09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
In 1985 three little words changed Steve Harvey's life. Fresh from winning the prize for his stand-up routine at an amateur night in a comedy club near Akron, Ohio, the then-28-year-old insurance salesman decided to print up new business cards: Steve Harvey-Comedian. "I couldn't believe the feeling it gave me," recalls Harvey, who just as promptly quit his job. "My boss said, 'What are you talking about? You're not even funny! You'll never make it.' "
Let's just say he got the last laugh. In its fifth season, The Steve Harvey Show is the highest-rated half-hour sitcom on The WB, and Harvey's turn as high school vice principal and former R&B musician Steve Hightower has earned him two NAACP Image Awards for outstanding actor in a comedy series. He also hosts the syndicated variety series It's Showtime at the Apollo and performs with fellow stand-up comics D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac in the Kings of Comedy tour that inspired Spike Lee's new documentary The Original Kings of Comedy. "There's a large disparity in viewership between The WB and NBC," says Harvey, 43, explaining his frenetic work pace. "If Seinfeld is No. 1, Jerry Seinfeld gets $1 million per episode. I make a lot of money, but I don't make $1 million. If I could find one job that pays all that money, I'd take it—but I can't, so I take them all."
Harvey's combined income comfortably supports his family, which includes his homemaker wife of five years, Mary, 39, son Wynton, 3, and stepson Steven, 15. (Harvey also has twin daughters Brandi and Karli, 18, from a previous marriage.) At the moment it's Wynton who's ruling the remote—and Harvey critiques those choices with a typical rant. "We have to watch The Lion King and then Rugrats and then An Extremely Goofy Movie. Oh, Lord, I'm so sick of Goofy. I hate Goofy with a passion." Mary, whom he met in 1989 at a mall in Arlington, Texas, where she worked as a makeup artist, has her own theory on her husband's blunt manner. "His parents laid it heavy on the manhood side of his personality," she says. "Sometimes I feel like Gomer Pyle, and he's Sergeant Carter!"
Still, Harvey's gruff demeanor belies the vulnerability of a man torn by recent tragedies. In 1997 his mother, Eloise, a homemaker, died of a stroke at age 83; the next year his best friend and manager Juan Hull suffered a fatal heart attack at age 36 while riding in a limo with Harvey. "I jumped over to him and started giving him mouth-to-mouth," says Harvey, who was unable to resuscitate Hull. "This was my best friend, and he was gone. I was crushed." Then this April came another blow: His 86-year-old father, Jesse, a retired coal miner, died after a long battle with black lung disease. "When I got the news, I fell on my hands and knees," Harvey remembers. "If it wasn't for Mary, I wouldn't have gotten through this. My father's death alone would have crumbled me." And yet the comedian was forced to crack jokes onstage while coping with his grief. "It was really hard for Steve," says Donald Biggins, a close friend since high school. "He was doing something he loved but wasn't loving it."
The youngest of five children, Harvey began testing his resilient spirit at the age of 4, when his family moved from Welch, W.Va. (pop. 3,000), to a rough neighborhood in Cleveland. "We went from the country, where there was hardly any violence, to the ghetto," he says. An average but somewhat antisocial student who steered clear of trouble, Harvey avows he was voted Most Difficult in his senior class at Glenville High. "There were no pom-poms for me," he explains. "I'd go to football games, but I didn't care if we won or lost." In 1977 he enrolled at Kent State University in Ohio but dropped out a year before graduation and took a job as an assembly-line inspector at a Ford factory near Cleveland.
At night he padded his income by hustling unsuspecting bar patrons at games such as three-card monte. "I can do anything with a deck of cards," says Harvey, who claims he once reaped $11,000 in a single evening. After he was laid off in 1981, Harvey tried a new hand as a salesman—for pet products, carpets and finally insurance. It was during this period that he began writing jokes for his friend A.J. Jamal's comedy act (Jamal later appeared on In Living Color), until it dawned on him to deliver his own stand-up material.
He has hardly sat down since. Harvey, who recently moved with his family into a six-bedroom Mediterranean-style house in L.A., sails, golfs and plays Monopoly with his kids to relax on the rare days when he's not in the studio or on the road. "I keep promising Mary I'll slow down," he says, glancing at his wife, who rolls her eyes skeptically. "But she don't want to hear that anymore!"
Paula Yoo in Los Angeles