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Smooth Operator

updated 11/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

Tim Meadows's wife, Michelle, insists her husband of three years is "the perfect boy to bring home to meet your mother." As long as Mom isn't a stickler for table manners. In 1995 the Saturday Night Live comic took his wife and her mom, Sharon, out for a pricey Mother's Day brunch in Chicago. "She's profusely thanking Tim," recalls Michelle, currently taking undergraduate courses at UCLA, "when the check arrives. He looks at it with such utter disgust and shock, his mouth opens up—and water starts dribbling out."

Not the sort of slobbery expected of Leon Phelps, Meadows's breakout character on SNL—the margarine-smooth, Afro-sporting, brandy-sipping love adviser whose shtick is now in cinemas as The Ladies Man. Meadows also has a steady gig as a surveillance expert on NBC's new sitcom The Michael Richards Show, starring the ex-Seinfeld stalwart. Still, he's not exactly congratulating himself on his success. "I've been lucky," says Meadows, 39. "But the movie could bomb, the television show could be canceled, and I could be out looking for work in two months."

A grim outlook, but one he's acquired from experience. "As you get older, life beats you down," he says, "and you realize you can't be silly all the time." Much of this realization came after the 1997 death of a close friend, SNL's Chris Farley. Both joined the show in the early '90s. "We were all wild," says Meadows. Farley's death from a drug overdose at age 33 "is still painful," he adds. "It put me in therapy."

Meadows has had to cope with tough times before. One of his first memories growing up in Detroit—the youngest of five children of Lathon, a janitor who died of lung cancer in 1997, and Mardell, a nurse's assistant—was of the 1967 riots. "I remember guys shooting guns in the air and cops beating up guys," he says. His family often survived on welfare, and he spent his teens working at a liquor store—where the clientele provided the inspiration for Phelps. "These dudes were players," he says. "They'd come in with their women to buy a bottle of Courvoisier at 11 or 12 at night, and you knew they weren't going to a drive-in."

Comedy was always a refuge. "I loved Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor," he says. "I watched a lot of television. Saturday Night Live was my Star Trek." After graduating from Detroit's Pershing High School, he joined a local improv group, then moved to Chicago, where in 1986 he landed a gig with top comedy troupe the Second City. In 1991 SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels lured him away. "Tim was really understated," says Michaels, "brilliant in a quiet kind of way." Though he was the only African-American cast member during much of his nine-year stint, he never felt forced into stereotypical roles. "I wasn't going to do anything that I'd regret later," he says.

Meadows, now off SNL, and Michelle, 33, who is expecting their first child next month, just moved from New York City to a two-bedroom cottage in Los Angeles. "He doesn't wallow in the baser things that comedians get into, like competition or jealousy," says former SNLer Dana Carvey. "He's just above it all. The headline on Tim should be 'The Nicest Guy in Show Business.' " Just don't let him buy you brunch.

Dan Jewel
Edmund Newton in Los Angeles

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