Cylk Cozart: All-Star Actor from Knoxville Tennessee

Written by Matt Hollingsworth

In 1972, when Cylk Cozart was 12 years old, he wrote out a plan for his life:

  • Play professional basketball for ten years
  • Become an actor for ten years and win an academy award
  • Direct movies for ten years and win an academy award

 “I think I even spelled ‘professional’ right,” Cylk quips. 

“So, you always had big dreams?” I ask.

“Oh, they weren’t big to me,” Cylk responds. “They were just dreams. I didn’t look at it like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to Hollywood now.’ Hollywood was like Oak Ridge… I didn’t have that scope until I got to Hollywood.”

Cylk has gone on to achieve great things, but the path has been harder and the obstacles more difficult than his 12-year-old self would have imagined, yet he has fought through these to become a successful actor and director.

Cylk grew up in Knoxville in the 70s and attended Karns High School where he was captain of the basketball team despite being two years younger than his classmates, having skipped two grades. His life plan seemed to be on track until one day in his Senior year when his coach came to him and said, “We heard you’re dating a white girl.”

Cylk, who is black, responded, “Coach, I’ve never even had a girlfriend.” Mentally, he added, even if I was dating a white girl, so what?

“We don’t mix here,” the coach said. “We’re going to go take a vote downstairs, and if one player doesn’t want you to play, you’re not going to play.”

Cylk was good friends with his teammates, and every player voted to keep him on the team—except for one Freshman. His friends tried to stand up for him, but it was too late: the coach had already decided.

In the end, he would still get to play his Senior year, but he had to switch schools to Loudon and play on their team instead. Nevertheless, he didn’t let this discourage him, believing he was good enough to get a scholarship and play in college. He ended up going to Montreat-Anderson College, but not long after, he was injured trying out for the NBA summer program.

“I thought it was the end of the word,” Cylk says. He had been playing alongside other talented teammates and doing well, but suddenly, all that was taken from him.

Yet he didn’t let this beat him either. He continues, “But then I licked my wounds and went to Miami and while I was on the beach, I met some models.” From there, he became part of the modeling industry, hoping that a director would see him in a magazine and hire him to act. His first goal seemed impossible, but the second two were still in reach.

Eventually, he moved to Hollywood and, unsure how to break into the film industry, he started attending the Hollywood YMCA where many big-name actors went. He met people like Denzel Washington and George Clooney. While Cylk was no longer able to play basketball professionally, he was still able to play well against the people there. He quickly made friends with these stars and with director Ron Shelton who would become his mentor. 

Seeing his interest in acting, Denzel Washington landed Cylk a small part playing a reporter in his movie Ricochet. Denzel even got a trailer for Cylk to stay in on set. He couldn’t believe it. He was a no-name actor and suddenly he was friends with major stars and staying on set in his own trailer.

One day during lunch, Denzel came to Cylk and said, “All right, a script came through the pike called ‘White Men Can’t Jump.’”

Cylk laughed and said, “I hope that’s a comedy.”

“Yeah, it is, but the director is brilliant. He wrote it for me, but I ain’t doing nothing like that. I’m getting ready to play Malcom X after this. But you—you can ball and you can act. They ain’t going to find many actors that can play ball at that level… You’re the only one I can even think of.”

And just like that, Cylk was auditioning for one of the leads in a multi-million-dollar movie, and when he arrived for the audition, he was shocked to find Ron Shelton, his friend from the gym, in the director’s chair. Cylk hadn’t even known Ron was a director before this. The audition went well, and Cylk was called back for a second reading, this time with Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves, two of the biggest stars in the world at that time. Afterward, they went outside to shoot some hoops which didn’t go quite as well as Ron had hoped.

When they left, Ron turned to Cylk and said, “I don’t know what these guys were doing growing up, but it wasn’t playing basketball.”

Eventually, Ron found the perfect man to star alongside Cylk—Woody Harrelson, who was just becoming popular for his role on the TV show ‘Cheers.’ He did a script reading with Cylk which went phenomenally well, and for one glorious week, it seemed like they would be the co-stars of the film. Then one day, Ron called Cylk asking him to dinner.

When they sat down together, Ron said, “It’s not going to work out.”

“What’s not going to work out?” Cylk asked.

“The studio is not going to use you and Woody.”

“But I thought…”

“Woody is a fifth star, fifth lead on a TV show. He doesn’t have a film queue. The studio is very uncomfortable putting $30 million on a fifth star on a TV show and a no-name lead.”

Cylk’s heart went to his stomach. “So what are we going to do?”

Ron explained that the studio was forcing him to give the leading black role to Wesley Snipes with whom they had a three-picture deal. 

“This should be your film,” Ron said. “I’ve fought for you, and I’ve done everything I can.” 

Cylk wanted to ask how the studio could do this to him, but he buried those feelings and said, “Ron, I appreciate you fighting for me.”

Ron responded, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to rewrite the script. I’m going to add a character, and you’re going to be one of the stars of it.” 

“That’s what we did,” Cylk tells me. “I ended up being one of the leads, and it was the biggest movie I’ve ever done, and it kicked off my career.”

While he was no longer in the starring role, Cylk was still thrilled to play a major character in the film. His charm and improv skills shined as he acted alongside Woody Harrilson and Wesley Snipes.

Cylk went on to act in other movies like “16 Blocks,” “Eagle Eye,” and “Conspiracy Theory” with Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, and Patrick Stewart. He got to spend a lot of time with them, and he says that they were all very good people. In one scene, Julia Roberts was supposed to knock him out with the butt of a gun, and she was terrified that she’d accidentally hurt him. Cylk assured her that he’d be fine, but when they filmed the scene, she hit him hard enough to actually knock him unconscious! She was very sorry, but at least it made the scene all the more realistic.

In 2022, he also completed his second goal of becoming a director with his documentary “Inherit the Land,” which tells the story of two wealthy white sisters in the South at the turn of the 20th century, who in their will, leave their property to a black man and his daughter who grew up in their home. Unfortunately, their will was challenged by the sisters’ cousins, but fortunately, the black heirs were able to triumph. Over his career, he has won numerous awards. In 2021, Representative Burchett arranged for a flag to be flown over the Capitol Building in Cylk’s honor for his birthday.

“I could have given up a long time ago,” Cylk said. “But you learn more, I think, when you have to go through things. It forces you, mentally and physically, to find a way to do it.”

It’s been a long road, but he’s accomplished great things.

About the author

Matt Hollingsworth

Matt Hollingsworth is the chief writer for the Bingham Group where he writes articles for Monroe Life, Farragut Life, and McMinn Life magazines. He has a degree in publishing from Belmont University and has previously written content for Aspire—Clinton, TN's largest park. In his spare time, he writes science fiction with Christian themes.

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