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- May 30, 1983
- Vol. 19
- No. 21
The A-Team's Mr. T
The TV Tough Guy Looks Intimidating with his Mohawk, Muscles and Endless Gold Chains, but Underneath, He Is Really a Softie
A. Any man who doesn't love his mama can't be no friend of mine.
Q. Why do you have that haircut?
A. This way, white folks can't say we all look the same.
Q. Are you gay?
A. Print that I am and half your readers will probably say, "Yeah, I knew all along he was a sissy." The other half will tear your magazine up.
See, Mr. T's not so tough. He didn't kill the reporter who asked him these questions, didn't eat him for breakfast, didn't even rough him up a little.
Mr. T just acts mean, and he does a good job of it on NBC's The A-Team—this season's No. 1 new show—as B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, the enforcer for a dirty half dozen of good-guy vigilantes. When he beat up Sylvester Stallone (with real punches) in Rocky III, reviewers called T "a truly frightening manifestation of carnivorous ambition" and "a white racist's worst nightmare of black brutality." In his pre-stardom life as a bodyguard for Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson and Leon Spinks, Mr. T was ready to stop bullets with his body.
"You'd swear I'm nine feet tall and that I breathe fire and eat bricks for dessert," is the way he put it. "You don't see stories on Mr. T going to church."
Q. Haven't you gone Hollywood?
A. No way. I didn't come to Hollywood. Hollywood came to me. A lot of people wish they could say the things I say. Everyone out here is so phony, it's sickening. They've got to have breast implants before they can go out in the morning.
Q. Does anything ever worry you?
A. I don't worry. I don't doubt. I'm daring. I'm a rebel.
Just as the Tootsie Roll was covered with hard candy to create the Tootsie Pop, so has Mr. T covered himself with an image he created. Which part is real—the hard shell or the gooey center—is difficult to say.
The 31-year-old Mr. T is not nine feet tall, only 5'11½" (and 219 pounds). He growls for the cameras but he's really a Bible-toting Baptist, a friend of little children and a teetotaler. The man speaks in Frank Sinatra lyrics—"The record shows, I took the blows." He makes a mint in showbiz, but boasts that he "made a mockery of Hollywood," wearing combat boots and sweat pants to the People's Choice Awards. Your average Hollywood star he ain't. He doesn't shop on Rodeo Drive, doesn't do drugs, doesn't even "do lunch."
"We never met at Ma Maison," says Joel Schumacher, T's director in D.C. Cab (a comedy set for release next spring). "We met at the Hamburger Hamlet and he prays before the meal. It beats having him going to the bathroom and doing a gram of coke."
Q. Do you want to do the classics?
A. I don't do Shakespeare. I don't talk in that kind of broken English.
Q. Are you as brainless as you seem on the screen?
A. It takes a smart man to play dumb.
Mr. T was discovered on NBC's Games People Play in 1980, playing catch with a 120-pound stuntman for a toughest-bouncer contest. Sly Stallone saw him and cast him in Rocky III. "He just told me to be myself," I said then. "I didn't take any acting lessons."
The same goes for A-Team. "That's not acting," he says. "There's no difference between B.A. and T." Says co-star George Peppard: "He may have come to the show as that character, but it's a character he authored, he evolved and he makes work."
Some say it's T's meanness that made The A-Team the top hit among 45 new prime-time shows this season. It is also the bloodiest show on TV, according to the National Coalition on Television Violence, which counted 39 nasty acts per hour. T feels that violence is "what we're doing to the competition. We're beating the other series—knocking 'em dead. People are jealous of our success." He also insists the show is not really violent because "we fight but there's never blood—we never kill anybody."
Before he commits any acts of media mayhem, though, Mr. T prays.
Q. Were you always so religious?
A. I wasn't always this good, but I was never bad.
Always with him are cassette tapes of sermons by the Rev. Henry Hardy, pastor of Chicago's Cosmopolitan Community Church, where T was rebaptized in 1978. He knows the sermons by heart. "All righteousness is for nothing," T preaches, "if you have not taken JE-sus into your heart."
T acknowledges that he wasn't always so saintly. "I never hung out with the wrong crowd, I never raped anyone," he says, "but I did stray a little bit. I went to church, but I wasn't spreading the Word like I am now." Spread it he does: "I have been serving God since before serving God was cool. They laughed at Jesus. They laughed at every great man. But they don't laugh anymore. Now they say, 'How do you do it, T?' "
He is not really what he sounds like, says Pastor Hardy. "T is very sensitive and concerned, the opposite of the persona he projects. He is very religious and spiritual—and humble."
He's always dressed in his Sunday best: 100 necklaces, seven earrings, 14 ankle chains and 10 rings (on one, 60 diamonds spell "T")—20 pounds of gold worth about $300,000, he claims. He wears them without the protection of a weapon. "What good is a gun?" he asks. "Can it cure herpes? When I meet my maker, He's not going to ask how many chains I had."
Q. Isn't your jewelry heavy?
A. Nobody ever asked my ancestors if their chains were heavy when they came over from Africa. They had chains on too. I've just made them gold. The idea is I'm still a slave, but I'm a higher-priced slave.
