A prodigious writer, infrequent movie director, and commentator for National Public Radio, John Ridley has made his mark penning novels, TV shows, screenplays, and Internet series ranging from the neo-noir scheming of Cold Around the Heart (1997) to the broad, satiric comedy of Undercover Brother's film and online incarnations.
Raised in suburban Milwaukee, Ridley exited the Midwest to attend New York University. Though he got his degree in East Asian languages, and spent a year in Japan, Ridley opted for show business and started doing standup comedy in New York clubs after college. Despite appearing on the late-night talk shows, Ridley quit standup to become a writer, moving to Los Angeles in 1990. Ridley landed his first job writing for Martin Lawrence's sitcom Martin in 1993; he subsequently wrote for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The John Laroquette Show. While doing sitcoms, Ridley took a crack at novels with the entertainingly nasty noir Stray Dogs. When the book initially failed to sell, Ridley adapted it as a screenplay which caught the attention of Oliver Stone, who decided to direct it himself. Under the auspices of Stone's production company, Ridley made his own directorial debut when he helmed another of his neo-noir screenplays, Cold Around the Heart (1997). A low-budget crime story starring David Caruso, Kelly Lynch, and Chris Noth, Cold Around the Heart got a minimal theatrical release after playing film festivals. Ridley's work attracted more attention that same year, however, when he had a dispute with Stone over Stray Dogs. Upset that Ridley's novel would come out several months before his movie, Stone publicly objected and then changed his film's title to U-Turn (1997). Regardless of whether the book spoiled the surprise, U-Turn's noir theatrics with Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Jennifer Lopez caused little excitement at the box office. Ridley's new career as a novelist, however, hummed along without disruption; he published his fourth novel, A Conversation With the Mann, in 2002.
Prolific as ever, Ridley put the Stone experience behind him and sold an acerbic screenplay about greed and the Persian Gulf War entitled "Spoils of War." By the time it reached the screen via director (and rewriter) David O. Russell, the renamed Three Kings (1999) deviated so much from Ridley's original version, including the lead African-American character becoming George Clooney, that Ridley had only a "story by" credit.
Taking a break from films, Ridley returned to TV in 1999 as supervising producer of NBC's gritty emergency worker drama Third Watch. While doing Third Watch, Ridley crossed over into yet another medium with Undercover Brother, an animated series for UrbanEntertainment.com. A sharp satire of racial stereotypes, Undercover Brother displayed the same mordant wit as Ridley's occasional newspaper articles about his experiences as a black writer in Hollywood, and became the first Internet series to be adapted as a movie. With Ridley aboard as co-writer and executive producer, Undercover Brother (2002) broadly parodied blaxploitation movies with slapstick abandon, yet still managed to land a few savvy jokes about race and politics.