Believe it or not, it’s been nearly 20 years since The Cosby Show finished its groundbreaking, eight-year successful run on television. And Malcolm Jamal Warner has definitely been one of the more visible former Cosby Show kids as an actor and director. Most recently he turned in guest star appearances on such critically acclaimed shows as, Dexter, The Cleaner and HawthoRNe. Plus, Warner also starred in the Post-Cosby sitcoms Malcolm and Eddie and the short-lived Sherri and Listen Up. And in addition to his work behind the scenes on The Cosby Show, he also served as a director on episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Keenan and Kel. While he and his TV siblings qualify as perfect poster adults for former child stars, the 40-year old New Jersey native admits there are still challenges to navigating a successful career after starring on one of the most iconic shows in television history. Malcolm Jamal Warner comes clean on TV One’s biography series Life After, which airs throughout the month of August (check your local listings.) But he also spoke to VIBE.com about his music career, why sometimes you don’t see him on TV and of course, The Cosby Show.—Ronke Idowu Reeves
VIBE: You have another full professional life as musician— as bassist and leader of your jazz/funk ensemble Miles Long and you’re currently working on your third album. How did you get into music?
Malcolm Jamal Warner: I came from the [television] world of Mr. Cosby. He created an environment where people had to be ultra aware of the images of black people that were coming across the airwaves. So coming from that and going to UPN (for Malcolm and Eddie) whose marketing philosophy was pretty much the antithesis of The Cosby Show I found Malcolm and Eddie to be really stressful. And I realized that I needed a hobby. Acting had been a hobby that turned into a career, the directing was a hobby that turned into a career and music just really allowed me to find another way to express myself. I started playing bass in November 1996 and by June 1998 I was doing my first live show.
In the early 90s around the time The Cosby Show concluded, a lot of black sitcoms immediately plunged into stereotypical humor. What kind of roles were you offered when The Cosby Show ended and what kind of roles do you get offered now?
It varies. But there’s another reason why music is so important to me. I turn down more work than I get. Between the work that I turn down and work that I’m really busting my ass auditioning for I don’t necessary work as much as I would like to. But fortunately I have the financial means that allows me to be meticulous about the kinds of projects I choose. I planned so well for my post-Cosby Show life that I don’t have to make desperate acting choices that conflict with what my values. So sometimes during long stretches of unemployment, often more than I would like, I’ve got my music. When I’m not working I’m on the road with my band. Or I’m performing in poetry houses doing spoken work. So I’ve got another passion and another outlet that allows me to be creatively fulfilled and not sitting at home pulling my hair out waiting for the right role to come along.
Which television roles have you turned down over the years?
I don’t want to get into that, but suffice to say they didn’t coincide with my sensibilities. I never wanted to look back on my career and be embarrassed about work that I chose to do. I never wanted to look at character I’ve done and cringe. But as I get older I try not to be as judgmental about as I used to be about people taking work that perpetuates stereotypes. Because I recognize that everyone is not in a financial situation to be saying no to stuff.
What has been the biggest transitional challenge coming out of playing Theo Huxtable and being so recognized for the role?
I’m still coming out of it (laughs.) I’m sure people still call Ron Howard Opie [from The Andy Griffith Show] and it hasn’t hurt his career at all. It goes with the territory. I think it’s difficult to really get away from it, which is why you have to have enough going on so you’re not the person with the identity crisis. But there’s a huge blessing that comes from being apart of a show like The Cosby Show that sets such a high standard of quality— it touched so many people on so many different levels. So as long you continue to expand and grow then I think the audience will grow with you.
Because The Cosby Show is rerun so much in syndication do you still have people running up to you and calling you Theo?
“I get a lot of that, but I also get a lot of Malcolms. People usually go, ‘Hey Malcolm Jamal Warner.’ The response is more laid back [than the Cosby Show’s heyday when I had preteens and teens squealing] that was always fun. It’s still fun (laughs). For so much of my life between the ages of 12 and 18, I’d get Theos all the time. And now amongst teenagers [today] that same demographic doesn’t even know who I am. And ironically I got a lot of young people calling me Malcolm, and I thought they were calling me Malcolm because they knew my name. When actually it’s because of Malcolm and Eddie.
You’re a working actor and director in television and you’re an accomplished musician. What other goals do you have for your professional career?
I’ve been in this business going on 31 years. And thirty years is a long time but I see even more longevity for myself. When I was doing Cosby and people would always ask me, ‘How does it feel to be successful?’ My perspective was always being on a number one show doesn’t mean anything if I’m not still working consistently at 40 to 50 and 60 years old. So I’m 40 now, it won’t be until I’m 50 and 60, and still working that I can look back and say I’ve had a successful career. So that’s what success means to me, I’m still in the process of reaching it. I often think sometimes people get so caught up in what’s happening now. ‘I’ve got a hot show, I got a hot song, and I got a hot movie out.’ And they live it up for all it’s worth, but they’re not thinking about of the big picture. The question they should be asking is what can I parlay this into, so I don’t have to make desperate career choices twenty years from now?
For more information on Miles Long check out Malcolm Jamal Warner’s website: