Harris, Robin 1953–1990
Robin Harris 1953–1990
On the morning of March 18, 1990, African American comedian and actor Robin Harris was found dead of heart failure in his room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. After years of being Los Angeles, California’s best “unknown comic,” he’d made a splash in motion pictures with featured roles in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the Hudlin brothers’ hit House Party. When he died, he was about to explode into the national consciousness with comedy albums, a CBS-TV sitcom, and a starring role in a feature film based on his near legendary “Bebe’s Kids” routine.
Harris is probably best remembered as “Sweet Dick Willie” in Do the Right Thing, “Pops” in House Party, and the brains behind the rowdy animated film Bebe’s Kids, which was produced after his death. Those who saw him in comedy clubs will recall the beefy, robust Harris as a master of the put-down and as a man who epitomized middle-class black America. “Robin Harris was the best,” comedian Chris Rock, a former regular on late-night television’s Saturday Night Live, told the Village Voice. “[He] made saying ’F— you’ an art form.”
Robin Harris was born on August 30, 1953, at his family’s home at 4640 South Drexel Avenue, in Chicago. His father, Earl Harris, worked as a welder for the Ford Motor Company; his mother, Mattie, was a factory seamstress. “We weren’t rich, but we were proud, very proud,” Harris’s brother and manager Michael told Rick Telander for Premiere. “There was a lot of love in our family and I know without a doubt that that was what motivated Robin to succeed.”
Harris was a well-behaved child who showed none of the verbal quickness that would serve him so well as a comic. “He wasn’t funny at all,” his mother told Telander, “just quiet and a very good kid. No problems with the police, drugs, nothing—just an average child who was not very talkative.” In 1961, at the age of eight, Harris moved with his family to Los Angeles. By the time he got to L.A.’s Manual Arts High School, he was skillful at “the dozens”—the art of looking someone over and coming up with instant, devastatingly funny put-downs.
Harris’s comic abilities came in handy on his school’s track team, where he was a two miler. “Before meets,” his brother explained in Premiere, “everybody would be so nervous and worried.… Robin would eat oranges and sit
Born August 30, 1953, in Chicago, IL; died of heart failure, March 18, 1990, in Chicago; son of Earl (an autoworker) and Mattie (a seamstress) Harris; married Exetta Murphy; children: Antoine, Robin, Jr. Education: Attended Ottawa University, Ottawa, KA.
Comedian, 1980-90. and actor. Worked for Hughes Aircraft, a rental car company, and Security Pacific Bank before establishing a name for himself in comedy. Debuted at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, 1980; master of ceremonies at the Comedy Act Theater, 1985-90. Film appearances include roles in Do the Right Thing. 1989; I’m Conna Git You Sucka, 1989; Harlem Nightf, 1989; House Party, 1990; and Mo’ Better Blues, 1990. Starred in HBO Comedy Showcase, 1990; released comedy album Bebe’s kid’S, on Polygram, 1990.
on this little hill and rag everybody. And the guys loved it.… It eased the tension, kept spirits up. Robin was on stage and he had his audience, and his comedy then was finding your weak spot.”
Harris was a good enough runner to land an athletic scholarship to Ottawa University in Kansas. He once ran a 4:18 mile, but comedy—not athletics—was his dream. After college, he told jokes wherever and whenever he could. “Robin would stand out at a bus stop and start doing a routine,” comic Myra J. told the Washington Post, “And in a few minutes he’d have a crowd.” But popular as he was at bus stops, the road to success was a long one for Harris. To support himself, he worked a series of day jobs, including stints with Hughes Aircraft, a rental car company, and Security Pacific Bank.
While Harris was graduating from bus stops to comedy clubs, he got an important piece of advice from a member of an earlier era of black comedy: “Keep it down home,” Richard Sanfield, the bawdy black ventriloquist, told him, as quoted in the Washington Post. With Sanfields advice and his own natural inclinations, Harris developed an act reminiscent of the routines of Redd Foxx and Los Angeles-based comics of the 1970s, such as Wildman Steve and Rudy Ray Moore. Like the comics of generations before him, Harris had “a certain old-school jive that … recalled the chitlin circuit’s glory days,” wrote Nelson George in the Village Voice.
“Harris’s comic persona of the put upon working-class man spoke for the home-owning brothers who live off Crenshaw [in Los Angeles]—guys who pay taxes so they can watch Sanford & Son reruns or Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite [a black martial arts/gangster parody] in peace.” related George. “His blend of midwestern and California] accents … and unglamorous looks (the sepia Jackie Gleason) made him an African American everyman who reminded folks of the father, uncle, or neighbor willing to snap on anything or anyone.”
Harris’s comedy acts reflected the experiences of the hard-working black middle-class. In one frequently recounted routine, he is stopped by a Los Angeles cop. “You got a gun in the car?” the cop asks. “No,” Harris replies sarcastically. “It’s home with the dope.” In another routine—the famous “Bebe’s Kids” story—Harris gets to date the woman of his dreams, but his dreams turn nightmarish when he finds that the out-of-control kids she’s taking care of are part of the bargain. (On a trip to Disneyland, the kids cut off Donald Duck’s feet and save them to swim with later.)
Harris’s talents were not immediately recognized in regional comedy circles. In 1980 he debuted at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles to little notice. It was not until 1985—when the Comedy Act Theater was created as a showcase for local black comics—that Harris, as master of ceremonies, began to build the black audience base that would propel him into the mainstream.
