Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner has been entertaining television viewers for the more than three decades since he burst on the scene as teenager Theo Huxtable in the 1980s megahit sitcom The Cosby Show. The 44-year-old actor has most recently turned his acting efforts to cable with a role as a Special Investigative Services lieutenant on TNT’s top crime series, Major Crimes, and as a biker-gang member in FX’s drama Sons of Anarchy.
Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead caught up with Warner to discuss the veteran actor’s career, as well as to talk about television’s diversity efforts both in front of and behind the camera. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: You’re well known for your comedy roles, particularly as young Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Has the transition from doing comedy shows to cable drama series been difficult for you?
Malcolm-Jamal Warner: No, I always jump at the chance to do something different, and the whole single-camera world is the kind of a place where I want to be. So, the transition has been pretty cool, and because I’ve been doing some guest spots on onehour shows, it’s kind of given me a chance to exercise some of my drama muscles.
MCN: How has the industry changed in terms of the roles that you’re getting? You have not been typecast as a child actor, or certainly have not suffered through the transition from a child actor to an adult performer that some actors have. What’s your secret?
MJW: Well, I think I was very clear and very vocal all throughout the show on Cosby that I didn’t want this show to be the end-all and be-all of my career. So I was very aware of the typecasting issue that could possibly arise. Even during Cosby, I always sought out work and characters that were different from Theo.
I’ve done a lot of theater, doing characters that were different from Theo, because I was always clear that I could plant the seed in people’s minds that there was more to me than just that character. And longevity was something that my mother had really impressed upon me, literally, during season one of the show. So for a lot of my teenage years, I grew up with this maniacal obsession with not wanting to be one of those “Where Are They Now?” kids.
MCN: When you were on The Cosby Show — a show that featured an African-American family — it was one of the biggest shows on television. As we’ve gone through a number of decades since, do you think television has become better in terms of reaching out to African-American viewers with content that appeals to them, or have we gotten away from The Cosby Show model and are not seeing that type of broad-reaching show anymore?
MJW: I think it’s a little bit of both. I do think it’s very much so the latter, and that may be hard to swallow, but we probably will never have a show like that again. I also think that given the dumbing down of America all across the board and entertainment being so spread out, I think the industry has definitely reached out and satisfied a lot of the voices that have a want.
As black people, we are multifaceted, so there are a ton of people who love, let’s say, Tyler Perry-type entertainment, and those voices are being heard, and that demand is being supplied. I think for people who may have different interests, we don’t necessarily make our voices heard enough and make that demand loud enough for it to be supplied, if that makes sense.
MCN: It definitely does. There are a lot of African American-targeted shows out there that don’t necessarily rise up to the quality in content that The Cosby Show presented during its run.
MJW: At the same time, we also have to look at whether there are [predominantly] white shows that are living up to that as well. I’m really interested to see how it comes out because television’s different and the television viewing audience is different. And I also think a lot of what’s happening on television is because there are so many outlets. Television, just like the record industry, is not making the kind of money that it was making before. So, I think … and again, in an attempt to supply the demand that’s being heard … television’s kinda trying to reach that. The problem is that there’s so much stuff on cable, Netflix and Amazon that a paradigm shift is happening, so it’s almost like everybody’s desperate and grasping for straws, trying to grab whatever viewers they can grab.
(Pictured is Malcolm-Jamal Warner -- photo credit: Mary Lou Sandler of www.cubestudios.com)