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An unmistakably coiffed self-promotion machine, former bodyguard-turned- actor, Mr. T was one of television's most recognized faces during the peak of his fame in the early to mid 1980's. Famed for his fearsome physique and eye-catching Mohawk haircut, Mr. T shot to stardom in 1983 when he was handpicked by director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone to play the brutal brawler Clubber Lang in "Rocky III" (1982). But it was his role of Sergeant B.A. Baracus - the rough-talking ex-Army commando on the run with his eclectic group of comrades on "The A-Team" (NBC, 1983-87) which solidified his celebrity from that point on. Although he often teetered on self-parody, Mr. T made such an indelible impression that even two decades on, he remained a familiar touchstone for children of the eighties turned adults who still loved hearing him bark, "I pity the fool!"
The 11th of 12 children, the future Mr. T was born Laurence Turead on May 21, 1952 in Chicago, IL. Growing up dirt poor on welfare in Chi-town's dismal housing projects, Turead became especially close to his mother. An unusually devoted son, Mr. T credited his mother's love as the prime reason that he stayed out of trouble - he would imagine how she would feel seeing him in jail and that was enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. To occupy himself, the gifted athlete immersed himself in sports while attending Dunbar Vocational High School; his skills on the gridiron were strong enough to win him a football scholarship to Prairie View A&M University in Texas in 1971, where he began majoring in mathematics. Unfortunately, he was thrown out a year later, for reasons unclear.
After a short stint in the U.S. Army, where he served as a military policeman, Turead returned to Chicago, where he found employment as a bouncer at a number of bars. Accustomed to throwing out belligerent drunks from his policeman days, Turead (by this point, dubbed "Mister T" and later, 'Mr. T') quickly gained a reputation as one of Chicago's baddest of the bad bouncers. Around this same time, he began sporting the radical mohawk which ultimately became his signature look - a hairstyle which he claimed was inspired by Africa's Mandikan warriors.
As the doorman for one of Chicago's hottest clubs in the early 1970's, the now-defunct Chazz20, Mr. T came in contact with such celebrities as Steve McQueen, Diana Ross, and Muhammad Ali. Thanks to his connections and his extreme devotion to the gig, he became a well-known celebrity bodyguard, charging $3,000 a day and handing out business cards that read, "Next to God, there is no greater protector than I." Around this same time, Mr. T also began to cultivate what would eventually become his now familiar tougher-than-tough public persona. A born showman in his own right, Mr. T transformed himself into a shameless self-promoter. Often speaking of himself in the third person, Mr. T played his outrageous looks to his advantage, piling on several pounds of gold jewelry around his neck and diamonds on his fingers - much of which he claimed to have appropriated from rowdy, back-talking customers.
The campaign worked. In 1982, Mr. T was cast in his first film, the ultra low-budget "Penitentiary II" directed by Jamaa Fanaka. One of the last gasps of cinema's blaxploitation era, the film - second in an action-adventure trilogy set in an unnamed maximum-security prison - was little seen outside of a few major cities in its initial run.
Mr. T fared far better on his sophomore movie. Cast as Sly Stallone's imposing new opponent, Clubber Lang, in "Rocky III," Mr. T made a solid impression as the glowering boxer, sweating pure menace and venom in every scene. Audiences had never seen anything like it and they were equal parts enthralled and terrified. Famed for his rapid-fire ad-libs, Mr. T deserved much of the credit for giving Lang his vituperative ferocity. His future catch phrase, "I pity the fool!" was uttered for the first time when, during an onscreen match, he is asked if he hates Sylvester's Rocky Balboa; his character replies, "I don't hate Balboa, but I pity the fool!" This gruff quality, even more than his prowess in the ring, helped immortalize Clubber Lang in the hearts of fans. Released in summer of 1982, the film - arguably the best of the punch-drunk film franchise's sequels - became a monster hit, grossing over $125 million at the domestic box office. While Stallone performed admirably in his triple hatted role as the film's star, writer, and director, most of the critical praise heaped on "Rocky III" went deservedly to his co-star and the film's funky soundtrack.
Capitalizing on his white-hot popularity, Mr. T next landed a starring role in the Joel Schumacher-directed comedy, "D.C. Cab" (1983). A raunchy, urban ensemble flick, similar in tone to Schumaker's previous hit film, "Car Wash" (1976), "D.C. Cab" performed respectfully at the box office - due in large part to Mr. T's attachment - and even spawned a Top 40 pop single with Irene Cara's "The Dream" ("Hold Onto Your Dream").
Mr. T's greatest fame, however, would be on the small screen - where his muscle bound machismo threatened to burst into viewers' living rooms. In 1984, veteran producer Stephen J. Cannell cast the new actor in his most famous role - that of Sgt. Bosco "B.A." - for "Bad Attitude" - Baracus on the seminal 1980's action-drama, "The A-Team," co-starring Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz and TV/film veteran, George Peppard. Developed, again, more or less, as a vehicle for Mr. T's unique personality, the role of B.A. relied heavily on the star to be himself. Not surprisingly, Baracus shared many of his traits with the actor who embodied him - brutal with bad-guys, yet gentle with children. While the part was hardly much of a stretch, most critics unanimously agreed that the actor had found a comfortable niche that appealed to children, most especially - the same kids who by slept in Mr. T sheets at night and ate Mr. T cereal for breakfast.
A victim of his own popularity, Mr. T and his oversized personality suffered the inevitable backlash in the 1990's. After a decade of merchandising, cartoons, and a heavily hyped dalliance with professional wrestling, the overexposed Mr. T fell from public favor. To make matters worse, in 1995, Mr. T was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma, a form of cancer. Straddled by his failing health, Mr. T seemed headed for obscurity by the late nineties, limiting his appearances mainly to commercials like 1-800-COLLECT.
Into the new millennium, Mr. T continued to keep a low profile. Apart from doing some radio interviews and starring in the occasional skit on "Late Night with Conan O'Brian (NBC, 1993-2009), Mr. T remained under the radar. However, he was still greeted like a conquering hero wherever he went, by the same adults who loved him as kids. The "Conan" appearances also served to "hip" up his profile. By 2005-06, Mr. T. announced his comeback. To spearhead this effort, Mr. T got his own reality show on TV Land titled aptly "I Pity the Fool" (TV Land, 2006).
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