Though Green to Film, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops Turns Offscreen Scene-Stealer in Little Shop of Horrors

updated 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

As the credits roll for Little Shop of Horrors, one acknowledgment sticks out: "Levi Stubbs's appearance courtesy of Motown Records." Four Tops fans who might know Stubbs on sight can watch the movie forever and never see him. But the mystery is solved as soon as the film's centerpiece—an alien botanical menace named Audrey II, who uses human flesh for Miracle-Gro—parts its wilting, pouty lips. The rumbling voice that emerges from the plant singing, "I'm a mean, green mother from outer space," is unmistakable. It's the same open-throated baritone that's provided the lead vocal on such classic Four Tops hits as Baby I Need Your Loving, I Can't Help Myself and Reach Out, I'll Be There.

"I'm blessed with a BIG, LOUD voice," says Stubbs, a hyperactive 50-year-old who keeps jumping up to conduct a tour of his Detroit home, or demonstrate how to bake an onion, give a brief recital on his portable keyboard, or stage a multidecibel rendition of Audrey II's keynote cry: "Feed me! Feeeed meeee!"

Though it may sound as if Stubbs's pipes were made for the part, he was understandably nonplussed when the creeper-feature role fell his way. In 1985 producer David Geffen, who had been introduced to him a few years before by Michael Jackson, asked Stubbs to read for a part in a movie. At the audition Geffen handed the singer a script and said, "Read this like a plant." Stubbs's response: "I said, 'You must be crazy, man. This is ridiculous. How does a plant talk?' But he coached me. At the end he said, 'That's great. You've got the part.' "

Branching out into movies proved difficult. Lip-synching to Audrey II—who, when fully grown, was operated by 88 hands—was exhausting. So was shooting a new, happier ending (in the first version the plant makes a meal out of Manhattan). At the root of the problem was doubt: Stubbs didn't know whether he could capture Audrey II's personality. Fortunately director Frank Oz stemmed his fears. "He said the plant starts out sorta sweet and kind, then gets sly and devious and mean," says Stubbs. "I thought about it, some. In the music business you have quite a few people like that, so I put those people in my mind."

As a result Stubbs has collected some terrific reviews and increased visibility for the Four Tops. He's also heard grumblings about racism. Audrey II, who has large lips and a clearly black voice, devours white people. "If I thought the part was derogatory to anyone, they couldn't have paid me enough to take it," says Stubbs, who earned a six-figure fee for his efforts. "Sure, a lot of black people have big lips, but this is a plant, for crying out loud! That attitude is stupid."

An unpretentious, accessible man, Stubbs has never forgotten his friends or left his native Detroit. "My family was very poor," says Stubbs, one of 12 children born to a foundry worker and a housewife. "I know what it means to have money and not to have money. I learned some important lessons from my family: how to never live beyond your means, how stupid it is to try to impress someone at your own expense."

In 1954 Stubbs formed a group with three childhood friends, Abdul "Duke" Fakir, Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton. Breaking into the business with the help of Stubbs's cousin, singer Jackie Wilson, the Four Tops signed with Motown in 1963 and went on to become one of the label's most durable hit makers. Thirty-three years after its origin, the quartet still tours 10 months every year, playing throughout the U.S. for an average $25,000 a night. The group's 35th album, tentatively titled The Four of Us, is due out this spring. "We had to struggle for 10 years before we made it big," says Fakir. "We shared the same hotel room, the same clothes and the same dreams. We had hardly no money, but that bonded our friendship."

Stubbs agrees: "The Lord has been good to us, kept us together with no major disagreements. I've been with them longer than with my wife."

By a year. Levi and his wife, Clineice Townsend, 49, a former dancer, met in 1955, when both were performing at Idlewild, a then-famous black summer resort in western Michigan. Married 27 years, the couple has five children and seven grandchildren. "We have a lot of faith, trust and comfort in our relationship," says Clineice. "We knew romantic love wouldn't last forever, so we tried to build a real friendship."

As content today as Audrey II is insatiable, Stubbs is watching his popularity grow across the generations. Entire families approach him now for autographs—the parents because of the Tops, the kids because of Little Shop. And who knows where his new renown might lead. Stubbs recalls that after his 7-year-old grandson, André, saw Little Shop, "He came back and asked, 'Granddad, are you going to get a doll named after you like Michael Jackson did?' "

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