IT IS SATURDAY NIGHT, AND MALCOLM-Jamal Warner is wandering about his Studio City, Calif., home taking stock. Hip-hop music fills the four-story structure. Bags of junk food lie open on the kitchen counter, and a dozen or so pals are sipping Cokes as they catch up with each other and relax. Forget the world of clubs, babes and being seen. This, says the 24-year-old actor, best known for playing Theo Huxtable for eight seasons on The Cosby Show, is the good life: "to hang out with my buddies, eat, drink and philosophize."

Suddenly the front door flies open and Daryl Mitchell, the rapper known as Chill, storms in. "Wha'supp?" he bellows. Then he bounds down the steps into the living room, heads for the pool table and—to the astonishment of the players—begins pushing the balls in all directions. "That's okay," Mitchell assures his dumbstruck pals. "You can just start a new game."

So much for philosophizing.

Contrary to momentary appearances, it is Warner, not Chill, who calls the shots here in his newly purchased home—and, more importantly, in phase two of his career: adulthood. This month Warner makes his big-screen debut as Wesley Snipes's brother in the action-adventure Drop Zone. Next spring he will play his first onscreen bad guy, a no-good friend of the heavyweight champ in the HBO movie Tyson. Beyond that, Warner has just finished directing eight episodes of Sesame Street and producing a pilot for a prospective Fox-TV game show called Get the Boot, featuring Queen Latifah, Dweezil Zappa and Joey Lawrence. "I'm in this game to work," Warner announces proudly.

As an ex-Cosby kid—still receiving residuals, of course—he doesn't have to work quite as hard as most of his peers. His $470,000, four-bedroom bachelor pad, nestled on a steep slope of Coldwater Canyon, testifies to his means. And his ways, too: the sleekly contemporary house has a workout room, a music room and an office. What it doesn't have is any designated guest quarters. "I don't want people feeling too comfortable here," says Warner. "Nice to have you hang out—but you gotta go home."

Warner's maturity has not gone unnoticed by his colleagues. "Everything is in place," says his proud ex-mother on Cosby, Phylicia Rashad. "I don't feel the need to 'hope' things for him." John Badham, director of Drop Zone, agrees. "Thank God some child actors can make the transition to adulthood," says Badham. "He has none of the usual attitude. He's disciplined on the set and ready to do whatever is asked."

For that, Warner has two fairly strict parents to thank: Robert, 47, the director of a drug-intervention program in Chicago, and Pamela, 44, Malcolm's manager for the past 10 years. The couple split in 1972 when Malcolm was 2 ("We were young and dumb," says Robert of the marriage), and three years later Pamela moved with him from Jersey City to L.A. But his parents have stayed close to each other—and to their only child. Robert, who has an M.A. in history from the University of Chicago, put pressure on Malcolm to study—especially black history and the life of one of his namesakes, Malcolm X. (The other is jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal.) And Pamela made sure her son—whom Cosby chose to play Theo on the last day of a nationwide search—didn't turn into a brat.

"When I started managing him, he took an attitude," she says. "It could be very unpleasant. I told him, 'You don't have to like me or love me, but this is my responsibility, so relax and deal with it.' By the time he was 18, we were in great shape."

By the time he was 21, he was also in search of a new challenge. Soon after Cosby went off the air, Warner was cast as a graduate student in his own series, Here and Now, produced by Cosby for NBC. But the show, which ran on Saturday nights, had trouble finding an audience. He had hoped NBC would give him the old Thursday night Cosby spot ("Anybody could figure out that you put the familiar face where the hit show used to be," he says), but it didn't, and his show was soon canceled. "That hurt my feelings," says Warner. "This network had been my home, my family. It was a big blow."

Ironically, one thing that softened the blow, says Warner, was knowing that his mentor—"Mr. C," as he calls Cosby—took the hit with him. "I took my cue from him," says Warner. "He didn't bad-mouth NBC, he didn't curse them. That's when it hit me: This is a business—no more, no less."

Yes, it is; and love is a battlefield. A short time ago, Warner and his steady of six years broke up. No comment, he says, but this much is sure: He's not of a mind to date much yet. "You always think, 'Why is this person with me? What does she think she's going to get from me?' " he says.

That's a question best left to the philosophers. Speaking of whom, the night is no longer young, and Warner has to get up early to attend a producers' seminar. "People always complain about how awful Hollywood is, but I've been making it work for me," he says before bidding his guests good night. "So when someone asks me how I'm doing, I say, as the saying goes, 'I'm making lemonade.' "

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong.