Emmanuel Lewis Got a Boost from Michael Jackson, but as Webster He Stands on His Own

updated 04/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/09/1984 01:00AM

Everyone wants to cuddle Emmanuel Lewis, the doll-size star of ABC's hit sitcom Webster—particularly Michael Jackson. Emmanuel's pal carried him onstage during the American Music Association Awards last January, holding the boy like a live statuette. At the Grammys in February, a beaming Emmanuel sat beside Michael, but this time he didn't accompany Jackson to the stage. "He asked me," says Emmanuel, "but I said no. I was afraid that people would laugh at me."

For the pint-size comic, appearing in public is no laugh riot. One well-meaning stranger recently frightened Lewis' family by picking him up and walking off with him briefly in the Los Angeles airport. Although 13 years old, Emmanuel stands barely 42 inches tall and weighs 40 pounds. But that isn't the only incongruity he represents. Michael Jackson's new friend is a baby mogul who alternates between being a vulnerable boy and the self-assured star of a series. One minute he is giggling helplessly, the next he is pontificating like a showbiz veteran. "I do what I believe," he says, perched on a windowsill in his dressing room trailer. "Since I know how crazy this business is, I do the opposite of what I see other people doing."

Despite their 12-year age difference, Lewis' mix of savvy and innocence makes him a well-suited companion for Jackson. If Michael has qualities like E.T., as director Steven Spielberg has suggested, then Emmanuel is his Elliott, the boy who shares E.T.'s fantastic world. "Michael is the best friend you could ever have," declares Lewis. "He's gentle, not rough like other guys. I can count on him any time, and he can count on me."

Introduced by mutual friends, Emmanuel and Michael have been buddies since they met during the taping of the Thriller video. They visit each other's homes frequently. For Emmanuel's other pals, such as Kim (The Facts of Life) Fields, the Jackson connection is also special. "They're both real silly," recalls Kim of one get-together. "When the three of us were together, you could hardly believe we were three celebrities." Emmanuel is more modest about his activities with Michael. "Those are secret things," he says. "The fun things we do together are just for me and him."

Emmanuel's appearances with Jackson have raised both his profile and the public's interest in Webster. In the series Lewis stars as an orphaned 7-year-old cared for by Alex Karras and Susan Clark. Although the show capitalizes on Emmanuel's size, Karras is adamant about not exploiting it. Karras and Clark refuse to pick Emmanuel up on-camera, which caused a dispute that briefly closed down the show early in its production. "That's Charlie McCarthy—it's so sick," says Karras, the father of six. "Emmanuel is not handicapped." Producer Bill D'Angelo admits at first there was "a tendency to coochie-coo him, but we stopped that."

Lewis insists he is ready to act his age on-screen as well as off. "I don't really want to play younger," he says. "It's time to grow up." Which presents D'Angelo with a dilemma. "Those of us who love him want him to grow," says D'Angelo. "But on the other hand, his size is part and parcel of his charm." If Emmanuel spurts up, D'Angelo concedes, "we'll work it into the show."

Thus far the boy's size has been his fortune. Born in Brooklyn, he has been raised by his mother, Margaret, a onetime computer programmer. She has been divorced from Emmanuel's dad 11 years. When an actor in his neighborhood suggested four years ago that Emmanuel get into the business, "I made a quick decision and said, 'Sure, but you'll have to talk to my mommy,' " recalls Lewis. His irresistible mug brought him quick success in more than 40 commercials. Webster was born when an ABC executive saw him in a Burger King spot and said, "Get me that kid."

Mrs. Lewis, who is about 5' tall, insists that "there is absolutely no medical reason" for Emmanuel's short stature. She had her son examined by several physicians, she says, and even asked about hormone treatments before being told they weren't necessary. She takes comfort in Emmanuel's brother, Roscoe, 16, who was Emmanuel's size until three years ago, when he started shooting to his present height of 6'1".

Lewis has grown about two inches in the past year, reports his mother, who notes her son gets excited whenever he outgrows his clothes. Says Lewis, "I'm perfectly healthy."

Several outside medical authorities concur that this is not an uncommon growth pattern. Observes Dr. Douglas Frazier, professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California, "It is quite possible to be extremely short in childhood and early adolescence but mature later to a normal adult range for your family." Adds Dr. Josiah Brown, chief of endocrinology at UCLA, "The growth spurt doesn't really start until adolescence anyway."

Deeply religious like his friend Michael, Emmanuel views his condition as part of a grand plan. "If I'm small right now, it's got to be for a reason," he says. "When it's right for me to grow, it'll come. Even if you rushed it, you'd still have to wait, because God already planned it."

Now that Webster is on hiatus, Lewis is returning to the family home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his mother, brothers Roscoe and Chris, 14, and sister Lizzie, 19. Although he has a tutor on the set of his show, Emmanuel also attends a public junior high in Brooklyn for children interested in the arts. Before Webster, "Sometimes kids used to give me a hard time," admits Lewis. "But they're on my side."

In his trailer, between lessons and rehearsals for last month's People's Choice Awards show, on which Webster was selected best new comedy series, Emmanuel talked fondly about his collection of teddy bears in Brooklyn. "I can't count how many I have," he says. "They're all over the house. They get so sad when I leave but I sit down and explain it to them." What he wants is "a bear big enough to reach all the way to the top" of a room. "I'd sit in his lap and he would be the father of all the little bears," he says.

It is time for an afternoon nap before the show, but the youngster is not sleepy. He suddenly remembers his new Paddington bear and rushes to locate him. "He's the lost bear and wants to be loved," Emmanuel explains. Then, obediently, he lies down on the dinette bench, snuggles with his stuffed toy and closes his eyes.

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