Born Lawrence Tureaud in 1952, Mr. T has survived the welfare struggles and Chicago ghetto of his youth, a lengthy bout with cancer, and a career filled with astonishing highs and depressing lows. He's been a bodyguard, a college-football player, a WWF wrestler, a movie star (Rocky III), a television regular (The A-Team), a commercial pitchman, and a frequent pop-culture punchline, but T remains world-famous after two decades in and out of the limelight. In this 1993 interview, conducted after the launch of his comic-book series Mr. T And The T-Force, the star spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about character, literacy, religion, and fame.
The Onion: You've been active in literacy efforts over the years.
Mr. T: I have. If I couldn't read, I wouldn't have gotten the part in Rocky III. If you can't read, the only thing you can do is enjoy the pictures, not the whole story. Reading is the key to knowledge. Knowledge is the key to understanding. So read on, young man! Read on, young lady! I'm an inspiration, because I'm a product of the ghetto. I was born and raised in the ghetto. But the ghetto wasn't born and raised in me. I come from a family of 12. I've got seven brothers and four sisters. I never robbed nobody, I never raped nobody, I didn't use drugs. That's the message I give to the kids now: "What's slowing you down? Why can't you make it? You can make it if you want." I love and respect my mother, and that's the message I tell the kids—white kids, black kids, whatever. They need to know that Mr. T is real, and that's the advantage we have. Batman, Rifleman, Superman, Iron Man, Tin Man, they might be nice guys, but they're not real. They can't go into schools. They can't go into the neighborhoods. But my record speaks for itself. I've been around for years, preaching the same message. I didn't just start doing this today. Not like some people that have a movie coming out, so they go visit kids in the hospital. You don't need that phony crap. All of these celebrities, they turn my stomach with their funny stuff. I've been going in the ghettos without the press, without bodyguards, talking to kids. "Get to reading, stay in school. You don't have to carry a gun." I know about peer pressure and all that, but I say, "Hey, they called me a sissy because I wouldn't join a gang. Who was calling me a sissy? Does it make me a sissy because somebody called me a sissy?" That's the same thing with race. "Does that make you a nigger if somebody called you a nigger? Does that make you a honky or a redneck if somebody called you that?" No. They need a man like me to tell them. I'm tough and tender at the same time. I'm tough enough to fight them, and I'm not afraid of nothing. I'm not even afraid of death. But at the same time, it's not about fighting. I'm going to fight if you touch me or hurt me or do harm to my family. But if you call me a bad name, or whatnot, I'm too smart for that. That's the message the kids need to hear coming from me. I tell them, "If I fought every time somebody called me a name, I would never get out of jail. But I'm disciplined. I'm smarter than that." So I tell them, like my mother said, "Consider the source." When you see who called you the name, then you understand why they're doing it. Then you don't have to stoop that low. That's the message I try to bring to the kids, on the real side, because nobody brings it to them like Mr. T does. That's important. I'm not polishing it up, I don't pussyfoot around the issue. I call a spade a spade. I don't change my rap to the blacks, I don't change it to the whites. It's the same rap. It's steady, and it works.
O: You sound like you're running for president.
