Interview: Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner Malcolm-Jamal Warner famously played Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Now he's starring in a new stage production of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Warner talks to NPR's David Greene about his audition for the part of Theo, what he learned from Bill Cosby and how his new play differs from the 1967 movie that inspired it.
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Don't Call Him Theo: Malcolm-Jamal Warner On Life After 'Cosby'

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Don't Call Him Theo: Malcolm-Jamal Warner On Life After 'Cosby'

Don't Call Him Theo: Malcolm-Jamal Warner On Life After 'Cosby'

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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.


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.


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?


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.

GREENE: Interesting.

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.

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