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.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're picking up a conversation we began yesterday with the actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner. He is best known for the role he played in the 1980s as Theo Huxtable on "The Cosby Show." He is so well-known for that role, that even now, at age 43, he encounters people who are confused.
MALCOLM-JAMAL WARNER: People kind of have a misconception, because when someone calls me Theo and I correct them and 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. It's like, no. I will forever be associated with that show, but my name is Malcolm.
GREENE: Just FYI.
WARNER: Yeah. And the fact that you know my name is Malcolm, but you still choose to call me Theo, because you think you're the first person today who's done that.
GREENE: How often does that happen?
WARNER: All the time.
GREENE: Theo - sorry - Malcolm-Jamal Warner did more television after "The Cosby Show" ran, but these days, he has turned to the theater, where he feels more room to breathe and be creative.
WARNER: I love the character development process. When you're working on television and film, you don't really have time. Rehearsal is a luxury. In theater, rehearsal is a necessity. I just thought of that. That's probably the most concise way I could put it.
GREENE: That's a quotable line...
GREENE: ...more time (unintelligible).
WARNER: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I mean, to spend three to four weeks on the floor with other actors finding stuff, you know, even with the best of writers and the best scripts, there's still - there's a texture. There's subtlety. There are nuances of the characters and the actor's performance that's not on the page. And you only get those things when you actually have a chance to be on the floor, rehearse, do the dance with the other actors.
GREENE: He's been doing that dance recently at Arena Stage Theater here in Washington, D.C. in a production of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." It's based on the 1967 movie, starring Sidney Poitier as John Prentice, an African-American doctor with a stellar resume who falls in love with a younger white woman and comes to visit her parents to announce their plans to get married.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER")
KATHARINE HOUGHTON: (as Joanna) Mom, this is John.
KATHERINE HEPBURN: (as Mrs. Drayton) Doc, Doc, Doctor Prentice. I'm so pleased to meet you.
SIDNEY POITIER: (as John) I'm pleased to meet you, Mrs. Drayton. I take it Joanna's already busted out with the big news.
HEPBURN: Well, she has told me a good deal, and all very quickly, too.
POITIER: Mrs. Drayton, I'm medically qualified, so I hope you wouldn't think it presumptuous if I say you ought to sit down before you fall down, I mean.
HOUGHTON: He thinks you're going to faint because he's a negro.
GREENE: Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who plays Dr. Prentice, says he studied how Sidney Poitier handled the role. Dr. Prentice's character had few, if any, flaws in the movie. It was a way of stressing that besides judging him by his race, his fiancee's parents had no other reason to object to him.
WARNER: 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.
GREENE: Malcolm-Jamal Warner is aiming for a more nuanced Dr. Prentice, and he feels like he and his fellow cast members today do have more room to experiment, freed from the pressures the filmmakers may have felt in 1967.
WARNER: They had to take the subject matter and treat it as a light comedy. What we have a great opportunity to do is really delve deeper into each character's very real and complex emotional response to this interracial marriage.
GREENE: And why couldn't you do that in the '60s - why couldn't they do that in the '60s?
WARNER: Because of the racial climate. I mean, 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 on screen.
GREENE: You're talking about some of the things that you added to the play that were more provocative, digging deeper. There was one line where you were talking about the challenges that you face as an African-American doctor in the United States, and you said: Why do you think I work overseas?
(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY, "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Mr. Drayton) There are states where what you propose to do is illegal, regardless of the law. The laws won't protect when you get pulled over.
WARNER: (as John Prentice) I know my place in America, Mr. Drayton. Why do you think I work overseas? Most research labs here would only let me if I could push a broom.
GREENE: It seems like a powerful moment. Was one of the things that you feel like took things farther than the movie would have?
WARNER: That scene, definitely, because I think in the movie - again, this is a very light-hearted scene between Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy - you know, you add that to the play - you know, there are times when I do that line and the people in the audience go, hmm. Or they laugh, because they get it. It's, like, oh, wow, yeah. That's real.
GREENE: In a play with a lot of laughter, I mean, that's like a moment where it's like remember what was happening in this country in the 1960s.
WARNER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GREENE: We're at a moment where there's an African-American president who lives not far from where you're putting on this show in Washington, D.C. Are the issues that come up in the sensitivities and the questions as relevant today as they were when the movie was made?
WARNER: It's really interesting, because on one hand, you know, we had an Arena Stage donor dinner last week. And we were talking with 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, you know, that they were 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 was 14 years older...
GREENE: Fourteen years older than the woman you're getting ready to get married to.
WARNER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GREENE: They were more bothered by that than they are...
WARNER: They were more bothered by that, yeah.
WARNER: So, that's, you know, on one hand, but on the other hand - they are still, you know, those of us who live in metropolitan cities, we tend to forget about all those territories where people's attitudes are not as progressive.
GREENE: You're saying that there are places in the country where there are still a lot of discomfort about interracial marriages.
WARNER: Yeah, yeah. We're not in post-racial America, as some people may think.
GREENE: Having this conversation, you can't help sense a connection between Dr. Prentice and Dr. Cliff Huxtable. As Malcolm-Jamal Warner told us yesterday, "The Cosby Show" sent a message: You're not looking at an African-American doctor. You're looking at a doctor who happens to be African-American. It's the same message Malcolm-Jamal Warner hopes he's sending on stage today.
WARNER: There have been very accomplished black doctors since the inception of this country, (unintelligible). So, with me playing Dr. Prentice, I guess it's really interesting, because I think people, you know, know what Theo represented, and I think for a lot of people, when I walk on stage as Dr. Prentice, they're like, well, yeah, of course. Theo Huxtable would have been this guy, you know.
GREENE: Interesting. Feels like this play is coming home, in a way, for you.
WARNER: Definitely. Especially in coming back to theater. I have not been on stage as an actor in about six years. And to be able to come back with this character and reprising a Sidney Poitier role and having a great cast and such a wonderful experience, it's definitely a coming home, in a lot of ways, for me.
GREENE: Well, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, this has been such a pleasure. Thanks for stopping by.
WARNER: Hey, thank you, David. Thank you, man. Thanks for having me, dude.
GREENE: That was Malcolm-Jamal Warner. His performance in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" runs through this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.