As Cookie Lyon on this season’s smash new dramatic series Empire, Taraji P. Henson is often at the center of the music, sex and drugs that drive the show’s narrative. But there is one more element — murder — that, unfortunately, hit close to home for the actress.
Taraji’s former boyfriend, William LaMarr Johnson — the father of her 20-year-old son, Marcell — was brutally beaten and knifed to death 12 years ago. They dated while she was attending Howard University in their hometown of Washington D.C., and she became pregnant during her junior year. “I had my one bad boy,” says Taraji. “That was my son’s father, my first love, and he’s not with us, God rest his soul.”
On Jan. 25, 2003 — one day after his 34th birthday — William Johnson confronted husband and wife Russell and Charlotte Nickelson in their D.C. apartment and accused them of slashing his friend’s tires. A fight ensued, according to court documents, during which the Nickelsons beat William over the head with a lamp and kicked and punched him on the ground, before Charlotte stabbed him multiple times with a knife.
When the police arrived, a dying William asked for water, to which Charlotte allegedly answered, “Shut up [expletive], you ain’t getting no water in here!” He passed away an hour later, and in October 2004, Charlotte and Russell Nickelson each pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and were sentenced, respectively, to 36 and 50 months in prison.
“His dad was murdered when Marcell was 9,” Taraji says of her son. “He’s had to deal with life in a way that a lot of young kids haven’t yet.” And although she and Johnson were no longer together when he was killed, “we would sit and weep about it,” Taraji reveals. “Do I mourn for him? Absolutely. I wish my son had his dad. But sometimes things line up and they have to happen and we don’t know why.”