Sure Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable were great examples of Black professionals on “The Cosby Show,” but a major reason many tuned in was to find out the latest drama with their kids--especially with son Theo, played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Whether he was hiding his pierced ear or becoming fashion road kill with his Gordon Gartrell shirt debacle, Warner always made us laugh—the ultimate way to a girl’s heart. Since the show’s debut 20 years ago, the New York native has continued in entertainment, including directing films and videos and channeling his passion for poetry and music into a new career with his band, Miles Long. We caught up with the sitcom icon to discuss his favorite memories from “The Cosby Show,” stepping out of Theo’s shadow, and those pesky marriage rumors.
ESSENCE.COM: Mr. Warner! You are doing your thing with spoken word and your band Miles Long. What’s the latest?
MALCOM-JAMAL WARNER: We’re finishing the third album now. We’re in a time when people need spiritual upliftment. It’s good music. A lot of poets like to have angry poems. (Laughs.) I don’t have a lot to be mad at. Life is good. I was a poet before I was bass player, and do both with the band. I was very active in the underground resurgence of spoken word in L.A. in the early nineties—before poetry was the cool thing. It’s an interesting journey to put yourself and your craft out there again. There’s a certain stigma to actors doing music. I’m really proud when people see the music side of me and it [challenges] their preconceived notions about me.
ESSENCE.COM: Of course, you will always be Theo to us too. What are some of your best memories from “The Cosby Show?"
WARNER: My favorite moment was the very first show when Theo wanted to be “regular people” and his dad uses monopoly money to show what life is like without college or a career. It really set the tone of the show. Theo gives this speech on wanting to be regular and [tells his dad] to love him as he is. The audience claps and everyone is moved. And Dr. Huxtable looks at Theo and says, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” It was a great moment because on any other show, they would have hugged and it would have been a mushy moment. He was having none of it. Twenty-five years later and it’s still relevant.
ESSENCE.COM: (Laughs). Well, called the shots behind the camera and also directed a few episodes. How was it helming those efforts?
WARNER: I directed the "Cosby" episode when Vanessa and her friends try to go to a concert and a few others, and it was great. I left with six shows under my belt. That show clearly was Mr. Cosby’s brainchild and he always had pointers for the directors. When I directed he would leave the set to give me room to really do it, which is a great testament to his trust in me. I also did music videos and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." I got to the point where the same integrity issues I was having as an actor happened as a director. There are certain things I won’t do. I’m not interested in perpetuating negative stereotypes of who we are as a people.
ESSENCE.COM: Glad to hear. And there were also rumors swirling that you married Karen Malina White, who played Charmaine on “A Different World."
WARNER: I’m not married. People probably started saying that because we were [in a relationship] for seven and a half years. Also, until recently I have always worn a ring on my ring finger. I started wearing my first ring at 13 and by the time I was 17 I realized the significance and just kept it there. It was always a good excuse, like how women flash a wedding ring. (Laughs). Now I’m in a really incredible relationship and two of my new songs are about her.
ESSENCE.COM: That’s beautiful. So, after being an integral part of such an iconic show for Black America, how do you think Black America is represented on the tube today?
WARNER: “The Cosby Show” set the bar, so it’s not like quality Black programming can’t happen. That’s the frustrating thing for all of us and Mr. Cosby because not many people are shooting for that bar. After eight years, the show wrapped and everyone went back to the same rehashed stereotypes. What made that show special and universal was not that they had professionals or money, but the characters. People think they have done something when they give Black characters a profession and money, but still have them act stereotypically. The wonderful thing about “The Cosbys” was that they were all clearly Black. They didn’t have to wear their Blackness on their sleeve.