September 20 marks the 30th anniversary since The Cosby Show premiered on NBC. And for Malcolm-Jamal Warner (who played the sole male sibling, Theodore Huxtable, during the seminal sitcom’s eight-year run), time has not stood still. He’s busier than ever, with a starring role in the theatrical adaptation of the cinematic classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and recurring roles on two hit television shows. And yet the Jersey City native still makes time for an award-winning film, new music and college studies.
“My plate is pretty full,” Warner quipped during a recent interview. “It’s enough stuff to keep me out of trouble and keep my name out of the tabloids.”
Luckily (or strategically) for this 44-year-old former child star, tabloid fodder isn’t a known territory for his presence—that would be television. Since The Cosby Show went off the air in 1992 (but still living on in syndication around the world), Warner has steadily worked throughout the medium, with roles on sitcoms like Malcolm & Eddie, Reed Between the Lines and Community.
His latest roles, however, are most noteworthy because, on one front, he’s delving into his theatrical roots with the latest production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which opened at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company on September 10. On another, his latest television fare isn’t sitcom laughing matter: on TNT’s Major Crimes, he takes on the role of Lieutenant Chuck Cooper; and on the FX’s infectious drama Sons of Anarchy, he takes on the role of biker Sticky.
“It’s great. Because on Major Crimes, I play the law, and on Sons of Anarchy, I play an outlaw,” Warner says, chuckling. “I’ve done three already and I’m hoping that once my run is done here in Boston, they’d bring me back for more. [My character] is actually part of the Black bikers club, the Grim Bastards. Michael Beach is president and I’m the vice president.
“It’s such a thug out,” he adds, further explaining: “Motorcycle clubs don’t call themselves gangs, but it’s definitely more towards the thug side. It’s hard though, man. That show, it’s a hard one.”
Taking on the legendary role of Dr. John Wade Prentice Jr. (which Sidney Poitier immortalized in the 1967 Academy Award yielding comedy drama) is a far cry from the blood, sweat and Harley-Davidsons displayed on Sons of Anarchy. But the lead role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is one he takes pride in.
“It’s definitely worth seeing,” he said of the production. “It’s a piece that I’m very proud of, and it’s really holding up. We’ve had full houses, standing ovations. And even with the different cast, it’s really showing me that the play itself really holds up.
“You know, in 1967 when they shot the film, they had to tread lightly with the subject matter,” Warner explained about the play’s interracial storyline. “The advantage that we have in 2014 is that we can really deal with the emotional responses and the emotional journeys that they did not get a chance to do with the film, obviously because of the social and racial climate at the time. So this even gives a chance to have a bit more fuller characters, because it’s not so nice and we take off the kid gloves.”
Some may be surprised of Warner’s becoming theatre thespian, but he’s no novice. “I started out in theater,” the NAACP Theater Award-winner explains. “I’ve been doing theater since I was 9 years old. So it’s a part of my training. I’ve done some stuff Off Broadway, at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the La Jolla Playhouse, so theater is very much a part of my wheelhouse. I’m always doing theater every couple of years, because no matter how much you do film or television, theater is the foundation. So I always make it a point every couple of years to get back into theater.”
With his sights set on a Broadway run for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Warner has other professional irons in the fire, as usual. Earlier this year, the short film MUTED (starring Grey’s Anatomy’s Chandra Wilson) won the HBO Short Film Competition at the American Black Film Festival.
Musically, he’s prepping a third opus from his jazz funk band Miles Long—this time with some help from Mint Condition frontman Stokley Williams. All of this while also taking courses at the Berklee College of Music.
And still relishing in the piece of history that The Cosby Show will always represent.
“It was great,” he shares. “I feel that what was really dope about that show was that it still holds up.”
Asked if he ever grows tired of talking about the series, Warner offers an emphatic no. “The show was more than just a television show,” he offers. “It was very entertaining, but the show really had a very significant social impact. So it’s something to be proud of, and not just from an actor’s standpoint and, ‘Oh God, we’re still talking about this show.’ But being proud of being part of something that is so influential on American culture.”
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in Jet, Playbill, Billboard, The Daily Beast, Essence and CNN.com. On Twitter, he’s @TontoKaru.