I expected an interview with Mr. T. would be tough, but I didn't think he'd be timid. The question I asked him, about the parts Black actors are getting today, got silence in response. This was terrible; I got tense. But after a tenacious follow-up, T started talking: "I thank God I'm in a position where I can pick and choose--there are some roles I don't play. I don't do pimp roles, I don't do dope-dealing roles, or whatever. Whatever role I play is a positive role; it's a strong role. Never negative. Maybe in Rocky people thought, maybe saw me as a villain in a sense because Rocky was the hero, so anybody who fought Rocky is a villain. So when I was on the A-Team, because I'm the hero, we the good guys. So anybody we went up against was, sort of bad, you know."
Mr. T., after a nearly 10-yearsabbatical, was back in my life (this time topromote a new comic book), and he seemed no worsefor the wear. He was exactly as I rememberedhim--well, maybe a tad shorter. But he had thesame hairstyle, still wore the chains, and wasstill talking his talk about show business, hiscommitment to public service, his faith, oldfashioned family values. And he seemed as upbeatas ever: "People are mad because I'm still havingfun. They expect to see me with one gold chain,one earring, so they say, `Ain't seen him on TV,hard times gotcha.' Now they see me and it's `ohboy, he's still got that gold.' So they mad, seewhat I mean?"
Success in Hollywood was never the end all forMr. T. It was the means to much greater ends. Withthe cultural clout and the money from his acting,Mr. T fashioned himself as a man to regenerateAmerica, to, as he says, "feed the hungry andclothe the naked and visit the sick and try tocomfort the lonely." In interviews he gave in 1983and 1984, he seems to subordinate his acting tohis public service work; he even told BarbaraWalters that he would abandon acting to take upthe ministry within the decade.
He created a character--call it Clubber Lang,call it B.A. Baracus, no real difference--thatgave him the notoriety to put his goals withinreach. He had a hit movie, a hit TV series, a coolcartoon series. He was everywhere, on cerealboxes, on lunchboxes--my pal John's brother had aMr. T air freshener in his car. It was cool. Butthis character at the same time ensured that Mr. Twould never achieve any kind of lasting greatness.There were only so many parts he could havepossibly played; he just couldn't escape thecharacter he rode to fame. It's kind of tragic.
But you can't brood. Because he never tookHollywood so seriously to begin with, he wasn'tdevastated by the downturn in his career. He'sfinancially secure; it's a good bet the chainsaround his neck do not turn green in the shower.And he's still doing the community work he'sregarded as his real calling from the start. Hesays, "I've never seen myself as a star, I nevercall myself a celebrity, or a superstar whatever.If you look at my job, my union card, it says`actor.' It don't say nothing about celebrity,movie star, nothing like that, and that's onething that keeps me humble. I like to keep my feeton the ground and my head towards heaven...Like Itell everybody, if I never make anothermovie, if I never make another dollar, I thank GodAlmighty that He allowed me to fulfill my dream."
He's really hanging in there: "I'm just like abad habit, I'm still here. Who woulda believed, 10years ago when I was fighting Rocky, that they'dbe thinking about doing a comic book of me. I letthe chips fall where they may. I don't worry aboutwhat society says, oh Mr. T series this and that.I'm making money already." His latest role, as thebearded lady in "Freaked," may not be optimal, buthe's taking it in stride: "People will say, "Mr.T's wearing a dress, I knew he was a sissy!' Butas long as they `re talking, that's my thing. Youknow what I mean? My key is keep `em talking.While they're talking, I'll be going to thebank...They got to be saying something about you,whether good or bad."
He seems to be enjoying his latest venture, theMr. T and the T-Force comic books: "We going toGermany, we going to Japan, we taking the booksevery-where, like Star Trek say, we going where noman never gone before, we taking books where booksnever gone before. We sending the book to MikeTyson, we sending the book to Leona Helmsley.