How Eriq La Salle Pays Forward His Big “Coming to America” Break at 26: ‘I’ll Never Forget Auditioning’ (Exclusive)

“When I started directing, whenever I could, I would hire actors in the room,” La Salle tells PEOPLE of how he shows his gratitude for the breakout role

<p>Maximum Film / Alamy</p> Eriq La Salle and Shari Headley in

Maximum Film / Alamy

Eriq La Salle and Shari Headley in 'Coming to America.'

Eriq La Salle still remembers how it felt to snag his Coming to America role.

Thirty-five years ago, he got his big break in the Eddie Murphy-led film when he was 26 years old. The filmmaker and novelist, now 61, starred in the 1988 comedy as Darryl Jenks.

“I’ll never forget auditioning,” La Salle tells PEOPLE of trying out for the role in front of director John Landis. “I do my thing, [and he] just casually says, ‘Yeah, well, I’ll see you on set, and blah, blah, blah.’ I’m just confused, and I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll see you on set.’ And I go, ‘How will you see me on set?’ He goes, ‘Well, you got the job.’ ”

La Salle left the audition “literally jumping and running” to his black Honda Accord, feeling so empowered and gratified — not only because he landed the role, but because casting on the spot is “very rare.”

He said he has been paying the opportunity forward ever since.

<p>Rodin Eckenroth/Getty</p> Eriq La Salle in 2023.

Rodin Eckenroth/Getty

Eriq La Salle in 2023.

Related: Why Eriq La Salle Almost Gave Up On His Dream of Writing Novels (Exclusive)

“So the cool thing about that was when I started directing, whenever I could, I would hire actors in the room,” La Salle explains.

“I wanted to return that sense of power, that sense of gratification, that sense of validation,” he adds. “I see the look that it puts on an actor's face, and I know what it feels like in their heart.”

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

In Coming to America, La Salle’s character Darryl was the heir to the Soul Glo empire and the boyfriend of Lisa McDowell (played by Shari Headley).

After the movie, La Salle rose to fame and went on to star in the medical drama ER — but not without a few hiccups.

<p>Michael Ochs Archives/Getty</p> Eriq La Salle in ‘Coming to America.’

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Eriq La Salle in ‘Coming to America.’

Related: 'Coming to America' Cast: Where Are They Now?

In the early ‘90s, while he was still building his acting career, he was cast in a film opposite Michelle Pfeiffer as a replacement for Denzel Washington, who had exited the project.

But just two weeks after he was cast, La Salle was let go because the film’s producers thought he looked too young to play Pfeiffer's love interest.

“It was heartbreaking at the time, but I had to move on, so I decided to enroll in a filmmaking class,” he recalls. “We started directing short films, so basically, getting fired kickstarted my directing career.”

“But we also had to write those short films, so that brought me back to writing," he adds. "This was in the early '90s. All these years later, I just got to a point where I wanted to expand my storytelling.”

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People.