Lewis, Emmanuel 1971–
Emmanuel Lewis 1971–
Emmanuel Lewis first caught the public’s eye in the early 1980s with a series of television commercials that showcased the youngster’s small size and big personality. A couple of years later he captured the public’s heart with his portrayal of the title character on the ABC hit show Webster. He entertained audiences worldwide during the show’s four-year run and subsequent syndication. He was a child superstar and because of his short stature—just 36 inches tall at age 12—he was also thought of as a sort of Peter Pan who would never grow up. Then he did just that. While other child actors—not hindered by height—found the transition to adulthood precarious (witness the trouble-plagued stars of rival show Different Strokes —one child star turned to drugs, another crime) Lewis flourished. He credits his family and friends for that. “It’s essential for kid stars, or any kids for that matter, to be surrounded by those who care,” he explained to www.cyberspacers.com. Though he still stands under four feet, his success towers. He continues to appear in television shows and films and has become a force behind the scenes in film, television, and music production.
Emmanuel Lewis was born on March 9, 1971, in Brooklyn, New York. The youngest of four children, Manny—as his family and friends still call him—was raised by his mother Margaret, a computer programmer. His parents divorced when Lewis was still a toddler. Despite this breakup, Lewis’s mother made sure that Lewis, brothers Roscoe and Chris, and sister Lizzie enjoyed the security of a tight-knit family. “Our family means everything to my mother. And she means everything to us. Love and example are her ways of teaching the most important values,” Lewis told www.cyberspacers.com.
Lewis attended public schools in Brooklyn and lived an otherwise normal life except for his height. While other kids rapidly grew, Lewis stayed small—at nine years old he stood barely three feet. Though his mother had him thoroughly checked out by doctors, no reason for his short stature could be found. Lewis later explained his height in terms of his religious beliefs, telling People Weekly, “If I’m small right now, it’s got to be for a reason.”
An neighborhood acquaintance who also happened to be an actor recognized that Lewis’s bubbly personality, and his irresistible cuteness—in addition to his doll-like height, Lewis possessed a mega-watt smile and large expressive eyes—could secure him a career in acting.
Born on March 9, 1971, in Brooklyn, NY Education; Clark Atlanta University, B.A., theater arts, 1997.
Career: Appeared in over sixty commercials: television series: Webster, 1983-87; TV guest appearances: In the House, 1995; Family Matters, 1989; Moesha, 1996; Malcolm & Eddie, 1996; G vs. E, 1999; Weakest Link, 2001; TV movies: Lost in London, 1985; The New Adventures of Mother Goose, 1995; singer/dancer: toured Japan, early 1980s; film/music producer, 1985– owner, Emmanuel Lewis Entertainment, 2000–.
Memberships: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; Screen Actors Guild; Actors Equity Association.
Awards: Three People’s Choice Awards, Favorite Young Television Performer, 1980s; CLIO Award, Best Male Actor in a Commercial, Burger King spot, early 1980s.
Addresses: Home —Atlanta, GA.
He suggested it to nine-year-old Lewis one day while the two were out jogging. Lewis recalled to People Weekly, “I made a quick decision and said, ‘Sure but you’ll have to talk to my mommy.’” She agreed and took Lewis to the Shuller Talent Agency, which specializes in child actors for television commercials. Lewis was signed to Shuller almost as soon as he had met with the agents.
From there it didn’t take long for Lewis to start landing commercial appearances. Soon he could be seen in everything from ads for cars to coffee, pudding to pizza. In all he appeared in approximately sixty commercials. One ad, a spot for Colgate, got him a bit of unexpected film exposure when it was played in the background in a scene from the hit movie Splash. He also landed a role on stage in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1982 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, it was his appearance in a series of fast food ads that propelled Lewis on the road to full-fledged stardom.
Burger King was smitten with Lewis and he became the featured actor in a string of four wildly successful commercials for the fast food giant. These appearances won him a prestigious CLIO award as Best Male Actor in a commercial from the advertising industry. It also helped him land the television role that would bring him international fame. According to People Weekly, “Webster was born when an ABC executive saw him in a Burger King spot and said, ‘Get me that kid.’” The show had originally been developed as a vehicle for retired football player Alex Karras and his real-life wife Susan Clark. However, when Lewis was signed on as the couple’s pint-size adopted son, he soon took over the show. Though the change in focus caused some strife between Karras and the show’s brass, director Joel Zwick told People Weekly, “[Without Lewis] I don’t think the original project would have run more than 13 weeks.”
