10/06/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
The green fairways and swaying palms of the Valencia Country Club in Southern California look like a swath of heaven to One On One
star Flex Alexander. "It's a long way from The Bronx," says the former crack dealer as he hits a ball toward the 18th green. "A long way."
His odyssey began on the streets of New York City, where, at 15, a gun-toting Alexander sold drugs. Scared straight at 18, he turned a talent for break dancing and stand-up comedy into a Hollywood success story. As creator, star and producer of UPN's One
, one of the highest rated sitcoms among African-American viewers, Alexander, 33, is getting high marks from critics for his socially conscious show. On one episode, inspired by his brother Dwayne, who died of AIDS in 1997, Alexander's single-dad character was tested for HIV before getting serious with a new girlfriend. "Bill Cosby showed a father who was a married man who cared for his family," says actress Vivica A. Fox, a longtime friend. "Flex's show portrays a single father in a positive light, and it is refreshing."
"I didn't conceive this show just to be funny, but to show young African-American men that they need to be there for their children," explains Alexander, a born-again Christian who has an infant daughter with his wife, pop singer Shanice. "I had a drifter as a dad and I know what it is like. To make this show real, I couldn't make it another Leave It to Beaver
And definitely not Father Knows Best
. The youngest of four children born to Alethia Knox, 62, and Robert Whitehead, a bass guitarist who died in 1989, Alexander (whose given name is Mark) remembers seeing his father three times in his life. "Papa was a rolling stone," he says. "He was a guy who was searching, but I don't think he knew what he was searching for."
With his mother working three jobs and brother Dwayne hooked on crack, Alexander left home at 15 and became a street hustler, sleeping on subways and selling drugs. "I wanted to be on my own," he says. "But I know I put my life in jeopardy and I hurt the people I sold drugs to." In 1988, after a friend was murdered by a rival drug dealer, Alexander himself was nearly killed by another dealer. "He put a gun to my head and began pulling the trigger: click, click, click. It wouldn't fire," he says. "I knew then that I really ought to get out of this business."
He began to make money dancing in New York clubs, where his acrobatic skills earned the 6'4" break-dancer his nickname. Discovered by Salt-N-Pepa deejay Spinderella, Alexander toured with the group's dance troupe for three years (and later choreographed for such singers as Queen Latifah
and Mary J. Blige). Recalls Spinderella: "He was always the comedian"—doing impressions of everyone from Jesse Jackson to Homer Simpson. Encouraged by his pals, he developed a stand-up act. "I killed them," he says of his 1989 comedy-club debut. "When the crowd went wild, I said, 'Yeah, I like this.'"
Soon Alexander was performing at top comedy clubs. And after moving to Los Angeles in 1995, he caught the acting bug, appearing in a series of failed pilots, including 1996's best forgotten Homeboys from Outer Space
, before inspiration struck. After seeing LL Cool J in a soft-drink ad, tenderly combing his daughter's hair, Alexander says, "I thought, 'That's a show.'" Hiring a writer, he produced a pilot in 1997. Two years later UPN picked up the show, and it quickly became a hit.
At the same time Alexander's personal life was clicking: He began dating singer Shanice Wilson, 30', who lived in his San Fernando Valley apartment building. "He was very respectful and never came on to me," she recalls of their courtship. "We did hold hands and talk a lot, though. We have a common spirituality."
So much so that they vowed to remain chaste until their wedding day, in February 2000. "Not too many guys are on the same page about this," notes Shanice. Daughter Imani, 1, was born a year later. Fatherhood, of course, is a subject dear to his heart. "I want her to have all the things I didn't have," says Alexander, who is raising his daughter a long way from The Bronx, in a plush Italian-style villa in Santa Clarita, Calif. "That's every parent's dream."
Frank Swertlow and Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles