Malcolm-Jamal Warner: 'The Cosby Show Changed the Way the World Looked at Black People'

The actor talks new stage and TV roles plus 30 years of the iconic hit sitcom.

Posted: 08/25/2014 09:00 AM EDT

Malcolm-Jamal Warner is probably best known as Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show, but the 44-year old actor has reinvented himself several times thanks to a steady stream of diverse roles on TV. He’s played both good and deadbeat husbands, (most recently on CommunityReed Between the Lines and Sherri). The New Jersey native also transformed into a jock and post-apocalyptic survivor (Listen UpJeremiah).

But when Warner spoke to BET.com, he was most excited about the trio of roles he’s currently juggling. That of a lieutenant on TNT's Monday night police drama, Major Crimes, a crazed biker on Sons of Anarchy, which premieres September 9 on FX (check your local listings) and the starring role in a East Coast fall stage production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Naturally, coming full circle, the former child star also reflected on the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show and working opposite legendary comedy genius Bill Cosby.

You’re a very busy guy right now. Your first recurring role is on the police drama Major Crimes. What drew you to that show? Tell us about your character.
I portray Lt. Chuck Cooper on the series and he’s a badass. He has a lot of power and authority but it's mixed with charm, a sense of humor and great wit. I’m always jumping at opportunities to do things outside of sitcom work. Sitcom work has been very good to me and it’s something I love to do. But I also like to branch out. When you do drama you use different types of acting muscles. And as an actor you want to be as diverse as possible so nothing gets old. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Sons of Anarchy, which is about to begin its final season. Were you a fan of the show? Who do you portray?
I’m a huge fan of the show, especially because I ride [motorcycles] and we [bikers] all love watching Sons of Anarchy. I play the vice president of the Grim Bastards, who is also Michael Beach’s right-hand man. I appear on four episodes this season. I had to do this role —  it’s the biggest departure from anything I’ve ever done before.

In September, you'll be appearing in a Boston stage production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as John Prentice, the role made famous by Sidney Poitier. How different is it tackling that material in modern times?
The cool thing about this play is that we have a great advantage. We’re doing it in 2014. There are certain emotional places that we can go that they couldn’t in 1967. Because of the racial and political climate they really had to tread lightly on the subject matter. I’m not trying to do what Sidney Poitier did — it’s too intimidating. But it gave me a chance to find my own take on the character. I took what I know from the '60s from a historical standpoint, through race relations and what things were like in 1967. My dad was very instrumental in the civil rights movement. The '60s are a period that I’m familiar with, my Dad named me after Malcolm X. So I grew up with a certain knowledge and affinity for the '60s. 

September 2014 also marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere of The Cosby Show. If the show is on late at night in syndication do you watch it or turn it off?
Oh yeah, I’ll definitely watch if I’m flipping through the channels! I’m finally far removed enough from the show that I can watch it and enjoy it as a viewer. And I think it’s still funny. A couple of years ago, I was watching the earring episode. When the scene where Theo is trying to hide the earring from Cliff while they are sitting on the bed came on, I was sitting on my living room couch by myself at home, laughing out loud. I was thinking this was great. And afterwards I called Mr. Cosby and I said, “Hey man, I’m watching the show — and we were funny!” And he said, “You damned right we were!” It’s definitely a show that I’m proud of and am proud to have been a part of. It’s a show that changed television. It changed the way Black America, white America and the world looked at Black people.

Cultural critics also credited the show with helping Barack Obama get elected as the first Black president of the United States.
Yeah, I heard a lot of that. On one hand, it helped condition the way we saw Black families. But at the same time, you had shows like 24, where the president was Black. And you also had these other feature films where the president was also Black. So I think we all had a collective effect on it being acceptable to see the Obama family in the White House.

Mr. Cosby is also very busy these days. He's about to launch a new sitcom and is still doing comedy tours at the age of 77. What's the biggest lesson you learned from him?
Keep an amazing work ethic. I grew up watching that back when we were doing The Cosby Show. Traditionally, it takes five days to do a sitcom. We got it down to four days and on Thursday nights after we’d tape two shows, he would get on his plane and he would go to Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe or Atlantic City. And he would do his stand-up Friday, Saturday and Sunday and would be back to work on Monday before any of us. This was while he had the No. 1 show in the world, but he was still on that kind of grind. So his work ethic is something I’ll always admire.

Mr. Cosby will soon be returning to TV; you’re starring in multiple series. Do you think the two of you will ever work together again?
We talked about another idea that we may develop later on down the line. He’s been such an integral part of my life. And we’ve had such a strong relationship during the show and definitely post-show, so yeah, I’d follow his lead anywhere. 

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 (Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

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