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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Mama's Boy's Biggest, Baddest, Toughest Battle

March 22, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

I know a Screen Actors Guild member who won't be at any Oscar party. He still has a Mohawk haircut. He still has a mean glare and a guttural voice. He still has arms like logs and a torso that made him a soldier, a bouncer, a bodyguard, a boxer who beat up Rocky in a Sylvester Stallone movie and the hero of a TV action-adventure series.

He also has something else.

Mr. T has cancer.

The biggest, strongest, roughest, toughest, baddest dude you'd ever want to meet--or not--has been fighting a battle of his own. A lot of people don't know this. Just as a lot of people also don't know that the biggest, strongest, roughest, toughest, baddest dude you'd ever want to meet is actually a big pussycat. He recites Scripture, chapter and verse, visits children's cancer wards for hours without publicity and calls himself "a big, overgrown mama's boy."

Monday night, actors will celebrate their craft. I doubt many Academy members have ever taken Mr. T too seriously. But he is still one of them, and a better actor than most washed-up jocks.

People shouldn't be fooled by a guy who once said of Rocky Balboa before their fight, "I pity the fool." (A line of his own invention, by the way.)

In real life, he has a big heart and a hilarious sense of humor. He only looks like the meanest man in the world.

Tossing drunks out of bars, lifting weights, doing pull-ups with one hand, learning how to kill in the Army, that stuff came easy to Mr. T.

Telling his mother he was sick, now that was hard.

*

Willa Lee Tero's youngest boy, born Lawrence 46 years ago, one of eight brothers and four sisters, felt something funny one day near his ear.

In a delicatessen booth, Mr. T runs his palms from his beard to the back of his bald skull.

"I was using a relaxant in my hair, here on the sides," he says. "I thought it might have been a reaction from that."

An M.D. gave Mr. T a battery of tests. Bone marrow, CAT scan, AIDS test, the works.

Waiting for the results, he nearly died. Not from an illness. He accidentally flipped his Jaguar convertible. Unhurt, T took it as a sign that God had other plans for him.

He phoned the doctor impatiently.

"The nurse said, 'Oh, yes. He wants to talk to you, but in person, here in the office.'

"I said to myself, 'Oh boy.' They don't want to tell me over the phone, because I might commit suicide."

His doctor said, "Well, your bone marrow looks good. CAT scan, good."

T said, "Uh oh, two out of three."

"No," the doctor replied, "AIDS test is fine too."

Relieved, T thought he was home free. Then he found out he had a skin cancer, a T-cell lymphoma.

He told the doctor, "Wow, how unique. Me being T, and havin' T-cell. You know?"

Chemotherapy cost him his famous Mohawk for a while. The strength for which Mr. T was well known--he was then-heavyweight champ Leon Spinks' bodyguard when Stallone first laid eyes on him--waned from the radiation treatment.

But he found a different strength.

"I got on my knees to pray. I said, 'Lord, give me the strength that you gave Abraham, that you gave Joseph, that you gave Moses, that you gave Job. Because how would I know that my God is a healer, if I never got sick?

"My God would be a fair-weather God if he was only with me when I got millions of dollars from doing 'The A-Team' and commercials and whatnot. I don't want no fair-weather God. I want a God who will be with me through everything."

*

Mr. T's father was a junkman who preached on Sundays. His mother scrubbed floors. In fourth grade, he brought home a drawing of a house he promised to buy his mother someday. She now lives in it, in Lake Forest, Ill.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he says, "We were poor financially, but we were rich spiritually. Drugs and crime were all over me, under me and around me, but never in me. Why? Because I respected my mother. I'm a big, overgrown mama's boy. That's the problem with society. We don't have enough mama's boys. If we had more mama's boys, there wouldn't be so much disrespect for women."

To which I say, "Telling your mom must not have been easy."

And for the next few minutes in the restaurant, without a word, the biggest, strongest, roughest, toughest, baddest dude you'd ever want to meet is crying his eyes out, while I hold his hand.

You would want to meet him, believe me. I pity the fool who never gets the chance.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or by phone at (213) 237-7366.

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