As master of ceremonies at the Comedy Act, Harris took verbal potshots at anything that moved—and that included customers. To get to the club’s restrooms, patrons had to maneuver toward the stage and snake past crowded tables and chairs, providing Harris with ample time to comment on their clothes, hair, or walk. According to the Washington Post, the night after a southern California earthquake, Harris asked a woman, “Earthquake did your hair this morning, baby?” “Robin would talk about you, your mother, your father, and your baby, and you would still love him,” Comedy Act Theater owner Michael Williams told the Washington Post. “He would humiliate you to the point where you praised him for that.… People would pay to sit up front and be talked about.”
With Harris as emcee, the Comedy Act became a popular spot for black celebrities, including members of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. But Harris did not soften his delivery for famous people. According to Telander in Premiere, when then-Laker Magic Johnson showed up, Harris yelled, “Come on down here to the colored section.” One time Harris spotted boxer Tommy “Hitman” Heams in the audience and said, “Why aren’t you laughing? I laugh when you fight.”
While Harris seemed supremely confident on stage, he was actually quite sensitive—even insecure—about his work. Comedian Martin Lawrence told the Washington Post, “If you said, ’Robin I don’t think you’re funny, ’that would worry him.” Club owner Williams described an incident after a performance where self-doubt actually brought Harris to tears. “He was killing ’em,” Williams revealed in the Post, “[Yet] he said, ’Man, I don’t know what’s wrong, ’ and started crying. Real tears started to flow.… He said, ’I don’t know what it is. They’re not laughing. I just don’t seem to have it. These people come to see me and I just don’t seem to have it.’”
While Harris was packing them in at the Comedy Act, he was being ignored by the Los Angeles-based movie and television business. The white-dominated entertainment industry could neither relate to nor understand Harris’s down-home black style. And it wasn’t only his humor they didn’t get. According to the Washington Post, one white television executive—after seeing Harris at the Comedy Act—told Harris’s agent, Bill Gross, “I just couldn’t understand him.” The executive didn’t mean his humor, she meant his diction.
It fell to acclaimed African American film director Spike Lee to take a chance on Harris. In 1989 Lee cast Harris in his explosive drama Do the Right Thing. As “Sweet Dick Willie,” Harris played one of three middle-aged men who supplied comic relief in the film with their remarks on society’s increasing racial tension. The New Yorfcer’s Terrence Rafferty commented that Harris was “wonderful,” and that with Paul Bejamin and Frankie Faison, he achieved “sizzling comic rhythms,” making for the movie’s loosest scenes.
After Do the Right Thing, Harris’s movie career began to take off. He had a small role in Keenen Ivory Wayans’s blaxploitation send-up I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and he played an Eddie Murphy flunky in Harlem Nights. Then in 1990 he drew high marks for his sassy portrayal of “Pops” in Reginald and Warrington Hudlin’s rap comedy House Party.
Harris was gaining national exposure both in motion pictures and on the club scene, where he was packing 2,000-seat auditoriums around the country. But, he always remained loyal to the family and the community that had supported him for so long. “Robin was discovered by the community, and he refused to leave the community,” Eric Reed owner of the Fun House, an L.A. club, told the Washington Post. Harris reportedly rode the bus around town and frequently stopped to chat with people on the street. And he never gave up his $400-a-night Thursday and Friday gigs at the Comedy Act Theater.
In addition to employing his younger brother Michael as his manager, Harris remained close to his mother. “I ask [her] for advice on show business,” he was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. “When people were sayin’, ‘Don’t give up that day job,’ she said, ‘Go ahead, give it up.’”
Early in 1990, Harris was keeping a dangerously tight schedule. He continued his Thursday and Friday night emcee duties at the Comedy Act; he flew around the country for frequent club dates; he juggled the taping of an HBO comedy special at Chicago’s Vic Theater with work on a supporting role in an action drama; his comedy album Bebe’s Kids had just been released; and he was beginning to work on a film version of the routine. Constantly tired from both his busy schedule and from a breathing problem that interfered with his sleep, Harris was notorious for nodding off during the day—sometimes in the midst of conversation.
On March 16, 1990, he finished his night’s duties at the Comedy Act and took the “red-eye” flight to Chicago, where he arrived early the next morning. After a day of personal appearances in the Chicago area, he performed a sold-out show to 2, 400 patrons at the city’s Regal Theater. Later that night, he went with friends for a prime rib dinner and visited a blues club. Early on the morning of the 18th, he returned to his room at the Four Seasons Hotel. When he failed to meet up with friends and family later that day, his mother, who had a spare key, opened his hotel room door and found him dead.
Harris’s legacy remains in his film appearances, his HBO special, his comedy album Bebe’s Kids, and the animated film it inspired. At his funeral, comedian and filmmaker Robert Townsend eulogized: “He’s probably up there right now giving them a hard time.” As quoted in the Washington Post, Townsend figured Harris would get the lay of the land and ask the angels, “Hey where’d you get those wings, Kmart?”
Detroit Free Press, August 4, 1992, p. B1.
Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1990, p. A22.
New Yorker, July 24, 1989, p. 78.
Premiere, July 1992; p. 85.
Variety, February 7, 1990, p. 32; March 28, 1990, p. 109; August 3, 1992, p. 39.
Village Voice, April 10, 1990, p. 44.
Washington Post, March 26, 1990, p. B1.
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