John Wesley Shipp on passing the Flash torch and playing Henry Allen

The-Flash-John-Wesley-Shipp Scott Fishman
The Flash -- "Tricksters" -- Image FLA117B_BTS_0342b -- Pictured: Behind the scenes with John Wesley Shipp as Henry Allen -- Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW -- © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

John Wesley Shipp can feel his career coming full circle in many ways thanks in large part to the popularity of The Flash.

Before there was a hit CW show, the veteran actor played the title role of the speedy crime-fighter in the short-lived 1990s series on CBS. Shipp has relived old memories and gained a ton of new ones portraying Barry Allen’s father Henry on the modern-day The Flash. When rumblings of the new show began, he was ecstatic.

“It was about time,” Shipp said, gearing up for the Magic City Comic Con Jan. 15-17 at the Miami Airport Convention Center. “It was in development for a film so many times. Fans had gotten their hopes up, and 24 years is a long time to represent as a super hero character. Our show, being in 1990-1991 and having new life in 2006 when they released it on DVD, there was continued success amongst the niche audience. It amazed me.

“The reaction when it was announced I would be on the new Flash completely caught me off guard,” he continues. “It was really gratifying, but I was like, ‘I hope it goes.’ Then I got to know the people. I got to know Grant [Gustin]. I got to see how talented he is, and what a decent, good human being he is. And I thought, ‘Yeah, this is the guy to carry this going forward.’”

After a quarter of a century, Shipp was back in the live-action DC Universe, only this time as a dad. But playing a father figure isn’t new for the former Mitch Leery on Dawson’s Creek. And the built-in history made him the perfect candidate for Henry Allen. Right from the first scene between Shipp and Gustin, there was a feeling that the Flash torch was being properly passed.

“Everyone knew that is why I was there,” Shipp said. “The first season in particular, I felt it was important for me to be there. Even though it was around 25 years ago, it was a network audience. It was a really large audience that we had. You had to carry a much larger audience, because there were such fewer options to make a hit in those days. The loyalty from the niche audience for The Flash, it’s something we had to have if we were going to be a success. There were many still invested in the 1990 Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo version.

“So it was very important to be there to hook my audience into the new effort. I saw it as the best of both words. It wasn’t just on-the-nose old superhero/new superhero. I got to play this really great character in Henry Allen that I would have wanted to play had I never even been Barry Allen. But the fact I was Barry Allen in a project that was still very high-profile helps me play Henry Allen better.

“So I got to pass the torch, but not in an on-the-nose way,” Shipp continues. “It was more of a father-son blessing. Every time Grant and I did a scene together, people remarked on the emotion in those scenes, and the connection — no doubt, my history playing the character, him knowing that and my knowing what he is going through playing it now. My empathy for him in the suit and all of that, of course it resonated in those scenes. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so effective.”

There are also a few coincidences that helped bond the two further. Gustin and Shipp’s birthdays are days apart in January. The original Flash premiered the same year Gustin was born — 1990.

The Flash -- "Gorilla Warfare" -- Image FLA207B_0019b.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): John Wesley Shipp as Henry Allen and Grant Gustin as Barry Allen -- Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW -- © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.
The Flash — “Gorilla Warfare”  — Pictured (L-R): John Wesley Shipp as Henry Allen and Grant Gustin as Barry Allen — Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW — © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

The pair’s semi-regular father-son interactions were a pivotal part of Barry’s growth in Season 1. Getting his dad cleared for his mother’s death was a focal point of the show until the mission was accomplished. Instead of enjoying his newfound freedom with his son, Henry abruptly leaves town. This left viewers puzzled.

“That was a shocker, wasn’t it?,” Shipp admits. “Although I knew I didn’t want to be sitting on the sidelines drinking beer and eating pizza asking, ‘Where you off to, Barry? Off to the crime lab today?’ I can just envision it. So I knew once Henry got out of prison, they would need to find a compelling reason to make it so I was not there every week. It’s like the law of diminishing returns, with people wanting to see me more on the show. That’s the comment I’ve gotten. I think they used me right because when I was there it meant something.”

Shipp recalls discussion with Andrew Kreisberg about the future of Henry’s character and reasoning of the unexpected goodbye.

“I had to make it about Barry’s well-being and tying it into the fact the whole episode he has been saying he hurts the one he loves and can’t be what he needs to be and be close to people,” Shipp says. “It’s hard, because if Dad gets out of jail, he is willing to throw it all out there. Now that is he out, are they going to be roommates, get pizza and go to the movies? Henry knows better than that. He knows what Barry is going through. We had to hook it that, rightly or wrongly, Henry had to believe it’s the best thing for Barry.”

The Flash -- "Gorilla Warfare" -- Image FLA207B_0068b.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): John Wesley Shipp as Henry Allen and Grant Gustin as Barry Allen -- Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW -- © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.
The Flash — “Gorilla Warfare” — Pictured (L-R): John Wesley Shipp as Henry Allen and Grant Gustin as Barry Allen — Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW — © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

The decision was met with mixed reviews. Shipp knew it would be a tough sell.

“Once everyone got over the shock of it, I told people to go back to watch the scene again,” he said. “Go back and hear what was actually said in the scene. Henry does not want to discuss it at the party. He tries to evade the issue, until Barry pins him down. In the first version, Henry told Barry ‘you can’t be all you need to be with me there.’ So I said what if I turned that into a question. What if Henry almost hopes he is going to says ‘yes, I can be and I want you to stay?’ But he doesn’t say that. He evades it and says you’re the only family I have left. And that isn’t even a true statement. So Henry says, ‘Well, that isn’t really true, is it? Don’t you have another family in this room?’ I tried to hook in that. Some people said he is the most selfish dad in television, but I also said to Andrew to tell me there is a darker motivation. Tell me there is something that I don’t know of why he is doing this. I can play that.”

Thus, Flash fans young and old have the glimmer of hope the door is open for Henry Allen to return. We just don’t know when or in what fashion, just yet.

“Things change so fast,” Shipp said. “We didn’t know until a month or so before we filmed the season finale last year that Eddie was going to die. Look at the sheer volume of what they are writing on television. We don’t always know. I look at the comic books now and Henry Allen is this bad ass who is getting an army of criminals to break out of jail to go after Zoom. I tell you, I have comic book envy!

“I want to play that Henry Allen,” Shipp concludes. “That’s not what I’m given. Truthfully I don’t get the sense there is a big investment in Henry Allen this season. I can understand that. I understand that they needed me last season, and that Grant has come into his own. They don’t need me to be there. If they can find something interesting for me to do, I’ll be happy to come do it. But I don’t want to hang around for the sake of hanging around.”

The-Flash-John-Wesley-Shipp
The Flash — “Tricksters” — Image FLA117B_BTS_0342b — Pictured: Behind the scenes with John Wesley Shipp as Henry Allen — Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW — © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • The Flash returns 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, Jan. 19 on CW.
  • Meet Shipp and a host of other television stars, comic artists and voice actors at Magic City Comic Con in Miami.
  • Follow me on Twitter @smFISHMAN.