Q. What's the story of that hairdo?
A. This is not a Mohawk and it's not a punk cut. It's a Mandinka. That's a tribe in Africa.
Mr. T says he's seen racism. He sees it today, in Hollywood: "When I go to parties, they say, 'Come on, Mr. T, make a muscle,' like I'm the house nigger. So I stopped going. I refuse to be a token. I'm no Uncle T."
He saw it, too, when he was a child.
Q. How rough was your childhood?
A. We were poor, but we smiled.
Q. Didn't you used to steal?
A. I never robbed anyone. I just took food so we wouldn't go hungry.
Q. T isn't your real name.
A. Neither was nigger, but plenty of people used to call me that.
Mr. T was born Lawrence Tureaud on the poor, black South Side of Chicago. He first shortened his name to Tero, then, in 1970, legally shortened it to T. He was the 10th of 12 children born to a father who ran out when T was 5. "But my mother taught us not to hate him," he says. His mother fed her family on welfare, $87 a month, in a three-room apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes, a bad-news housing project.
In 1974, T recalls, his mom was robbed by three hoods who held a razor to her throat. "My mother didn't want me to go after them, but I guess the Devil overruled her," T says. "My brothers are meaner than me. We didn't go to the police. In the ghetto, there's no time for red tape. I went out with a sawed-off shotgun. Anyone who does something to my mother...I don't wanna say I killed them, but they're not around anymore."
Young Lawrence shone at football and wrestling at Dunbar Vocational High. He won a football scholarship to Prairie View A&M in Texas. After a year, T says, he was "kicked out for not ratting on my friends [who were involved in rioting]." He returned to Chicago, went to work as a gym instructor for a government program, and discovered a gift for helping children that "changed my life." But funding for the center was cut off and T became a bouncer in a Chicago disco—and a bodyguard. After a military hitch as an MP, he became a full-time bodyguard. "My last fee," he says, "was $10,000 a day." His motto: "Next to God, there is no better protector than I."
T stays in touch with his family. He calls his mother almost every day and has three ambitions: "To buy a house for her—nobody deserves a mansion as much as she does. I'm working on a deal to buy a whole city block for my family to live in. Second, to establish a community center in the poor part of Chicago. Third, to feed 5,000 hungry people like Jesus did. Then I can finally call myself a star."
Q. Are you really mean?
A. If I were, you couldn't pay kids to get near me.
On a return visit to the Taylor Homes, T told some kids: "Don't be fighting and robbing each other when I'm gone, and breaking windows and peeing in the elevators. And don't be giving your mothers a hard time. Go to school. Get some learning." He added quietly: "We've got too many football players and not enough inventors."
Mr. T does love kids, especially his own daughter.
Q. Do you like the women in L.A.?
A. I'm not here looking for chicks. I'll never have a wedding. I don't want to marry just to do what everybody else is doing.
"There are two women in my life," T says, "my mama and my daughter." Her name is Lesa; she's 13 and lives in Chicago with her mother, T's high-school sweetheart, whom he never married. Of her, he says only, "She was quiet—not like other girls, who are out for my fame."
Q. Are you sure show business won't swell your head?
A. I could get swallowed up. The money and the luxury are there. But I guard against it.
Mr. T is living well in a high rise near UCLA that he decorated himself ("All my life I wanted a canopy bed") and another on Chicago's North Side ("It's not that I like living in a white neighborhood; I like living in a nice neighborhood"). He's making good money on Team, $15,000 per personal appearance, and he recently turned down a $25,000 fried-chicken commercial because "I don't get out of bed in the morning for $25,000." T boasts: "If I want to, I can make a million in 1983...easy."
T spends a lot of time alone. He watches TV (his favorite show: The Beverly Hillbillies, "because they were humble, God-fearing folk; they weren't trying to impress anyone"). He never cooks but eats with a hearty appetite, sometimes gobbling "an entire box of Cheerios with milk and four bananas out of a salad bowl" to make up for the days when T's three squares were "oatmeal, no meal and miss a meal." He goes to bed early, sleeps late if he can, then starts his days with weights, 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups.
Q. Will you ever make an album?
A. No, there's too much black singing and dancing already.
Mr. T has ambition. He wants "Charlton Heston-type roles, like Moses, Ben Hur or El Cid or one of Jesus' disciples. Or something meaningful, like a black doctor in a Southern town who finds a cure for cancer but he's fighting racial problems and his daughter's on drugs and then at the end they all get into his camper and drive off into the sunset. One thing I know is I'll never make a movie that I wouldn't be proud to show my mother."
Otherwise, T says, "I'd like to smell the roses along the way."
Q. Will you ever have that quiet life?
A. Right now I'm like a steak: I'm sizzling. But if I start to get well done, I'll move to the back burner.
Q. Do you think a mean man like you will make it to heaven?
A. A diamond bracelet I wear says "TNT"—like the dynamite. To me it means tough and tender. The blessed of us must save the less of us. I'm blessed, and yeah, I'm planning to go to heaven.
- Fred Bernstein.
April 25, 2015
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