From ‘Malcolm & Eddie’ to rolling with O.J.: jammin’ on the one with Malcolm-Jamal Warner
The multitalented, creative star of ‘The Resident’ on work, life, and being more than just Theo Huxtable
It’s not that the Emmy-nominated Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who can currently be seen as AJ Austin on Fox’s The Resident, doesn’t want to be associated with The Cosby Show. Warner, who portrayed Cliff Huxtable’s son Theo for eight years, has walked a slender line about the man he calls his mentor, Bill Cosby, who was sentenced on Sept. 26 to three to 10 years in a Pennsylvania prison for sexual assault.
What Warner, 48, wants people to remember is that he and his fellow Cosby alums deserve to be judged on their own merits and contributions to culture. When asked what work he’s most proud of, Warner doesn’t hesitate. “The Cosby Show,” he said, adding that he can’t wait to show his first child, who was born last June, his career-making role. “But I really appreciate people who enjoy what I have done on other shows as well.”
And this is one of the many reasons that Warner is still in demand in 2018. He’s one of the hardest working former Hollywood child stars in the entertainment business. Not many survive the enormity of co-starring in a game-changing and long-running series and then go on to enjoy next lives as, say, a sitcom star on Malcolm & Eddie. Or as the voice of the Producer on PBS’ beloved The Magic School Bus. Or as fan fave Kurdy, on Showtime’s Jeremiah. Warner won a Grammy as a poet on Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway’s 2013 Stevie Wonder tribute, “Jesus Children”). And, in the Emmy-winning The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, he brought to screens Al “A.C.” Cowlings (who was drafted fifth overall in the 1970 NFL draft), driving that white Bronco. In other words, do not sleep on Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
Your role as surgeon AJ Austin on The Resident is a regular this season. Did you ever want to become a doctor as a kid?
Actually, no. When I was around 6 or 7, and this was before I took any acting classes, I told my parents that I was either going to be a famous actor, a famous poet or a famous basketball player.
So you weren’t playing around, huh?
I guess two out of three ain’t bad. [Laughs.]
How fun is it to play such a cocky, driven character?
Well, AJ is the top cardiothoracic surgeon in the country. Driven is definitely a good word, but he’s also very confident to the extent of being fairly described as arrogant. It’s great because it’s not an arrogance that comes from masking insecurity. It’s arrogance because he knows that he is the best at what he does. He just doesn’t give a f—. And I could use a lot more of that in my personal life.
Most people will forever identify you as Theo. And then there are fans who know you from Malcolm & Eddie. But do you ever get stopped by younger fans who recognize you from later shows like Major Crimes, American Horror Story, and Suits?
It’s pretty cool. When people recognize me from shows other than Cosby, I always get a kick out of that. There’s also a generation of kids that only know me from Magic School Bus, and I love that. For some, Malcolm & Eddie is their go-to show.
You appeared in the video for Whodini’s 1986 “Funky Beat,” and even directed the clip for New Edition’s “N.E. Heartbreak.” What is your greatest hip-hop moment in the ’80s?
For me it was 1986, when I hosted Saturday Night Live. I had the choice of musical guest, so I picked Run-D.M.C. They came to rehearsal and I was going through my opening monologue, which was about me learning to do the wop, because it was a dance move I could not get down. At rehearsal I had the band play Eric B. & Rakim’s “My Melody,” which I was doing the wop to. And after we finished rehearsal Run looks at me and looks at Darryl [D.M.C.] and was like, ‘Yo, D. That’s Eric B & Rakim … oh, s—!’ And Run turns around to me and says, ‘Yo … you did that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And Run just looked at me with mad respect because it was the first time he heard a live band playing some real hip-hop s—. It was a wonderful acknowledgement from Run. He knew I was a real head.
Do you ever introduce yourself as “Grammy-award winning Malcolm-Jamal Warner,” just to mess with people’s heads?
[Laughs.] No … but I might just start introducing myself as Grammy-award winning Malcolm-Jamal Warner!
You seem to be involved in 100 projects. When do you find time to breathe?
It’s funny, but it’s true. I always have my hands in different boxes. Right now, my two main things are parenthood and The Resident. But I always have different projects in development, and that’s because of my mother, who was a very big influence on me. When Cosby first aired and it was this out-of-the-box hit, I was 14. And my mom sat me down and told me, ‘Baby, it’s great that this show is a phenomenon, but you know how this business is. The show could be over next year. What are you going to do when Cosby is over?’
That had to be sobering to hear as a 14-year-old.
It really was. That’s why I never went through the ‘Hey, I’m a TV star’ phase. We lived every year of that show as if it might be the last year in terms of the way we spent money … the way we lived. I grew up in The Jungle in L.A. on Hillcrest Drive. I’ve gone back to hang out and see people, but I never wanted to live that life again. So as long as I have been on television I have never lived beyond my means. And that has always been something she has instilled in me. I was on the No. 1 show in the world and my first car was a Honda.
You predicted that your old friend and Cosby Show co-star Geoffrey Owens would receive a lot of work after he was unfairly ridiculed on social media for working at Trader Joe’s, and that’s exactly what happened. You want to make any more predictions … any winning lottery numbers?
Ha! But seriously, I’m very proud of Geoffrey. I love watching his interviews. There’s no shame in his game about doing hard work. But the funny thing is when I made that prediction I was actually working on getting him on The Resident.
Now this is news.
It’s true. And I talked to my producers and they found a role that they were going to make reoccurring for him. But then the Tyler Perry offer came through and I imagine that was a much sweeter deal. [Laughs.] So Geoffrey went that route.
Tell the truth. You still have that Gordon Gartrell shirt?
[Laughs.] No. But I think it’s actually in the Smithsonian, which is crazy. Who knew?