MT: Nah. See, if I run for president, they'd be controlling me. Right now, I'm free. I can say it like it is. If I run for president, people will say, "No, Mr. T, don't write about drugs, you're the president." Politics, they make strange bedfellows, with deals and whatnot. I couldn't be a president. It ain't worth the headache or the pressure. The money's too low, and all that stuff. There's stuff that'd make me dangerous. I'm educated. Three things make a black man dangerous: the ability to fight, education, and money. If you get the education, you're gonna get money. I was dangerous from day one, because I'm intelligent. I get so insulted when I watch sports people ask athletes who their role model is, and athletes say it's this baseball player or this basketball player. How insulting to their mother and their father. How insulting to your mother, to say, "I like some other guy." Joe Louis was a nice guy, but not a role model. I learned when I got a little educated that Joe Louis wasn't educated. To call him my role model would be disrespectful to my mother, who scrubbed floors and had to go in the back door and sacrificed eating for me, and would knock on the neighbors' door so she could borrow a dollar until the welfare check came so I could go to school. I'm going to say some basketball player or some football player is my role model? That's an insult to my mother, who scrubbed floors. That's an insult to my father, who picked up junk in the alleys and preached on Sundays. See what I mean? Muhammad Ali was good in sports and everything, but he never fed me. Whoever's taking care of you is your role model. And this here, by you writing this, is gonna put something else on their mind. They're gonna say, "Oh, wow, I used to say a football player. I forgot about my mother." Sometimes you have to jar their memories. It takes a spiritually, morally strong guy like me to tell it like it is. I don't pull no punches. When I go to speak at the schools, they give me big standing ovations. I say, "By the time I leave, you're gonna wish you hadn't applauded for me. I'm going to tell it like it is, I'm going to call it like it is. Who breaks out the school windows, brothers? Any white folk coming in from the suburbs and breaking out the windows? Who's doing it?" But I hear, "Mr. T, you've been hanging around the white folks too long." See, if I come into a black neighborhood and say, "Thanks for watching my show," and give out high fives and all that, I'm not doing no good. I go out and see a kid grabbing his crotch. Ain't nobody telling them that. Where do they get it from? They watch MTV. I say, "If you wash up more often, you won't have to grab your crotch." I'm telling these guys, "Why you gotta grab your crotch?" Then you see Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch 50 times. What's with him? Dangerous stuff. Mike, you never say nothing to the 'hood. You owe something to the people. They buy your record, so tell the kids, "Hey, kids, don't fight." I know you don't talk that much, but you always say, "I love you." Say, "Kids, don't fight the races." They'll listen, because Michael's speaking. You're always talking about the hero of the world. How you gonna be the hero of the world, Michael, without telling the people not to fight? This is me, see? I'm just controversy. I can do that because I'm free. Nobody can tell me anything, no advertisers control me, and that's why I don't go to all the fancy parties. I'm a street guy. I don't dress up and all that stuff. People invite me to dinner because I'm Mr. T. I say, "Can I bring a friend?" So I find a couple of down-and-out people on the street, and I'd tell the guys, "This is my friend. I just met him." "What's your name, buddy?" "He needs a meal more than Mr. T do." I only eat once a day because I'm in training, and even if I'm not training, I really don't need all your food. I'm always conscious of the less fortunate. That's why I feed the hungry and I clothe the naked. And that's why I'm successful. I get so much because I give so much. That's what my father taught me. That's why I go to the hospitals. That's why I'm involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Starlight Foundation. A politician will say, "Vote for me, and whatever." They don't even remember you until the next voting time. But I'm giving people something. Is that wrong for me to tell a kid to stay in school, don't be a fool, don't get involved with drugs? I go to the library, and you can go to the library, too. You can study. I don't charge for going to schools. I've got to give something back. If I touch one kid in that community, that ghetto, that school, whatever, then my trip there wasn't in vain.
O: You're working on another book, right?
