Broadway director Kenny Leon on following his grandmother's advice

Kenny Leon on his grandmother's life lessons
Kenny Leon on his grandmother's life lessons 05:22

Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon has directed numerous Broadway hits including "Fences,"  "Holler If Ya' Hear Me," and "A Raisin in the Sun," for which he won the 2014 Tony. His most recent Broadway production, a revival of "Children of a Lesser God," is nominated for a Tony for its lead actress.

In his new memoir, "Take You Wherever You Go" (Grand Central), Leon writes about his humble beginnings growing up in Florida with his grandmother.

"My grandmother had 13 children, so I felt like I was her 14th after her kids were out of her house," Leon said on "CBS This Morning." "I had the fortune of living with her the early years of my life. So, we would sit out in the country from Tallahassee, Florida, on a small farm and watch cars go by, 'That's my car! That's your car!' Later I went to live with my mother and stepfather in St. Petersburg, Florida."

Tony-winning director Kenny Leon CBS News

He said the key to how he got from a farm in Florida to Broadway was something his grandmother had told him: "She said, 'Baby, take you wherever you go.' I said, 'What you talking about?' 'That means you got a better chance at being yourself, you know? Everybody else is taken, so be yourself!'

"So, I think I've gotten to where I am now because I'm authentically Kenny Leon. I'm not like anyone else. When I work with Denzel Washington or Sam Jackson, I think they like it because I'm my raw, authentic self."

Leon had previously been an actor before becoming artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company. He later left Alliance and directed regional and Broadway shows, as well as the live television productions of the musicals "Hairspray" and "The Wiz."

"I found out that in life every seven to ten years you have to change and do something, change jobs – you can't be a prisoner of what you're doing," he said.

Grand Central

He writes in his book that it's important to know what you don't know and find that out, and to be observant and open to the answers that come your way.

"When I did 'Hairspray: Live,' [we] had 800 people. We had never done a live musical like that. I didn't know what I was doing, but I had to step into it, I had believe into it, I had to admit what I didn't know. And because I did that, I was able to pull off something that I think was really wonderfully done!"

His latest production was a revival of the play "Children of a Lesser God," about a deaf student and her teacher. Co-host Norah O'Donnell asked, "What did you learn?" 

"I learned how stupid I was!" he replied. "Lauren Ridloff, who is now nominated for a Tony Award, she hadn't ever acted before. She was teaching me sign language, and after a year of sign language with her, I said, 'Maybe you should be this person,' and I cast her in her first Broadway show. So, the fact she's in the first Broadway show and now she's nominated for a Tony Award, that's pretty amazing." 

He counts among his mentors the late playwright August Wilson and actor Samuel L. Jackson, whom he directed in "The Mountaintop."

"Sam Jackson is the best. From day one I could always call him, 'Should I do this? Should I do that?' and he's always been a person that's reminded me that I'm a person from the South, and that in the South, grown folks get up and go to work! He said, 'Find your passion and figure out a way to get paid for it.'

"That's what we've done. Hopefully I can continue to make my mother and my grandmother happy by taking me wherever I go."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and