Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner has been a part of show business for close to three decades now. He has a diverse career that involves acting in television (recently appearing on the drama Major Crimes), film (the recent award winning short Muted) and on the stage (in the off-Broadway play Cryin Shame). He has worked behind the camera as a director and has crafted a successful musical career for himself with his band, Miles Long. The lengthy life and diversity of Warner’s career is definitely noteworthy.
It’s fair to say that no matter what level of success Warner reaches in adulthood, it will probably be extremely difficult for him to top the success he earned as a young actor. Warner played Theo Huxtable, on the iconic sitcom The Cosby Show, for 8 seasons. The show was a cultural phenomenon and made Malcolm and his character Theo practically synonymous in the eyes of fans.
We talked to Malcolm-Jamal Warner about the legacy of The Cosby Show, the state of television comedy and how he has been able to avoid making the same mistakes as other young actors.
How have you been able to maintain such a consistent level of work in an industry that isn’t known for allowing longevity?
I grew up maniacally obsessing over what my life would be like after Cosby. I spent most of my years on the show preparing for what I would do after it was over. One of the thousands of things I learned from [Bill] Cosby was the importance of a strong work ethic. We would work on the show Monday through Thursday and he would spend his weekends doing stand-up. He was doing all of this while having the number one show in the world. That example taught me that when you are hot you have to bust your ass. That dedication helps you when you aren’t hot and allows you to not have to make desperate career choices.
When you look back at the show and its legacy, what are you most proud of?
For a long time I looked at the show as Mr. Cosby’s success. I was always happy to be a part of it, but I had always looked at it as his achievement. Now that I am older, I have a greater appreciation for my role in its success. Mr. Cosby was obviously brilliant, but I think if different actors played any of the characters it would have been a much different show. Part of Cosby’s genius was he knew who the right people were to cast around him. I appreciate my role on the show a lot more now. I don’t say any of this with ego, the whole cast played a huge part in its success.
Modern comedy on television has shifted greatly from the format of The Cosby Show. Do you think we will ever see the return of the classic television sitcom?
I think about that often—television has changed so much and so has its audience. I wonder if Cosby came out now would it have the same impact? One of the reasons why it is such a classic is because you can’t recreate it. Cosby knew, even back then, he was making timeless television. I always wanted Theo to be hipper and I wanted to inject the popular slang of that era into his dialog. But, Bill Cosby always said ‘no.’ He knew that if I did that it would date the show. Even back then, he had the foresight to understand the type of television he was creating.
You have taken on so many different artistic endeavors in your career. Which endeavor do you feel the greatest connection to?
All of my endeavors are important parts of my creative expression. Each one offers me a different creative voice. My expression as a director is different than my expression as an actor. In my early 30s, as corny as it may sound, I embraced the idea of being an artist. I realized all of the things I do are an extension of me as an artist.
You were able to avoid a lot of the problems child actors encounter later in life. How have you been able to maintain a strong career and stay so grounded, despite being a child star?
My parents set a great foundation, even before The Cosby Show. The values they instilled in me prepared me for what my life journey would become. I was a teenager on the number one TV show in the world and my mother told me ‘this is great, but what are you going to do when the show ends?’ That makes you think about the future. When you think about your life in that perspective you understand that everything you do now affects you later on. I enjoyed all the things that a teenage celebrity could enjoy, but there were self-imposed boundaries I had for myself. Within those boundaries I did everything I could do, but I lived to tell about it. I also knew that I wasn’t just a reflection of my parents, I was a reflection of everything The Cosby Show stood for. I understood how fortunate I was and I didn’t let it go to my head.
Be sure to visit www.MalcolmJamalWarner.com and be on the lookout for new music from Malcolm-Jamal Warner this summer!