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COMEDY

MR. EX : Anthony Griffith Used to Just Be Silly, but He's a Dramatically Different Performer Now

March 10, 1994|GLENN DOGGRELL | Glenn Doggrell writes about comedy for The Times Orange County Edition.

From his childhood days of impressing friends with his skill and gusto for extricating himself from a straitjacket, Anthony Griffith has matured. Significantly.

Also dropped from his quiver of tricks these days are his Diana Ross and Michael Jackson imitations, as well as the Houdini-like way he could usually free himself underwater wrapped in chains and handcuffs.

"I was very different at an early age," Griffith, who headlines at the Irvine Improv through Sunday, said from his home in North Hollywood. "I wanted to be an escape artist. I'd go to the neighborhood Y, and people would tie me up and I'd jump into the pool. My mom even bought me a straitjacket. I lost a few friends. They'd say, 'I can't play with you because my mom says you're crazy,' or else they'd wear garlic around their neck."

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the straitjacket fell victim to an early romantic venture after he had taken it to show-and-tell at school in Chicago.

"I walked a girl I really liked to the bus stop, and she was going to give me a kiss, and I put the straitjacket down. I was on cloud nine, but I left my straitjacket."

That left him without one of his better props, but he still had his voice to entertain his parents, younger brother and the friends he had left.

"I'd always put on little concerts at the house," Griffith, 30, recalled. "One week I'd be Michael Jackson, then I'd be Diana Ross, and my family would be the Supremes. My mother never stopped me from dreaming. She'd say do whatever you want to do, just don't break any laws. That helped me. There was no pressure."

The soft-spoken, articulate Griffith grew up on the West, South and North sides of Chicago, the first two areas especially rough communities that housed pockets of gangs and crime. Several of Griffith's school chums died before they could graduate. But at the time, the comic wasn't fully aware of how bad his neighborhoods were.

"It was all right," said Griffith, who left Chicago for the West Coast when he was 27. "There were some guys who were real mean, but a lot of guys didn't pick on me. I guess they thought I was silly. I'd make 'em laugh. I was also skinny. Maybe they thought it wasn't worth it to beat me up.

"My friends watched over me. After basketball, I'd say, 'I'm going home,' and they'd say, 'We're going to rob a store. Want anything?' You don't really know how bad an area you live in until you move out and see it from the outside."

In a twist for comics, Griffith was not the class clown. He took his education seriously (ending up with a bachelor's in speech and communications from Northeastern University in Chicago).

But when recess rolled around, Griffith turned into Elvis and James Brown, with all the moves, for the girls in the class. Even the school bully was impressed.

"He wanted me to dance for him privately. I told him I couldn't dance without the proper music. He said he was going to beat me up if I didn't dance right away. I think I danced until dark."

But what Griffith lived for in grade school were the field trips to see plays such as "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Peter Pan" or to see magicians.

Only, at the public schools money was tight.

"We'd go on bus trips without the bus. It seemed like everywhere we went, we just walked. I never understood that. We were just told to hold hands and walk."

From that early introduction to theater, Griffith matured into playing Malcolm X in "The Meeting," a fictional account of an encounter between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The run recently ended at the Stage of Grace in Hollywood, and Griffith's reviews were good.

"It really helped me branch out and helped other people see me as an actor," Griffith said. "It was a lot of fun. I learned (the two men) were a lot alike in a lot of ways. They just had different ways of going about it."

"The Meeting" isn't his only success. For his role in the earlier Theatre 40 production of "Home," he won a Drama-Logue award in January for best male actor in a one-act play.

Griffith's comedy career took root at Northeastern while he was studying theater.

"I just got into comedy as something I wanted to do. But I didn't think it would last this long."

That was 1984. He worked clubs in and around Chicago before winning the Johnny Walker Comedy Search in 1989 and heading west, where he landed regular appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "Arsenio."

He'll also be seen as a guest performer in the upcoming "The Bob Hope Young Comedians Special," which Griffith says will air later this month. Rounding out his resume are roles on network shows such as "Who's the Boss?" and "Good Sports."

"I guess you always have that dream when you get into entertainment, getting on 'The Tonight Show' . . . And you know the talent coordinator isn't going to come to Chicago," Griffith said.

On stage, the performer is the picture of cool, blending a subtle energy with veteran polish and great lines.

"I don't really read the paper to get jokes, so I start off from personal experiences," said Griffith, who usually includes a few lines about his wife, Brigette.

"You're going to find out a lot in about 45 or 50 minutes about Anthony Griffith."

Who: Anthony Griffith.

When: At 8:30 tonight, March 10; at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, March 11; at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12, and at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 13.

Where: The Irvine Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Jamboree Road exit and head south. Turn left onto Campus Drive. The Improv is in the Irvine Marketplace shopping center, across from the UC Irvine campus.

Wherewithal: $7 to $10.

Where to call: (714) 854-5455.

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