A popular African American television comic character of the 1980s and 1990s, Sinbad, whose offstage name is David Adkins, offered wholesome, family-oriented entertainment for children and adults alike. The legitimate heir to Bill Cosby's clean-cut comic style, Adkins, an African American, broke barriers at mainstream studios like Disney by starring in youth-oriented feature films with predominately white casts, such as Houseguest (1995) and First Kid (1996).
Sinbad first entered mainstream culture as dorm director, Walter Oakes, on the Cosby-produced NBC sitcom A Different World (1987- 1991), once the nation's number-three rated show. It was this role that catapulted Sinbad into living rooms across the nation. Following the show's run, Sinbad gained further notoriety as host of It's Showtime at the Apollo, where his improvisational storytelling on topics such as hair weaves, parenting, and divorce helped to make him one of America's most widely-recognized funny men.
Born in Benton Harbor, Michigan, on November 18, 1956, David Adkins was the child of Baptist minister Reverend Donald Adkins and his wife, Louise. The second of six children, the future comedian was raised in a household in which a high value was placed on morals, personal responsibility, and God. Rejecting both alcohol and drugs throughout life, Sinbad takes seriously his job as a role model—challenging the need for vulgar language in his performances with the oft-quoted maxim: "If my kids can't watch it, I can't do it."
Tall in stature—he reached 6′5″ in adulthood—the comedian grew up feeling "big and goofy," and saw himself as something of an outsider. Luckily his size was of use in pursuing his first love: basketball. He won an athletic scholarship to the University of Denver, but found himself particularly isolated on the largely white campus, where he became increasingly militant during the black-power era of the 1970s. Never one to play by the rules, Adkins surprised his peers by quitting college just short of a diploma. After dropping out, Adkins signed up with the Air Force, where he soon discovered his true calling during a talent contest. Arriving at a steadfast decision to pursue comedy, he got himself discharged from the service—as legend has it—by walking off duty in his underwear. "Kick me out," he told his superiors. "Let's work as a team."
In 1983, embarking on what he has called his "Poverty Tour," the future Sinbad crossed the country by Greyhound bus, performing stand-up routines in small-town clubs and hitching rides with members of his audience. The grueling schedule paid off. By the mid-1980s, the comedian's first big break came through repeated appearances on Star Search. With his brightly-colored hair (dyed every shade from gold to red to platinum blond) and feather earrings in both ears, the budding talent had made an impression. He relocated to Los Angeles, and in 1986 was cast as Redd Foxx's foster son on ABC's The New Red Foxx Show (1986).
Like his mentor, Bill Cosby, Adkins has consistently challenged stereotypical images in Hollywood film and television productions. On Houseguest, for example, he refused to do humor that he termed "very broad and anatomical." During production on his short-lived sitcom, The Sinbad Show (1993), which aired on the Fox network during 1993-94, the star's arguments with producers and executives were legend, as he struggled to represent his character, a black single father, in a positive light.
In 1997, Sinbad joined the flurry of black-oriented, late-night talk shows when he was asked to take over hosting duties on Vibe (1997-1998). It was a time when competition was stiff for the genre: The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show (1997-1998) ran neck-and-neck with Vibe before being replaced by Magic Johnson's The Magic Hour (1998). But Adkins had also co-hosted, with singer Stephen Bishop, another late-night variety show ten years earlier called Keep on Cruisin' (1987).
At the close of the 1990s, Sinbad had expanded his influence beyond the world of entertainment, and had become a pioneer advocate for technology, particularly among inner-city youth. A computer buff who has been known to chat online for hours, he served on an advisory council at Howard University, and as a spokesperson for the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, lecturing to some 23 million kids about the importance of math and science in a technologically advanced world. Sinbad also participated in the first annual Think Quest Internet competition, along with Ron Howard, Nobel-laureate physicist Kenneth Wilson, and Gene Sperling, advisor to President Clinton, in which more than $1 million in scholarships and cash prizes were awarded to students, teachers, and schools across the country. In 1996, he accompanied first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to Bosnia to provide comic relief for United States peacekeeping forces stationed there and throughout Europe.
—Kristal Brent Zook
Lovece, Frank. "When Sinbad Says No Offense, He Means It."Newsday. City Edition. January 10, 1995, B3.
Sinbad, and Ritz, David. Sinbad's Guide to Life (Because I Know Everything). Bantam Books, 1997.
Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying. New York, Touchstone, 1994.