The Inspiring Story of David Joyner – The Man Who Played Barney

    David Joyner in the Barney suit during a live show at Colin Creek Mall, Plano, TX
    David Joyner in the Barney suit during a live show at Colin Creek Mall, Plano, TX

    By Christie Burke

    David Joyner always knew he wanted to be an entertainer. Little did he know he would end up performing and doing live tours for 10 years from inside the suit of a very popular 70-pound giant purple dinosaur called Barney. Texas schoolteacher Sheryl Leach wanted to create an educational television show for her son who loved dinosaurs. She came up with the idea for Barney 30 years ago. David played the beloved Barney.

    During an interview with DailyMail.com, David said: ‘At first, you know, I had a hard time dealing with it. Barney’s getting all this popularity and no one knows it’s me’. ‘After a while, it was almost like God sat me down and said “I’m going to use all your talents to help bring love and joy to children”.

    ‘Once I kind of received that message and once I knew what Barney was doing and the effect that Barney was causing to so many different children and parents, then it became an honor and then it became like, okay, this is a blessing, this is a joy. And I want to make this the best thing that I’m possibly doing at this moment and to have fun doing it.’

    As the fifth of six children growing up in Decatur, Illinois, David loved being in the spotlight. He would entertain his siblings by lip syncing to what was happening on the television from a young age and as he got older, he was given the nickname of ‘Preacher’ by his classmates and friends because of the advice he would give and his ability to read into situations even if they weren’t explained to him.

    David Joyner
    David Joyner

    ‘I grew up Christian, in the Methodist faith, but on my father’s side there’s a lot of Native American background. My grandmother, who was very clairvoyant, she could see things before they would happen,’ he says. ‘So even with the Christian upbringing, my family is also very spiritual.’

    Even in school, David was always in front of people, on the public speaking team, giving speeches and MCing events and school assemblies. He says he gave his first sermon at the age of 16 and he was elected to do the benediction for his high school graduation.

    Instead of going to a four-year school or even going straight into entertainment, David decided to attend ITT Technical Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, for his Associate’s Degree in electronic engineering technology, with the intention of working for five years before following his dream of performing.

    But even as he was pursuing his degree, David still modeled and performed, singing, dancing and even doing comedy, which he continued to do when he moved to Dallas, Texas, in 1984 for a job with Texas Instruments as a software analyst. When he wasn’t working, he did several routines including Michael Jackson, Prince, Fred Astaire and MC Hammer in private clubs and restaurants and he quickly gained a following.

    He ended up working at Texas Instruments for six years before he finally felt ready to leave.

    It was April 1990 when he found out that there would be layoffs, including in his department, so he asked for a severance package so someone else could stay, since he was planning to leave. After his manager said no, he sat down, meditated and decided he would leave at the end of September that year.

    David Joyner behind stage
    David Joyner behind stage

    A month after he made that decision, David decided to start taking acting classes and doing improv comedy on weekends because ‘even though I was making money dancing, modeling, performing, I was still not doing what I wanted to do as far as an actor’.

    As it turns out, the wife of the man who ran David’s acting workshops ran an acting school for children. When they needed a substitute acting teacher to help prepare four- through six-year-olds for a workshop with casting directors and agents from Los Angeles, David agreed to step in.

    Using techniques he had learned while he was a live mannequin early in his performance career, he led the children through warm ups that helped them focus and not fidget. His teaching impressed a local casting director, Shirley Abrams, who asked for his headshot and resume.

    ‘Little did I know, she was the casting director for Barney,’ he says. One week after he put in his two weeks’ notice in at Texas Instruments, Shirley Abrams sent him a request to audition for Barney.

    Though David initially turned it down, Abrams told him she wouldn’t take no for an answer and he eventually agreed to audition. At the time, Barney the show consisted of only on a few home videos, which Abrams sent to David to help him prepare for his audition.

    As he watched the tapes the night before, he kept falling asleep on his couch. When he finally went to bed, he still wasn’t sure what he was going to do the next day. However, because of the clairvoyance that he believes runs in his family, he says he has dreams that are like messages when he’s trying to figure something – out and that night was no exception.

    ‘I had a dream that night and in the dream, Barney passes out… [and] I have to give Barney mouth to mouth resuscitation to revive him,’ David says.

    But the next morning, he couldn’t figure out what the dream meant. On his way to the audition and in the parking lot of the studio he saw two billboards for Southwest Airlines that said: ‘Breathe life into your vacation’, but it didn’t click until he was walking inside.

    ‘It hits me as if the light just came on,’ he says. ‘Barney was dead. That’s why I couldn’t watch his videos. Barney is dead, I have to breathe life into Barney. And if I do that, I’m going on vacation!’

    And he certainly brought in the energy Barney had lacked. The actors who were auditioning were supposed to wear a Halloween mask and dance to one of Barney’s songs, Mr Knickerbocker. Though he introduced himself calmly, the moment the music came on David went wild.

