Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner is best-known for the role he played in the '80s, as Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show. He's so well-known for that role, in fact, that even now — at age 43 — he still gets called by the wrong name.
"People kind of have a misconception, because when someone calls me Theo and I correct them, say, 'No, my name is Malcolm,' they think I have an attitude about it and I don't want to be associated with the show," Warner explains to NPR's David Green.
That's not the issue at all, he says. It's just that it happens all the time. "You know my name is Malcolm," Warner says, "but you still choose to call me Theo, 'cause you think you're the first person today who's done that."
In part one of their interview, Green and Warner discuss Warner's time on The Cosby Show. In part two, they focus on life after Theo. Warner did more television after his Cosby run, but these days, he has turned to the theater. He's currently wrapping up a run at Arena Stage Theater in Washington, D.C., where he stars in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In the play, based on the 1967 movie, Warner plays John Prentice, an African-American doctor with a stellar resume who falls in love with a white woman — and then meets her shocked parents.
Below are some of the highlights from both interviews, including Warner's long-shot audition for the role of Theo, what Bill Cosby taught him about fame, why he loves rehearsing for the stage, and how the new play inspired a surprising reaction from some teenage audience members.
On his audition for the role of Theo in The Cosby Show
They were looking for a 6'2" 15-year-old ... and I was 5'5" and 13. And I was literally the last person [to audition]. ... I played those scenes like you see kids on television — kind of smart-alecky — and when Cliff said something, I got my hand on my hips and rolling my eyes. And I'm killing in the room. Everybody is laughing. ... And I finish, and I look up, and Mr. Cosby is the only one who was unimpressed.
And he looks at me, he says, "Now, would you really talk to your father like that?" And I said no. He said, "Well, I don't want to see that on this show." And then Jay Sandrich, the director, said, you know, "Jamal, go back out there, work on it, and come back a little later." So, by the time I went back in, I gave them what has become Theo.
On what he learned from Bill Cosby
Most of the things that I've learned from him come from watching his example — of course, watching how he ran that show, but watching how he handles the job of being a celebrity. Being a celebrity can be very intoxicating and very addicting. And I've always been afraid of that, because I've grown up post-almost every child star out there who has gone wayward. And remember ... my teenage years were the '80s. The mid- to late-'80s, I was on the No. 1 show in the world ... living in New York. So, I had an awesome life. And the temptations were there, but there was also the understanding that when I'm out, I'm not only a reflection of my mother and my father, I'm also representing Mr. Cosby and his work. So I definitely knew what my boundaries were.
On how The Cosby Show was groundbreaking in terms of avoiding stereotypes
When you look at the history of black sitcoms, they're all predicated upon the, quote, "black experience." And therefore, much of the humor is predicated on being black. Mr. Cosby wanted to do a show not about an upper-middle-class black family but an upper-middle-class family that happened to be black. Though it sounds like semantics, they're very different approaches. Yet the Huxtables were very black, from the style of dress to the art to the music, to just the culture. So, being black without having to act black, if you will.
On how the new production of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner differs from the 1967 film
[In the film], in order to have the tension of the white liberal parents having an issue with him being black, you had to make him damn near perfect, so that could be the only issue. They had to take the subject matter and treat it as a light comedy. What we have great opportunity to do is really delve deeper into each character's very real and complex emotional response to this interracial marriage.
On why the original movie couldn't explore those complexities
There were some theaters in the country that wouldn't even play the movie because of the racial unrest. At the time, people did not want to see an interracial couple. They certainly did not want to see a black man and a white woman kissing onscreen.
On whether the issues addressed in the play are as relevant today as they were when the movie was made
We had an Arena Stage donor dinner last week, and I'm talking to one of the donors who had come to the show with two of his teenage kids, and they just didn't get what the big issue was, that they're interracial, because the world that they live in, it's very multicultural. So they didn't really relate to, you know, what they consider an old story. They were more concerned that no one had an issue with the fact that my character is 14 years older [than his fiancee] — they were more bothered by that.
So that's, you know, on one hand, but on the other hand ... those of us who live in metropolitan cities, we tend to forget about all those territories where people's attitudes are not as progressive. ... We're not in post-racial America, as some people may think.
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