Mr. T is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable pop culture curiosities of the '80s, right up there with Rubix Cubes, breakdancing and Pac-Man.
Bursting onto the scene as villainous boxer Clubber Lang in Rocky III (in which he ad-libbed his famous catchphrase, "I pity the fool") he went Reagan-era viral with The A-Team. The popular TV show launched the former Chicago nightclub bouncer to a surreal level of fame that spawned a Saturday morning cartoon, action figures and even a cloyingly sweet breakfast cereal.
Nowadays, Mr. T is still riffing off his tough guy image as"Mr. Guaran-T" in a cheeky series of ads for Fairfield Inn and Suites, as well as a DIY network show called--what else?--I Pity the Tool. I talked to the inimitable Mr. T about why he won't watch The A-Team movie, the legacy of Rocky III and the one product he will never endorse.
Tell me about your new show, I Pity the Tool.
I don’t even know when we start filming. In the meantime, I’ve been working out, swinging 20 pound sledgehammers, just getting ready. We gonna be rehabbing homes for veterans and low-income people in the Chicago area. We probably don’t want to work in the winter time, so we're just getting things prepared. What better way for me to give something back then to help people with their homes and situations? There’s a lot of blight and poverty-stricken areas with condemned buildings and stuff like that. So if I can save one or two, that’s what it’s all about.
Are you actually handy with tools?
Oh yeah! You remember when we used to build stuff on The A-Team ? MacGyver stole stuff from us! I’m like the guy from Kitchen Impossible, I can fix everything. In high school, I majored in brick masonry. We had the wood shop, the machine shop, so I know about all that. I wanted to build buildings when I graduated from high school. I do know my way around that stuff.
Are you going to watch the latest Rocky movie out this month,Creed?
Rocky and Rocky III were the best. I’m just saying. It’s not like I got a horse in the race. Naw, I like all the franchises. When they approached me with Rocky III, I had just won the bouncer contest two years in a row. NBC had a show called The Toughest Bouncer in America that I did. But I told them, I didn’t like that term, "bouncer." To me, it’s offensive. A bouncer likes to get physical, likes to put his hands on people. In the black clubs, we were bouncers. In the white clubs, they called them doormen, because they wore tuxedos.
I hear what you're saying. But be honest, did you ever hurt Stallone during those fight scenes?
It wasn’t about no macho stuff. It was about getting the movie done, bringing the right attitude. He told me to bring it, and I brought it. He held his own, I held my own. We boxed and we trained a couple times a week up until filming. I was grateful and thankful that he gave me the opportunity. He hired me to do a job. He gave me my start, and then boom, there was The A-Team. So I’m very thankful.
Could you have beaten Dolph Lundgren, who played Ivan Drago in Rocky IV?
I don’t get into all that stuff. I met Dolph and he’s a good guy. Everybody's like, "Hey Mr. T, can you beat this guy, can you beat Chuck Norris?" or whatever. I know Chuck Norris, we ain’t got no reason to fight. That’s something you guys wanna talk about. I have a question for you, Chris: Can you beat Geraldo Rivera?
I'm pretty sure Geraldo would destroy me. So what did you think of The A-Team movie?
There you go again, Chris. I didn’t watch The A-Team movie. I'm an artist. You can't re-paint a Rembrandt. You can’t duplicate that, I don’t care who you get. We had lightning in a bottle, so just leave it alone. No, I didn't watch it! I was in the real thing. I didn’t need to watch it.
I always thought that "I ain't getting on no plane, Hannibal" from The A-Team deserved to be a catchphrase just as much as "I pity the fool." How did B.A. Baracus get his fear of flying?
I was told that every superhero needed something he was afraid of. Superman was afraid of Kryptonite. It was like comic relief. I can clean out a bar fight, throw guys through the door. But I'm afraid of flying. It was just a joke to make people feel good.
Before you were famous, you were a bodyguard for Muhammad Ali, Steve McQueen, Michael Jackson, Joe Frazier, Leon Spinks and Diana Ross, among others. Who was the toughest to guard?
Everybody is tough because life is important. Even people that's not even on that list. Just common people who couldn't afford my salary. It’s protecting a life. No life is worth more than another. I’m not the type of guy who will talk and tell. It’s confidential. I did my job and they appreciated what I did.
Do you still keep in touch with Ali? It was recently reported that his health is deteriorating.
I really don’t like to get into those things. I’ve watched other bodyguards talk about stuff and that’s not the way you do it, so I’ll stick with that.
How did you come up with "I pity the fool"?
Before the bouncer contest, sometimes guys would come down to the disco and try to get in without paying. And so that was certain thing I would say back then. It actually started from a blues singer, Bobby Bland. He sang, "I pity the fool that falls in love with you". And then when I was in Rocky III, Stallone said, "If you’re uncomfortable with certain dialogue, lemme know. I want you to say it how you want to say it." They said, “Do you hate Balboa?” I said, "No, I don’t hate Balboa, but I pity the fool.” And that’s worse than hate, because when I pity somebody, I ain't showin' them no mind.
When you were a bouncer, what was the one thing that made you kick someone out of the club?
I was a very polite, disciplined guy. I'm not the type to put my hands on somebody. But somebody disrespecting women, that’s my number one thing. You don’t do that, not on my watch. You wanna see pain? You'd be dead meat quick. I'm an old fashioned mama’s boy, you know what I mean?
You're the new pitchman for Fairfield Inn, and I'm guessing you still get offered endorsements all time. Do you turn down a lot of stuff?
I turned down beer commercials in Japan. They offered me $750,000. But I don’t drink. I have a responsibility to kids, all the people who look up to me. I know what beer tastes like. But I don’t wanna lead nobody down the wrong path, just to make money. I’m not a sellout.
Are you planning on doing any more acting in TV or movies?
Here’s what I'm working on: Fairfield Inn and Suites. I don’t care about nothing else. I'm going to every Fairfield hotel, checking up and making sure everything's all right. I’m not interested in movies, not interested in TV. I get a chance to travel, stay in beautiful places. That's all part of the dream. It’s a blessing from God.
Photos by Everett Collection