    ‘My energy went from about five to 55 and they literally just kind of sat back in their chairs like this wind had blown them away… I’m sure they were sitting there going, what the heck was that?’ he laughs.

    Despite their shock, they brought David in for more rounds of auditions and he made it almost to the end, but the role ended up going to someone else at first.

    ‘They gave the role to a young lady and then they asked me if I would be backup and I said sure. But I pretty much knew I had the role because it had already been spoken into my spirit,’ he says.

    He was right. Before the television show started, Barney had several live performances. When the woman did her first appearance, she couldn’t handle it. She needed to get out of the costume during a meet and greet with the children and she never came back.

    ‘A lot of different things took place that she wasn’t comfortable with and couldn’t handle,’ David says. ‘So after that they gave me a call and asked if I would consider being Barney.’

    When he was first turned down for the role, David realized that it was probably because he brought more energy than the producers were used to, so he decided when he was asked back to take the role, he would tone down the character.

    But when he attended his first live performance and heard the cheers of children while he was still behind the curtain, he couldn’t contain himself once the music started.

    ‘My adrenaline is taking over now, I come leaping out of this thing, jumping up and down on the stage, going from side doing bell kicks, the other side doing bell kicks waving and I’m having a blast,’ he says.

    That was just the beginning for the energetic purple dinosaur. David continued to bring that energy over the next ten years as he played the part and he worked hard to make sure he was prepared and fit to be Barney.

    ‘Number one, I had to make sure my body, mind and spirit was in top physical condition,’ he says.

    ‘I wanted to make sure that while I was inside, I wanted to be as happy as possible because I also understood, kids pick up on energy and kids are more spiritually connected than adults are, but they just aren’t aware of it intellectually and so I knew that I had to radiate loving happy energy at all times.


    ‘One of the things that I learned to always do, too, is I would pray before I get in costume. And I would ask God to allow his loving divine spirit to flow through me, through the costume, and let that draw the children in.’

    At one point, David even had to get surgery on his wrist because he kept signing so many autographs for children.

    ‘At first, I’m doing the cortisone shots and the doctor was like, “You know you could stop signing autographs”. I’m like, “I can’t do that!”,’ David says, laughing. ‘So then I finally had the surgery and it was finally taken care of after that.’ 

    But after ten years, David was ready for a change. The show was getting ready to take a year-long hiatus, and ‘as an actor and a performer, you always want to go to the next level’.

    ‘After ten years, after prayer and meditating on it, I felt it’s time to move on. It’s time to move to Los Angeles to go to do other acting and if not, then I’ll probably still be stuck in the costume,’ he says.

    At first, when he moved to LA, David offered to help out with Barney if they ever needed help, though once he joined the Screen Actors Guild, he could no longer play the role of Barney on television since it was a non-union job. He also kept the fact that he had played Barney for ten years a secret.

    ‘At first I was asked not to put Barney on my resume,’ he says and because he wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, he didn’t.

    However, as he continues to audition for different television roles, he talks about his time as Barney frequently, especially relishing the small moments, such as when he was able to sit with the audience members before his live appearance in Texas in 2000.

    ‘That little technique changed a whole lot of things for me as a performer,’ he says. ‘It took me to even a higher level as a person because knowing I’m a very spiritual person, one of the things that I’ve always tried to do is not just connect with people, but connect with your spirit, connect with your energy, connect with who you are.

    ‘Not this shell that makes you up, but who you truly are… Because when you connect with someone on a spiritual level, it takes you to a whole different level of appreciation for that person.’

    Since Barney, David has had roles on numerous television shows including Veep, Shameless, 24, and That 70’s Show. 

    He also did another children’s costumed character called Hip Hop Harry, which was on Discovery Kids from 2006 until 2010. The show still produces YouTube videos in multiple languages and the character appears on children’s apps.

    David Joyner as Hip Hop Harry
    David Joyner as Hip Hop Harry

    But even though he has moved on in his career, David is still thankful for his time as Barney.

    ‘One of the greatest things that I can say I’ve taken away from it is the fact that I love people. Because I had to interact with so many different people, so many different nationalities, economic backgrounds, but yet still try to connect with them on a spiritual level and connect with them on a higher frequency, so to speak. That even to this day, I just love people. I love being kind, I love being nice.

    ‘It’s just so great to know that when you put your head down on your pillow at night that you’re making a difference. You’re not out here trying to harm people or take advantage of people or be deceptive toward people, but you’re really enjoying life, having fun, really being kind and considerate in the things that you do.

    He adds: ‘Of course, I’m human, there are some things that come at you constantly that you have to look at and go, oh man, why, why, why, but I always look at it as, okay, there’s a lesson here. There’s something that I’m supposed to learn here. And then move forward to that. And a lot of that has come from just interacting with people, from being Barney and taking on that ambassador role.’

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