Warner, Malcolm Jamal- 1970–
Warner, Malcolm Jamal- 1970–
Malcolm Jamal-Warner 1970–
As one of television’s darling “Cosby Kids” in the 1980s, MalcolmJamal Warner could have sat back for the rest of his life and basked in the glow of early success. Instead, Warner has chosen to push his career in new directions. In the post-Cosby era, he has shaped himself into a polished and versatile actor, a skilled director, and a much sought-after host for television specials. Some child stars fall into a state of arrested development; Warner has managed to outgrow Theo.
Warner was born August 18, 1970 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was named after two of his parents’ African American heroes: Malcolm X and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. His parents, Robert and Pamela, divorced two years later. In 1975 Pamela and Malcolm moved to Los Angeles, her home town. Robert, meanwhile, moved to Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and became director of a drug intervention program. Throughout his childhood, Malcolm made regular summer visits to Chicago.
At first, Warner was more interested in basketball than in acting. At the end of the basketball season one year, however, his mother enrolled him in an acting class. Before long, he was actively involved in community theater, where his talent captured the attention of casting agents and directors. With mother Pam serving as his agent, Warner began receiving calls from directors. Most of his early roles were street kids. “They’d always say, ’Pam, don’t shine him up so much, ’” Warner’s agent/mom recalled in a 1987 TV Guide profile. “’He looks too clean-cut.’”
Warner began finding steady work, both on the stage and in television, beginning at about age 9. In the early 1980s he landed guest spots on the TV series Matt Houston, Fame, and Call to Glory. His big break did not come until 1984, following the first dry spell of his young career. Warner was one of hundreds of kids who auditioned for the role of Bill Cosby’s son Theo in The Cosby Show. “I was scared to death,” Warner was quoted as say ing in the 1987 TVGuidepiece. “I knew they were looking for a bigger kid, like Bill’s own son, Ennis, who was 6-feet-2.1 was only 5-feet-5 then. But I got it.”
While landing the role of Theo changed Warner’s life
At a Glance …
Born August 18, 1970, in Jersey City, NJ; son of Pamela (his manager) and Robert (director of a drug intervention program) Warner.
Career: Began acting in community theater at age 9; appeared in commercials for Walt Disney World; played Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show, NBC, 1984-92; appeared in NBC movie Tfte Fat/ier Clemens Story, 1987; various television appearances on numerous series and specials, 1984-; made directing debut in episode of The Cosby Show, 1990; starred in own series, Here and Now, NBC, 1992; plays role of Malcolm in UPN series Mateo/m and Eddie,
Awards: NAACP image Award, best performance by an actor in a comedy, 1986, for The Cosby Show; Emmy Award nomination, 1986, for The Cosby Show.
Addresses: Agent—Artists First, 8230 Beverly Blvd., Suite 23, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
dramatically, one thing did not change. Pamela remained his manager. Their relationship, while undergoing a certain amount of strain, understandably, remained strong throughout. “When I started managing him, he took an attitude,” Pam was quoted as saying in a 1994 People Weekly feature. “It could be very unpleasant…. By the time he was 18, we were in great shape.” She was also forced to learn the business side of the TV game on the fly. “That first night, when the numbers went through the roof,” she told New York Times reporter Stephen Henderson in 1997,” I didn’t even know what ’numbers going through the roof meant.”
Overnight, Warner was a star. The Cosby Show became a huge hit, and Warner and his fellow Cosby kids became America’s little darlings. For the show’s first two seasons, Warner and his mother commuted from their California home to Brooklyn, New York, where the series was shot. It was immediately apparent to everyone involved in the show that the young Warner was mature beyond his years. He managed to thwart the problems and temptations that have been the undoing of many a child star. Bill Cosby became Warner’s mentor, educating him in the ways of stardom. Cosby would coach Warner on everything from cars to romance to school to career moves. “He talks in a subtle way; he makes a joke, and hiding in there is the advice,” Warner was quoted as saying in a 1990 TV Guide interview.