In the series, which premiered in 1983, Lewis starred as Webster, a seven-year-old (though Lewis was 12 at the time) whose parents are killed in a car wreck. Karras and Clark’s characters adopt the youngster. Because Karras and Clark were white and Lewis African-American, the show touched on many racial themes. It also tackled issues considered groundbreaking for television at the time, including child molestation, miscarriage, and custody battles. Whatever the subject matter, audiences were crazy about Lewis’s cute-as-a-button portrayal of Webster. He was voted Favorite Young Television Performer three times by the People’s Choice Awards. Lewis’s mug appeared on the cover of TV Guide no less than four times and on Ebony at least twice. He was also profiled in countless other magazines and appeared on talk shows including The Tonight Show and The Phil Donahue Show. He also guest-starred on countless variety shows and specials—everything from Circus of the Stars to The Bob Hope Christmas Show to 1987’s Emmanuel Lewis: My Very Own Show.
Lewis had also dabbled in stardom in Japan when he toured there as a musician and dancer in the early-1980s. He released three songs there; one, “City Connection,” even topped the Japanese pop charts. A few years later, Lewis drew the attention of the United State’s own King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The duo met on the set of Jackson’s “Thriller” video and a fast friendship was born despite the 12-year difference in their ages. The friends first appeared together in public when Jackson carried Lewis onstage with him during an early-1980s taping of the American Music Awards. They attended many other award shows together, often dressing alike, though Lewis did not accompany Jackson to the stage anymore. “I was afraid that people would laugh at me” Lewis explained to People Weekly. The public went wild over the unlikely friendship, propelling Lewis to even greater levels of fame. “Michael is the best friend you could ever have,” Lewis told People Weekly in 1984. “He’s gentle, not rough like other guys. I can count on him any time, and he can count on me.” In 2000 he elaborated on the friendship to the same publication, “We have similar backgrounds, growing up as child stars.”
Webster was a top-rated ABC sitcom for several years before bowing out in 1987. During that time, Lewis aged from 12 to 16. Nonetheless, Webster remained for television audiences everywhere a precocious child, and Lewis who played the role to such perfection, did also despite the fact that he was past puberty. Of course, it was Lewis’s childlike appearance that helped make the show so popular in the first place. Producer Bill D’Angelo admitted to People Weekly, “Those of us who love him want him to grow. But on the other hand, his size is part and parcel of his charm.” It was a double-edged sword. His fame came about because of his size, yet even as he aged he couldn’t grow out of the role of “cute kid.”
For the most part Lewis took it all in stride. He told People Weekly, “when I go out, everyone knows who I am. They call me Webster.… I understand that when someone is in your living room for a long time, a bond forms.” Lewis took advantage of his notoriety by playing himself in numerous television guest appearances including stints on Moesha, Malcolm & Eddie, and a memorable spot on the short-lived USA network show G vs. E where he is first revealed to be a demon and then blown up. In addition to these appearances Lewis stayed active as a performer on the Tokyo Broadcasting Network in the mid-1990s and in 1998 he toured Canada and the United States with a stand-up comedy act.
Lewis has carved a career for himself behind the scenes of the entertainment industry as well. He told www.cyberspacers.com that after Webster he wanted to learn everything he could about stage, film, and recording, “in a word—production.” He started by earning a degree in theater arts from Atlanta’s Clark Atlanta University in 1997. “It’s not enough to be efficient in front of the camera if you want to create, produce and direct,” he told www.cyberspacers.com. He was able to direct his newly-honed skills into the production company he had begun in 1985 while still a child and worked on a number of film projects and a television series. In June of 2000 he branched out into music, creating a multi-million dollar recording studio on the grounds of his 12-acre Atlanta estate and establishing the Emmanuel Lewis Entertainment record label. It is a venture he is committed to, he explained to www.cyberspacers.com: “Right now a great deal of my time is spent creating music with some exciting new groups and talent for my label. I don’t do anything halfheartedly. I put in 12-18 hour days at the studio.”
Despite his very active schedule, Lewis finds time to pursue his favorite hobbies. He regularly practices martial arts and holds 1st-degree black belts in both Karate and Tae Kwon Do. Lewis, who has only grown a few inches since his Webster days told Jet that in these sports, size doesn’t matter: “I am very confident that if there’s an altercation, you’re not going to easily be able to count me out.” Lewis is also an avid fisherman. “Deep sea, fresh water—you name it. I love it,” he told www.cyberspacers.com. Considering all he has accomplished since his first television commercial in the early 1980s, it is clear that Lewis knows about success. He explained to www.cyberspacers.com, “Achieving success doesn’t have to be complicated.… Just keep setting goals, and go after them.”
Jet, September 24, 2001.
People Weekly, April 9, 1984, p. 75; June 26, 2000, p. 126.
Teen Magazine, October 1984, p. 68.
"Lewis, Emmanuel 1971–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lewis-emmanuel-1971
"Lewis, Emmanuel 1971–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 25, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lewis-emmanuel-1971