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A New Act to Catch

USC: Antoine Harris isn't the comedian his late father was, but he's working up his own routine as a true freshman tight end.

October 22, 1997|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Antoine Harris slips a videotape into a VCR in an assistant football coach's office at USC, hits a button and puts life in rewind.

On stage, his father is rolling again, just as he always did:

*

"Man says to me, 'You got any spare change?' I want to know what the . . . spare change is! Get yourself a spare job, then you'd have some spare change."

"I wear my wedding ring on the wrong finger. [Pause] That's because I married the wrong woman."

"Look, press-on nails!" he says, grabbing the hands of a woman in the front row, then dropping them quickly. "Nah, these are your nails. I see the dirt on 'em."

*

Robin Harris died in 1990, felled by a heart attack at 36 in a hotel room in Chicago, only hours after he had played to a sold-out house at the 2,400-seat Regal Theater. His career was just taking off.

Antoine was 10 years old.

But put a tape in the VCR--Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" or "Mo' Better Blues" or a video of Robin Harris' stand-up routine, and Antoine's dad is here again. Antoine's laughter is happy, unfettered, even though he has watched the tape a million times.

"When I was a kid, going around with him, having fun, it never dawned on me that he was an actor, that he was famous," said Harris, who starts at tight end for the Trojans, the first true freshman in at least a half-century to do so. "To me he was just my dad. It never dawned on me until the last couple of years all that he did."

Robin Harris was the only father Antoine has known, even though Robin was actually Antoine's stepfather. Antoine's biological father died when Antoine was young, and family life for Antoine meant following Robin around, laughing and trying to stay out of the way.

On stage, Robin Harris was an heir to Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor--irreverent and outrageous, his monologue decorated with expletives. And he showed no mercy to his own audience.

"Never get up when he's on," Antoine said, laughing. "Don't walk in late, either."

Harris' performances at the Comedy Act Theater in the Crenshaw district became a magnet for the famous--Magic Johnson and other Laker players would come. So would Mike Tyson and Spike Lee.

"I met Spike Lee when I was about 8 1/2 or 9--and I was taller than him," laughed Harris, who is 6 feet 4 and weighs 220 pounds.

It was Lee who helped Robin Harris' career take off, casting him in "Do the Right Thing" as Sweet Dick Willie, a city-dwelling know-it-all who sits on the corner all day.

"Mike Tyson ain't nothing," Harris bragged as Sweet Dick Willie. "If I fought Tyson, I'd drop him like a bad habit."

When Tyson showed up at the Comedy Act Theater, he didn't escape Harris' needle.

"Why ain't you laughing, man?" Harris said, looking down at Tyson from the stage. "I laugh when you fight."

It's the kind of stuff that would set Antoine's USC teammates howling, but Harris hasn't held a screening.

"They say, 'Antoine, have you got the tapes yet?' They'll come over, and next thing I know I'll have 70 people in my house," he said. "I'm more of a quiet person. I don't show them. Everybody would want to be at my house. And then everybody would look at me to be the comedian, and I don't have any jokes."

Antoine suspects the comedian in the family might be his little brother, Robin, the baby his mother was carrying when his father died.

"He's a little talker," Antoine said.

It has never been easy for Antoine to get a word in edgewise.

"He was funnier at home," Antoine said of his father. "He'd fall asleep, and we'd think he'd be dreaming, but he'd be talking, saying all kinds of things. Nothing but jokes. My mom and I were saying we wish we had recorded it."

Antoine didn't see much of his father's stand-up act live, since children weren't exactly a staple on the club scene.

"He'd leave about 11 at night, and you'd just say, 'See you in the morning,' " Antoine said. "He'd get home about 2 or 3 a.m.

"They sneaked me in a couple of times, though. Through the back door. I really wasn't supposed to be there."

His father wasn't supposed to be gone so soon, either.

"He was just getting started, but I guess that's life," Antoine said.

But there are times when he wishes his dad could see what has happened to him now. Times like Saturday's game at Notre Dame, when Harris, a solid blocker, branched out and caught four passes for 52 yards and found himself open against Notre Dame's zone much of the game.

"The biggest game I remember feeling bad about was my senior year in high school," said Harris, who went to Loyola, not far from USC. "We lost the championship game to Mater Dei. I had dedicated it to him and played my hardest. I wanted to win so bad, and we didn't win. I just wanted him physically there. It would have meant the world.

"My mom, she was always there for me, and the rest of my family was too. When he first died, for like three months I was holding it all in. It built up in anger, and the only thing I really did was fight at school. My fifth-grade year, I got in a lot of trouble.

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