MT: Yeah, I'm working on my second book. The first book was called Mr. T: The Man With The Gold. This book I'm working on now is called There Goes The Neighborhood. Back in 1986, I bought a mansion in Lake Forest, Illinois, and then I cut down my trees and the neighbors got mad. How dare my neighbors get mad about my property? But the issue wasn't the trees, as if they don't cut down trees; the issue was that I was the only black man moving to a town of about 15,000 people. Stuffy people. Some of them were rich, some of them barely scraping. Actually, the really rich people didn't even say nothing. The people that got little houses, their house ain't bigger than my garage. So I'm sort of the black version of the Beverly Hillbillies. My driveway's about a block and a half long, most unusual for a black man to have. I bought that house for my mother. All I've ever wanted to do since I was 10 years old, I told my mother, "Mama, one of these days I'm gonna be big and strong. I'm gonna be a football player and a boxer. I'm gonna buy you beautiful dresses, Mama, and I'll buy you a pretty house." It was the Lord's willing because it kept me away from the gangs and the drugs in the neighborhood. I had a higher calling. I was a poor black man, and I realized I've got to have a dream and a vision. Everything started as a dream. You gotta have insight, know what you want. You gotta have a plan. Like I tell anybody, if you fail to plan, you're planning to fail. I've been planning ever since I was a youngster. You've got to start from somewhere. There's nothing wrong or demeaning in flipping burgers. It's more proud than selling drugs. I was born and raised on welfare, but don't make it your permanent address. It's not where you come from, it's where you're going. Some people, they want to live on welfare the rest of their life. That's their scheme. That's their con. How sickening and sad. And that's the problems in the ghetto. It's a breakdown there. That's why we have so many illegitimate children, so many kids without fathers. Mothers having kids prostituting for them. That's what's going on. That's not stuff I heard about, it's the part I know. I always make my way back to the ghetto so I won't forget, so I won't lose touch with people. That's why my rapport is still strong after all these years. That used to be me and my family many years ago. I get more than I deserve. If I made do in poverty, $87 a month with my mother on welfare, why can't I make it now? We didn't starve. We spent wisely. Like I tell people in the ghetto, "If you can buy guns and bullets, why can't you buy food? You can buy heroin and crack cocaine, so why can't you buy bread and butter and milk? Why can't you pay your rent?" There's a lot of people in the ghetto who go out and get a fancy car and all that. The car costs more than their house. Meanwhile, your kids need shoes. That's not cool. It takes a man to tell it like it is. If I tell a kid to stay in school, the dropout don't want to hear me. If I tell a kid not to smoke, the tobacco industry is mad. Tell 'em you don't drink beer, the beer company gets pissed. I tell a kid don't do drugs, the drug dealers are mad. Stepping on toes. Can't no ordinary guy do this, because they're afraid, they don't have a backbone, they don't have the balls, they don't have the guts. They're worried, "What's somebody gonna say? I've got to check with my manager, I've got to check with…" So sickening. I don't check with nobody. I get up in the morning and this is my duty as a child of God.
O: Have you ever gotten any threats?
MT: I don't worry about that. That's gonna happen. That means I'm touching a nerve. Like Dr. King said, it's not how long you live, but how well you live. I don't fear nothing. I don't carry a gun, I don't have bodyguards around me. What you gotta do, do it. If they're gonna get you, they're gonna get you. That's something I don't fear. I'm taught that my God can do anything but fail. That God plus one is the majority. I was taught that if God is for me, who in the world can stand against me? God is on my side, and that's all I need. I get up in the morning, I pray to God. I don't pray to the president, the governor, the mayor, no black caucus, no this and that. I pray to God and that's the end of it.
O: You're in a movie coming out called Freaked. What's the story behind that?
MT: I play a very, very different role, because it was important that people see me in different things. I try to entertain as well as get a message across. It's a comedy, and I play a bearded lady. I'd get to the makeup trailer every morning, they'd put on makeup for two hours, a little bang on the top of my head, a barrette thing, and powders and makeup. Oh, boy, then they put the dress on me. Ain't life strange? Only in America. But it's fun. I like to do different things, so that's important. Like I say, I don't turn down nothing but my collar. I'm getting paid and making people laugh. I take a lot of pride in the work I do, because people pay to see me. They've got to get babysitters, park their car, get popcorn and candy. I've got to be conscious of that. I'm a blue-collar actor. I've got to be careful about the type of money I ask for, because I realize that thousands, hundreds, millions of people are getting laid off from their job. If I'm getting so much money off the people, I've got to give it back to the people. When they had Mr. T dolls, I went to the hospitals and gave dolls to the kids. My mother taught me there are some things money can't buy. Sure, I get clothes from gym-shoes companies and this and that. I got shoes that ain't touched the ground. I give them to the less fortunate people. I maybe wear two, three pairs of shoes the whole year. I don't need a whole lot of shoes to change into to try to impress somebody. Basically, I wear sandals, like Jesus. When it gets cold in Chicago, the snow way up to my knees, I still wear my sandals. But that's me. That's something that I try to do. People talk about being like Mike. No, I want to be like Jesus. I want to feed 5,000. I wish that I could touch babies so that they could be healed. But the doctor told me, "Mr. T, you healing them by coming here, putting a smile on their faces." I just show up unannounced and say, like Jesus said, "I come for the sick." The well don't need a doctor.