Words of Wisdom from Mr. T
On his new show, the legendary actor uses his Christian faith to help motivate and inspire people.
BY: Interview by Dena Ross
He may be a little older, and all his gold chains are gone. (He stopped wearing them after Katrina, feeling it would be a sin against God to do so while so many people were suffering). But his trademark Mohawk and scowl are unmistakable. Yes, it's Mr. T—back and better than ever. He's grown stronger in his faith in the years since he played the legendary Sgt. B.A. Baracus on "The A-Team" and tough-guy boxer Clubber Lang in "Rocky III." And now he's got a new show, "I Pity the Fool," airing Wednesday nights at 10, on TV Land, where he motivates workers to be better at their jobs, reunites families who've grown apart, and helps inspire people to be better human beings.
Mr. T recently spoke to Beliefnet about how his Christian faith helps him help others on the show, the importance of prayer in his life, why he pities the fool, and going through his "Job test" when diagnosed with cancer.
Can you tell me a little about your spiritual life?
I was baptized when I was four years old. But when you’re younger you really don’t understand that stuff. Then I got rebaptized in 1977. As a Christian you forgive and you feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and you visit the sick, and comfort the lonely. If I’m a true follower of my lord and savior Jesus Christ, I got to do the things you’re supposed to be doing. You just can’t say, "I believe in Jesus" and then don’t forgive somebody [or] hold a grudge against somebody. Don’t get me wrong--if somebody jumps me I’m gonna fight, but I don't send out hate vibes if I don’t like that person or the way that they dress. That’s negative energy. Then there is a contradiction to the God I serve, the God of love. He forgave me, and I should do good to the people who cross me.
In 1979, before I got famous, there was a contest called the Toughest Bouncer in America. I used to bodyguard for some celebrities and other people, and when I wasn’t doing that I used to work at a disco as a doorman or a bouncer. When I started training for the contest I called my pastor, Rev. Henry Hardy of Cosmopolitan Community Church [in Chicago]. I’ve been going there since 1977. I said, “Pastor Hardy, they’re having a contest, and when I win this contest I’m going to give you the money, so you can buy food and clothes for less fortunate people in the community." I won two years in a row—it was over $10,000. I didn’t have no car then, but I was blessed. So I gave the money freely, and then my blessing came back in the form of "Rocky III."
After I gave that money to my church, I got the call a month and a half later. They said Sylvester Stallone is going to do "Rocky III," and he’s interested in you. Then they sent me the script, and I auditioned, and I got the part. I’d like to think that because I gave freely, it came back to me. Because I was taught that when you give, God will open up the storehouse to the heavens and pour down blessings you won’t even have room enough to store. And that’s what’s been happening ever since. I tell everybody, I get so much because I give so much. I give freely, I give all my time, give all my money, give all of my soul. I try to motivate people. I try to inspire them.
What do you pray for?
I get up every morning and say, "Father, give me strength today, not strength so I can lift 500 pounds, but give me strength, Lord, so when I speak, my words might motivate, might inspire somebody, Lord, when they see me, let them see you. When they hear me, Lord, let them hear you. In your holy name I pray."
I say to the Lord, "when they see me, let them see you" so you know I can’t be coming out of the strip bar with a couple women on my arm. And I say "Lord, when they hear me let them hear you"--that means I can’t be telling them nasty jokes I used to tell. Because the Bible says, every time Christ sees a new creature, old things are passed away. I’m not the same man I used to be, I’m not out hell-raising, stuff like that. I am a changed man. I said that God abides by me and I abide by him. I said I let God live in me. So I tell people when I step out, I’m representing the God I serve, I’m representing the mother who loved me and who used to knock on the neighbor’s door so I could have money to go to school.
How does being a celebrity help you in your causes?
My celebrity status allows me an opportunity, allows me a pulpit to preach and reach out to the people. Not even always preaching but just leading, motivating them by being a leader.
In Los Angeles I take food and clothes to the Midnight Mission the homeless shelter. Ever since "Rocky," I've gone down there quietly—I never call the press and say, "See me helping the people!"
My mother told me, "Son, nobody else but God knows." And that’s what I’m about—reaching out to the people, crying with them, giving them hope. Visiting the hospital, visiting the kids with cancer, visiting the adults, and stuff like that. That’s what I do. And so the show sort of reflects those things, and gives me an opportunity to raise people’s spirits, inspire them to help others, to give them hope.
The show is called “I Pity the Fool”, but we’re not calling nobody a fool--everybody knows that that’s my saying. It's not derogatory in no way, I guarantee that when people see the show they’re going to be surprised and they’re going to be hooked because it’s nothing like what people think. It’s a reality show [but] we’re not eating worms, we’re not naked, we’re not having sex with nobody, we’re not wrestling pigs and stuff like that. It’s me doing my thing, but this time the cameras are with me.
I use my celebrity status to inspire someone, to give them hope. I tell them where I grew up—on the South Side of Chicago. I tell them how I was born and raised in the ghetto, but the ghetto wasn’t born and raised in me. About how I loved and respected my mother, how my mother used to teach us to bless our food, and reminded us to be thankful for what we had. She said if you can appreciate what little you have, God will give you more. And that’s what I think happened when I look back on my life.
Do you think your faith throughout the years has helped you help others, particularly with the show?
Oh yeah. Each time my faith gets stronger and stronger. And the real test of my faith [was when] I had to go through my Job test in 1995, when I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember before that, back in 1984, 1983, and1982, little kids would come to see me and stuff like that. I had this little kid who was dying and [whose] last request through the Make-A-Wish Foundation was to see me. His name was Ryan, and he had cystic fibrosis. That's when my life literally changed.
I called my pastor again, the same one I gave the money to after I won the bouncer contest, and I called him in ’83. I said, "Pastor Hardy, there’s a kid that is dying. What do I say to him?"
I knew I couldn’t tell this kid the same thing I told all the other little kids: "Hey, little buddy, grab the muscles on my back and I’ll ride you around and we’ll get all the bad guys." I couldn’t say that to him. I needed a word from God, I needed to find those words and that’s why I called my pastor.
My pastor said, "T, evidently this kid has seen the godlike qualities in you that you don’t even see in yourself." And I hadn’t. I mean, I would say my blessings before I ate, and I’d even say a little prayer before I’d go to sleep. But I felt that God was taking it to another level.
And I’d see the little kid Ryan, and I’d see other little kids that would be brought to me through the Starlight Foundation or the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I would come to them, I would spend time with them, play with them, sing with them, pray with them, hold them. And every time they would leave, I would cry. I would thank God I saw them.
There’s a special glow in me after that. Then I meditate, and in my little aura I’m just thanking God, [asking] how can I do more? Because every time I go to the homeless shelter I’m leaving them, and I’m leaving them crying. One time there was a lady there with her daughter who waited to see me and just said, “I just want to hold you and tell you, 'Thank you for not forgetting us.'" And she started crying, and I started crying, and you know I never forget them.