Laughing through the pain of Thomas Ford’s death
His legacy, Tommy, will bring joy for decades to come
Actor Thomas Mikal Ford, best known as Tommy of the legendary ’90s sitcom Martin, died Wednesday in an Atlanta hospital. The cause of death is reportedly a ruptured abdominal aneurysm. He was 52.
Ford — along with Martin Lawrence (Martin), Tisha Campbell-Martin (Gina), Tichina Arnold (Pam) and Carl Anthony Payne II (Cole) — was a crucial figure in an influential cast. The ensemble’s relevance continues to expand nearly 20 years since its 1997 finale. News of Ford’s death reverberated quickly in an acting community still reeling from the death of actor Bill Nunn, who was best known for his role as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do The Right Thing. Ford, a character actor par excellence, was far more than just the beloved and dryly hilarious Tommy.
A motivational speaker and published author, Ford dedicated much of his passion to helping at-risk youth. His acting resume has credits beyond his 132-episode Martin run. Ford starred alongside Eddie Murphy, Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor in 1989’s Harlem Nights as Tommy Smalls. He played the hilarious goon and Kid ‘n Play antagonist Mink in 1992’s Class Act. He flexed in New York Undercover and The Parkers, and even ventured into the animated world with Disney’s The Proud Family.
But he’ll be remembered most as Tommy Strawn, Martin’s lovable best friend who we all swore was unemployed — until finding out earlier this year he actually wasn’t. It was around the same time the University of Michigan’s Fab Five commandeered college basketball with their flamboyance and bravado, that the Detroit-set Martin arrived with its own quirky quintet. There was Cole’s goofiness, Pam’s spunk, Gina’s feistiness and Martin’s unpredictability — Tommy was the savvy, smooth, yet equally ludicrous glue of the crew.
Ford’s death calls to mind James Avery, Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, who died in 2013. Avery wasn’t the main character, but he was iconic, necessary and eternal. Like Uncle Phil and Radio Raheem, we’ll miss the Los Angeles-born Ford forever. And while TVOne and MTV2 marathons won’t feel quite the same, the best way to pay homage to the man who brought us so much joy is to laugh. Laugh in the face of pain. There are so many indelible Martin moments. Rest in comedic peace, Tommy.
Tommy’s impeccable acronym game
Is this an actual requirement for friendship? Probably not. But it’s amazing how a witness stand can crack any man with the right line of questioning. Martin never should have gone to fight the ticket that said he didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. But we’re glad he did. Because without that hilarious episode — Season 2, Episode 16: “No Justice, No Peace” — we wouldn’t have the most hilarious question in courtroom history. “WHAT DOES G-T-D STAND FOR?!” If your people don’t know the answer, find new friends.
Tommy’s love for black-owned businesses
By far the funniest ongoing theme throughout the series was wondering what Tommy did for a living. Case in point this hilarious scene with “Hustle Man” played by Tracy Morgan. Say what you want about Tommy always being “in between jobs,” he kept money pumping in his own community. Even if that same community played with a smedium-sized pizza.
Tommy’s ability to think on the fly
Whether eulogizing a dead plumber (who wasn’t really dead) on Martin’s couch or helping to deliver a baby, Tommy was a man of many skills. Which somehow didn’t translate into a job, but that’s beside the point. In a series with so many funny scenes, the baby delivery scene remains one of the most criminally underrated. From Martin asking, “How far apart are the attractions?” to Cole getting his Doogie Howser on to Tommy asking where the baby’s umbilical cord is, the comedic chemistry here is through the roof.
When Tommy almost lost it
Speaking of funny scenes from Martin, only two choices really suffice when debating the GOAT (greatest of all time). It’s either “That ain’t no damn puppy!” from the “Chilligan’s Island” episode or the New Jack City-inspired “Suspicious Minds.” Otherwise known as the stolen CD player episode. One of the absolute standout moments in the scene, and please believe there were several, was Tommy struggling to maintain character and not laugh. Actually how he managed not to is a testament to that guy’s professionalism. Because if it were me? We’d still be shooting that scene.
Martin was paranoid, which often led him to, well, you know where it led him. So Tommy had to eventually talk him off the ledge, which oftentimes didn’t work because Martin did what he wanted to, regardless. That still doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny to watch Tommy try. Like telling Martin he couldn’t afford the Hoshi-Toshi 2000 big screen TV. Or that Gina really wasn’t trying to kill him for his insurance money. Or that Gina wasn’t cheating on him. Tommy failed quite often at trying to convince Martin he was wrong, but that’s part of what made Martin, Tommy and Cole such a dynamic trio.
All any man can ever ask for is for his friend to ride with him. And that’s what Tommy did. Tommy was Martin’s trainer when it was time to fight Tommy “Hitman” Hearns (a fight that never would have happened had Gina and Pam not ridden in Hearns’ limo, for the record). Tommy never cracked under Thanksgiving pressure. And Tommy stood tall with Martin, Cole and Air Gordon as they all caught L after L from the USA Women’s Basketball squad. And, of course, there’s this one: the always classic — and near and dear to any Martin fan — the DMV episode that resulted in both of them catching a fade. Low-key, too, Martin vs. Miss Jeri was the most underrated beef of the ’90s. R.I.P. Jeri Gray. R.I.P. Sherman Hemsley. R.I.P. Tommy. Three legends all in one scene. All gone.
For years, Martin fans held hope that the comedic “Fab Five” of Martin, Gina, Pam, Cole and Tommy would reunite. If for nothing else, a photo opp or sit-down group interview to discuss the show’s current impact on pop culture. Unfortunately, that can’t happen now. Campbell-Martin took to Instagram yesterday to pour out liquor for her fallen co-star and close friend. “I ask that you take a moment to send a positive thought, prayer or word up for my Friend and his family,” she wrote. What she said next is where the message resonated on different level. “I Love you @tichinaarnold @thecarlpayne @martinlawrence.”
It’s easy to forget Martin went off the air in 1997 not for low ratings, but reportedly because of a falling out between Campbell-Martin and Lawrence over allegations of sexual harassment and physical abuse. It was a bittersweet ending to one of the truly transformative and authentically hilariously shows in television history. Death, however, has the uncanny ability of bringing people together. As does forgiveness.