crest, Bounty, all the cereals. People called me the commercial queen. They would see me coming in [to auditions] and they’d say, ‘Oh, Lord, girl, don’t you have enough? Get outta here [laughs]!’ ”
Watson became so ubiquitous in commercials that her rep ultimately advised her that due to overexposure in the New York market, perhaps she should try her luck in Los Angeles. “I was going to just stop by and then go to Mexico for a little vacation,” she says. That plan was shelved when her old friend Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, freshly cast in a new show called WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, suggested that she try out to play his girlfriend. She remembers an agent telling her, “Vernee, you are too old to go down there and try to play a teenager.” Fortunately, she didn’t listen; Vernajean was her breakout role, lasting from 1975-77.
Her memories of the classic sitcom are fond ones. “I went to an all-girls Catholic school, so it was cool being in the classroom with some guys. I had a ball on the set with John Travolta and, you know, Ron Palillo and Gabe [Kaplan]. I was having children at the time; I had my two kids,” a son and a daughter, “when I first came out here, so I got more rest at work than I did at home! A lot of actors would be like, ‘Don’t be cutting my lines, I’ve only got a few lines!’ I would be happy when I only had a few lines, because I could spend time relaxing in the dressing room and put my feet up.”
The actress never did leave L.A. — and to say she kept working seems like an understatement. Name an iconic TV show, from THE LOVE BOAT and HILL STREET BLUES in the 1980s, to L.A. LAW and PARTY OF FIVE in the 1990s, to THE X-FILES and THE WEST WING in the 2000s, and chances are, she’s appeared on it. She’s “never really become a big star,” as she puts it, but her face is recognizable to viewers from a wide swath of ages. “I’ve got people who know me as Vernajean, and then the whole generation that watched FRESH PRINCE [where she played Will Smith’s mother, Vy, for several seasons]. I’ve got the other crowd that watches BIG BANG THEORY, because I played the nurse on there since the pilot, and the kids have seen me on JESSIE and A.N.T. FARM. It’s kind of amazing to me when I think about how long I’ve been around here and working,” she marvels. “I’m just grateful.”
Like most working actresses, her successes haven’t innoculated her from hard professional times. “There’s so much rejection that you go through in this business,” she notes. “I’m a Christian and I’m not ashamed of it, and it keeps me grounded. If I didn’t have [my faith], I don’t know where I would be.” But in the end, Watson credits her longevity to professionalism. “On set, I would always try to know my lines, pay attention to direction, hit the right marks and just not waste time, get my check and then, ‘See you later.’ ”
This work ethic serves her well at GH, where she debuted as Curtis’s aunt/Jordan’s critic, in June. “At first, it was a little overwhelming because of all the dialogue, but I’m loving it!” So are the show’s powers-that-be, who recently had Stella land a job at the hospital, ensuring that she’ll be sticking around. “Even Frank [Valentini, executive producer] says, ‘The fans really love you. We can’t get rid of you. It’s really annoying [laughs].’ It’s a great group of people and I feel very warm and cozy when I go over there, which you don’t get a lot. It’s just fun to go in and get all dolled up, do your thing, and work with the great actors that are on there, like Donnell [Turner, Curtis] and Vinessa [Antoine, Jordan], who I love.
“I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I’m grateful for what’s happening right now,” she concludes. “People stop me on the street: ‘Aunt Stella! Oh, I’m loving you!’ or they fuss at me for fussing at Jordan. I’m getting fan mail now and I’m like, ‘What the heck?!’ I’m really happy that people are connecting with it. If I can put a smile on someone’s face, I’m all for it.”
just the facts
Hails From: The New York native was born in Harlem, “but then I moved to Brooklyn, to the first projects ever built in New York City, the Williamsburg projects. Now they’re million-dollar condos.”
Daytime History: After appearing in bit parts on New York shows, Watson did two more sustained recurring soap roles in California, Y&R’s Birdie in 1999 and DAYS’s Dr. Ella Kraft in 2007.
Will Power: Watson says that Will Smith, who played her son on THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR, “was cool to work with. But people say, ‘Do you still see Will?’ and I say, ‘No, he’s a kid!’ I mean, to me, he was a child, why would I hang out with him?”
Tall Order: Though his dad hoped he’d become a basketball player, Watson’s son, who is 6-foot-4, followed in mom’s artistic footsteps and is a professional dancer.
Ain’t It Grand? Watson has two grandsons via her daughter, who is finishing her degree in graphic arts. “I love my grandkids, oh my gosh,” beams Watson of 8-year-old Josiah and 2-year-old Ezekiel.
did you know?
• She rubbed shoulders with some famous faces long before they were celebs. “I was in the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble with Chip Fields, so I knew [her daughter] Kim Fields when she was a baby. One of my teachers was Minnie Gentry, Terrence Howard’s great-grandmother. His mother used to bring him to class when he was a little boy.”
• Watson teaches acting to children, and her newest pupil is Vinessa Antoine’s (Jordan) son Basquiat.
One of Vernee Watson’s most memorable experiences as a guest star came in 2014 on the tween show JESSIE, when she was cast on an episode featuring a cameo by then-First Lady Michelle Obama. “That was amazing,” she raves of the experience. “When she walked on the set, we were all standing there and she glanced over at me and she went [gasps], like she knew who I was. I was like, ‘Wow!’ She’s just the nicest person, so comfortable in herself. I had scenes with her and she was improvising and having fun. They had told us, ‘No pictures, no autographs, none of that stuff,’ but when I told her, ‘They said we couldn’t take pictures,’ she said, ‘Girl, get your camera!’ Someone took a picture of her hugging me, and she signed it and had it framed and sent to me. Isn’t that cool? I have it hanging up on the wall in my living room.”