Actor Mykelti Williamson starred in his share of beloved 90s movies, including Heat, Free Willy and Con Air – but undoubtedly the role that Williamson will always be synonymous with is Benjamin Buford ‘Bubba’ Blue, Tom Hanks‘ ill-fated Vietnam War buddy in Forrest Gump.
Though it brought him huge exposure, Williamson found that starring in the Oscar-laden blockbuster actually made it difficult for him to get work. Throughout filming on Forrest Gump, Williamson wore a prosthetic in his mouth in order to make Bubba’s bottom lip stick out. Believing Williamson really was a “weird-looking guy”, however, Hollywood casting directors for a time became reluctant to cast him at all.
Mykelti Williamson was 36 years old when cameras rolled on Forrest Gump in late 1993. He had been a working actor for over 15 years, having made his screen debut in a 1978 episode of Starsky & Hutch, with other credits including the movies Wildcats and Miracle Mile, and a recurring role on TV’s Midnight Caller.
Even so, acting alone didn’t pay his way, so throughout the 80s and 90s (including after Gump) he also took contracts to remodel kitchens and bathrooms.
When Forrest Gump came along, rappers Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur, as well as comedians David Allen Grier and Dave Chappelle all auditioned for the role of Bubba Blue before Williamson was considered. The actor says he was then so unknown that at first he had to fight to be seen, but once he got his foot in the door he really made an impression.
“I had this interpretation for this character, and stuffed my lip for the audition… and ended up getting the job”, said Williamson in 2022. Bubba’s large lower lip was not something that came from the script, but from Williamson himself; he wanted the character “to be unappealing on the outside, but beautiful on the inside.”
The filmmakers were so taken with Williamson, particularly with his prominent lower lip, that it was agreed that the actor would wear a prosthetic appliance in his mouth for the movie. However, while this may have been advantageous for his portrayal of the character, Bubba’s lip caused some issues for Williamson in the short term.
Because Williamson was not a well-known an actor at the time, his appearance in Forrest Gump represented the first time many viewers had seen him. This included many Hollywood producers and casting agents, most of whom weren’t aware that Williamson didn’t really look like that.
Williamson explained to USA Today in 1997: “I couldn’t get a job after Forrest Gump. The industry didn’t realize that I was wearing a lip device and that I was the same guy who had appeared in 11 TV series. They thought the director had discovered some weird-looking guy and put him in front of the camera.”
To fix things, Williamson “hired a publicist to get my real face out there, next to Bubba Blue’s face, so people could say, ‘oh yeah, I’ve seen this cat!” Taking this step off his own initiative meant that Williamson wound up spending pretty much all the money he made up front on Gump, “reinvesting in saving my own career.”
This proved effective, particularly once his publicist got him an interview on David Letterman’s top-rated late night talk show in August 1994. In order to clarify that his mouth didn’t really look like that, Williamson brought the lip appliance he wore on Forrest Gump, and even got Letterman himself to try it on during the interview.
This, the actor says, did the trick. “The very next day, the phone began to ring.” In the years since playing Bubba, Williamson has clocked up another 41 film roles (some more recent entries including The Purge: Election Year and Fences) as well as 45 more TV credits (including 24, Justified, Designated Survivor and Law & Order: Organized Crime).
Not only that, but the legacy of Bubba Blue lives on in a number of ways. The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which Hanks’ Forrest and Gary Sinise‘s Lt. Dan founded in memory of their friend in the film, has since been turned into a real restaurant chain. (It was where Jurassic World star Chris Pratt got discovered.)
Williamson himself has also capitalised on the connection, by selling spices and seasonings with his company Bubba Style Spices. Though he initially had mixed feelings, today Williamson acknowledges the good that Forrest Gump did his career. Asked about the film’s enduring appeal, in 2010 the actor remarked that “we knew we were making something special…I’m so proud of that movie and that performance”.