NEW YORK — When Malcolm-Jamal Warner started acting, he had trouble landing roles because he didn't look "street" enough for most of the movie and television roles available to black teen-age boys.
Then came "The Cosby Show" and stardom for Warner as son Theo Huxtable.
In "The Father Clements Story," Sunday on NBC, Warner hopes to break out of the clean-cut Theo image with his role as Joey, the homeless street kid adopted by Father George Clements, a black Roman Catholic priest who wanted to set an example for his parishioners and encourage them to also adopt homeless black children in their midst.
"I'm trying to break the stereotypical role now of the Theo-type character, because in my post-'Cosby' life, as I call it, I don't want to be known as just the kind of guy who can play a Theo Huxtable-type character," Warner said from his home in Brooklyn. "I want to be known as being able to do more things, being able to stretch. For me that was the most important thing."
Louis Gossett Jr. plays Clements, and Warner responded with typical teen-age enthusiasm when asked what it was like working with the Oscar-winning actor: "It was cool!"
Joey was 13 when Clements adopted him, but Warner, 17, plays him older. The movie was shot on location in Chicago, where Warner met the real Joey Clements. What was it like hanging around with the character he plays in the movie? "It was cool! When I was hanging out with Joey Clements in Chicago, I made it a point not to try to emulate him," Warner said. "I wanted basically to create my own character. I didn't want him to think I was hanging out with him solely to use him as research.
"And I also went back to acting classes for a couple of weeks before I went out to Chicago, because it had been a while since I had done something serious, and I wanted to just dip my feet in it."
It's hard to imagine a kid Warner's age with so much success sounding so well grounded. "I always think tomorrow it can all be over with," he said.
"Fine, I'm on 'The Cosby Show,' " he said. "Fine, right now it seems I have a successful career, but this isn't success yet because I'm on a series now. But what happens five, seven years down the line? That's the time when you sit down and even contemplate measuring success."
He already has an interest in directing and hopes to emulate the career of Ron Howard, who started as a child actor on "The Andy Griffith Show" and became a successful director of such movies as "Splash" and "Cocoon."
"Directing just seemed to appeal to me more than anything right now," Warner said. "Because I know acting may be there. It may or may not, after 'The Cosby Show.' Even if it is, I still want to get into directing."
Warner makes anti-drug speeches at schools and helps raise money for good causes like children's hospitals. But he takes his image as a teen role model in stride, too.
"I didn't go into acting because I wanted to be a role model," he said. "The role-model job inevitably came along with the success of the show. I'm not really bothered by it that much, because I don't have to go out of my way to live my life a certain way that's consistent with the role model. I just live my life the way I do."