DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you ever watched "The Cosby Show," you know this voice well.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COSBY SHOW")
MALCOLM JAMAL WARNER: (as Theo) You know dad's cooking is really delicious. I just wish he wouldn't tell us what's in it.
GREENE: Theo, the cool, charming, sometimes mischievous member of the Huxtable family, was played by Malcolm Jamal Warner. The actor is all grown up now, at 43 years old, and he's here in Washington, D.C., working on a play. So, we asked him to drop by our studios to talk about his career, which has been shaped largely by that early work with Bill Cosby. It is hard to imagine "The Cosby Show" without Malcolm Jamal Warner playing Theo, but that nearly happened.
WARNER: They were looking for a 6'-2" 15-year-old...
WARNER: ...and I was 5'-5" and 13.
GREENE: Not exactly the profile they were looking for.
WARNER: Yeah, yeah, not what they were looking for. And I was literally the last person.
GREENE: And how did that audition play out?
WARNER: At that time, I was 13, and the kids that you see on television are precocious and smart-alecks and get the laughs. And my audition scene was the Monopoly money scene.
GREENE: Remind us about that.
WARNER: Theo wants to be regular people.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COSBY SHOW")
BILL COSBY: (as Cliff) Now, what kind of salary do you expect for a regular person?
WARNER: (as Theo) Two hundred and fifty dollars a week.
COSBY: Sit down. I'm going to give you $300 a week. Yes, indeed. Twelve hundred dollars a month. All right?
WARNER: Great, I'll take it.
COSBY: Yes, you will. And I will take $350 for taxes.
COSBY: Yeah. Because, see, the government comes for the regular people first.
WARNER: So, the audition scene was that. And I played those scenes like you see kids on television - kind of smart-alecky, and when Cliff said something, I got my hand on my hips and rolling my eyes. And I'm killing in the room. Everybody is laughing.
GREENE: You're feeling like I got this.
WARNER: I got this. And I finish, and I look up, and Mr. Cosby is the only one who was unimpressed.
WARNER: And he looks at me, he says, now, would you really talk to your father like that? And I said no. He said, well, I don't want to see that on this show. And then Jay Sandrich, the director, said, you know, Jamal, go back out there, work on it, and come back a little later. So, by the time I went back in, I gave them what has become Theo.
GREENE: What a teaching moment with Bill Cosby, right...
WARNER: Oh, definitely. Yeah.
GREENE: ...off the bat. Is there some words of wisdom from him that stick on your memory?
WARNER: It's interesting. Most of the things that I've learned from him come from watching his example. Of course, watching how he ran that show, but watching how he handles the job of being a celebrity. Being a celebrity can be very intoxicating and very addicting. And I've always been afraid of that, because I've grown up post-almost every child star out there who has gone wayward. And remember, you know, I grew up - my teenage years were the '80s. The mid to late-'80s, I was on the number one show in the world...
GREENE: The temptations were there, I'm sure.
WARNER: ...you know, man, living in New York. So, I had an awesome life. And the temptations were there, but there was also the understanding that when I'm out, I'm not only a reflection of my mother and my father, I'm also representing Mr. Cosby and his work. So, I definitely knew what my boundaries were.
GREENE: You've spoken about how Bill Cosby was able to accomplish something in that show in terms of breaking ground, in terms of avoiding stereotypes that was really rare and special. What exactly do you mean?
WARNER: When you look at the history of black sitcoms, they're all predicated upon the, quote, "black experience." And therefore, much of the humor is predicated on being black. Mr. Cosby wanted to do a show not about an upper-middle-class black family, but an upper-middle-class family that happened to be black. Though it sounds like semantics, they're very different approaches. Yet the Huxtables were very black, from the style of dress, to the art to the music, to just the culture. So, being black without having to act black, if you will.
GREENE: And when you went on "The Cosby Show" to work on a program, "Malcolm and Eddie," did you find it hard to avoid those stereotypes without having Bill Cosby there by your side?
WARNER: That was a battle from day one. Doing "Malcolm and Eddie" was probably the foremost miserable years of my life.
GREENE: Wow. Why's that?
WARNER: Because I had come from eight years of being at NBC, under Mr. Cosby's wing, then I get to UPN. And at the time, UPN's whole marketing strategy was the antithesis of what "Cosby" was about.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MALCOLM AND EDDIE")
EDDIE GRIFFIN: (as Eddie) You player of the year, man. You got more women than I got hats, and I got 4,773 hats.
WARNER: (as Malcolm) Come on. I'll hook it up. Player, I always keep a honey on hold. It's just a matter of who's the lucky winner.
Because I come from a show that's made history on being funny without having to be stereotypical, that was my approach at UPN with "Malcolm and Eddie." But the problem was they weren't interested in what I was trying to bring to the table.
GREENE: The sensitivities that you had brought from "The Cosby Show."
WARNER: Yeah. And my thing was always, we can dig deeper. We don't have to do the obvious comedy. Any black show is going to do this joke. Let's try something different.
GREENE: Have we gotten past those frustrations? Can an African-American actor feel safe now from falling into traps, or are those traps and stereotypes still there?
WARNER: Those stereotypes are still there.
GREENE: Where do you see it?
WARNER: And I don't know - and I don't necessarily know if people see them as traps. African-Americans are not a monolithic group. So, we tend to talk about the black community, the black culture, the African-American television viewing audience, but there are just as many facets of us as there are other cultures. So, just as "The Jeffersons" or "Good Times" or Tyler Perry cannot represent all black people, neither can the Huxtables. There's an audience who likes a certain type of stereotypical programming, and there are artists, you know, there are actors, writers, directors, producers who like producing stereotypical work. That is a very viable form of entertainment for a lot of people.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: That was actor Malcolm Jamal Warner, best known as Theo from "The Cosby Show." Right now, though, he's starring in the play "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" based on the 1967 movie of the same name. His role, Dr. John Prentiss, tackles the issue of race head-on, and we'll hear about that tomorrow as we continue our conversation with Malcolm Jamal Warner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.