Pam Warner characterized Cosby’s influence as being even more profound. “He taught Malcolm to function in this business as an African American male,” she told TV Guide’s Mary Murphy. “He taught him when to compromise and when not to compromise, how to use power and how not to abuse it.”
Along with stardom came scads of offers. After turning down several, Warner finally came across one—not counting bit parts on specials—that appealed to him. In 1987 he starred opposite Louis Gossett, Jr. in “The Father Clements Story,” a TV movie about a priest’s efforts to adopt a street kid in order to publicize the disparity in adoption rates between white and black children. Like Cosby, and virtually every other adult with whom Warner worked, Gossett was impressed by both his talent and his character. “He’s a terrific kid,” Gossett told Rick Kogan of TV Guide,” and he is the finest young actor I’ve seen in years, with a great potential to be a great talent.”
In 1988 Warner penned a book, Theo and Me: Growing Up Okay, in which he imparted his admittedly modest wisdom on his legions of fans. While the book was generally well-received for its honesty and sincere approach to the hazards of stardom and the worship that accompanies it, Warner was also criticized for his blunt appraisal of such sensitive topics as racism in show business.
As the seasons went on, Warner began preparing for life after Cosby by learning how to direct. In 1990 he directed an episode of Cosby called “Off to See the Wretched.” His behind-the-camera work continued with a number of music videos, including one for the popular R&B group New Edition. He also directed several episodes of Sesame Street, and co-produced four television specials for young people. Eventually, Warner’s directing career expanded into other sitcoms, including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Cosby went off the air in 1992 after eight spectacularly successful seasons. Shortly after the show’s demise, Warner was cast as a graduate student in his own Cosby-produced NBC series, Here andNow. Unfortunately, the series failed to find much of an audience, and it was soon pulled from the lineup.
Disappointed with NBC’s handling of Here and Now, Warner turned to the stage and the big screen. He starred in Chicago in a gritty crime drama called Freefall, by Chicago playwright Charles Smith. Warner’s portrayal of a drug dealer contrasted sharply with his clean cut TV image. “The first time I say the F-word, I can hear the hearts stop,” he was quoted as saying in a 1993 Jet article.
In 1994 Warner made his motion picture debut in the action-adventure Drop Zone, in which he played the brother of star Wesley Snipes. Warner stretched his acting chops further the following year, taking on his first “badguy” role as a no-good friend of boxer Mike Tyson in the HBO movie Tyson. 1995 also brought a feature role in another HBO movie, Tuskegee Airmen, along side Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr.. Meanwhile, Warner’s interest in children’s programming continued to occupy a significant space on his calendar. He had an ongoing role as the voice of the producer in the animated educational series The Magic School Bus. He also hosted such specials as “Kids Killing Kids/Kids Saving Kids” and the “The Kids’ Choice Awards.”
Warner finally broke through with a new series of his own in 1996, with Malcolm and Eddie, in which he stars as an aspiring commentator opposite comedian Eddie Griffin, who plays his tow-truck driving roommate. The series is broadcast on the upstart UPN network.
In the minds of a generation of TV viewers, Warner will always be Theo Huxtable. As time goes on, however, a larger and larger share of the public will recognize that there is much more to Malcolm-Jamal Warner than what rubbed off of Bill Cosby.
Warner, Malcolm-Jamal, Theo and Me: Growing Up Okay, Dutton, 1988.
Essence, August 1995, p. 56.
Jet, April 9, 1990, p. 54; MaylO, 1993, p. 38.
Hollywood Reporter, January 28, 1999, p. 19.
New York Times, March 30, 1997, sec. 2, p. 36.
Money, Spring 1993, p. 22.
People Weekly, December 12, 1994, p. 89.
Teen Magazine, June 1985, p. 61.
TV Guide, December 12, 1987, p. 49; November 24, 1990, p. 15.
—Robert R. Jacobson