Once upon a time, a burly black man with a Mohawk captured the hearts of white people everywhere. Mr. T, a former bouncer and bodyguard, met with almost instant stardom thanks to the success of The A-Team, one of the lone high points in a television season that also marked the debut (and subsequent demise) of Wizards and Warriors, AfterMASH, and Automan.
You’d think that Mr. T would have been a tough sell initially, considering his first major film role was Clubber Lang in Rocky III, who pretty much murdered Rocky’s beloved trainer/father figure Mickey Goldmill (and also implied that he had a bigger dick than Rocky). Nevertheless, barely two years after that he had a Saturday morning cartoon and a breakfast cereal named after him, and was photographed dressed up like Santa Claus, balancing Nancy Reagan on his knee like an adorable, AIDS-denying doll. America loved his story about triumph in the face of impossible odds, and silly looking haircuts.
On top of being a TV star, Mr. T also wanted to be an inspirational speaker for kids, preaching the importance of both physical and spiritual fitness. This culminated in Mr. T’s Be Somebody…or Be Somebody’s Fool, a videocassette release that offered tips to the young folks on how to live their best life. Broken down into sections that cover everything from peer pressure to exercise to even fashion, more than half of it consists of musical numbers, either rapped by Mr. T (and written by none other than a pre-Body Count Ice-T) or sung by children.
After the opening song, Mr. T greets the viewer with “Do you know me? Of course you do, that’s because I’m famous!” Immediately regaining some humility, T explains that despite coming from humble roots he always commanded respect, thanks to being confident and willing to take chances…and you can too!
The first issue addressed is shyness, the solution to which seems to be merely believing in yourself and speaking louder. As someone who has struggled with shyness her entire life, this overly simplified “if you’re depressed just cheer up” advice is unhelpful at best, but I suppose if you’re a meek, 10 year-old A-Team fan who hasn’t spent too much time in the world yet, it may seem like a good tip.
Next, T suggests that you get in touch with your roots, telling a somewhat apocryphal story about the origin of his haircut and habit of wearing 200 pounds of gold chains around his neck, because remembering where your people come from will keep you humble and focused on succeeding. This is valuable advice if you’re, say, descended from slaves or survivors of the Irish Potato Famine, but will probably go over the head of young J. Buckingham Wentworth IV as he watches in his personal wing of his family’s Cape Cod summer home.
I should mention that every minute and a half of Mr. T giving advice is padded with five minute long songs, mostly “Ebony & Ivory” knockoffs sung by T’s multi-cultural adolescent co-stars, many of whom would later end up on Kids Incorporated. With excellent timing, the segment following the second of these addresses anger management. Next is the highlight of the show (alas, a mere 11:50 into a fifty minute long program), in which Mr. T encourages his young viewers to find their own sense of style and not focus on labels. This culminates in a puzzling fashion show, with teen models posing in outfits that can best be described as “thrift store chic,” and which absolutely no teenage girl in 80s small town America could have gotten away with wearing (also, I’m pretty sure the outfit “Jeff” wears would have gotten him stuffed into a locker in most schools). While the kids pose in stuff like five scarves at once, or a kimono with a bowler hat, Mr. T makes not at all scripted commentary like “She’s taking the A train to fashion,” and “With her mustard socks, and her ketchup sash, she’s a real hot dog.”
Now, here’s where I must interject: I was 12 around the time Be Somebody was released, and likely the target age for it. I can tell you that, in the status conscious 80s, one could talk a good game about not worrying about labels and what other people think of you, but if your parents weren’t spending themselves into insolvency to keep you in L.A. Gear sneakers and Esprit sweaters, you weren’t going to get very far. The 80s, even for adults, was all about image, and trying to pass yourself off as wealthy, cultured, classy, better. Even diet soda was marketed as being strictly for “the beautiful people.” Being yourself might have been taking the moral high ground, but, particularly in middle school, it also meant a lot of awkward shuffling around trying to find a lab partner in fourth period biology.
And speaking of awkward shuffling around, let’s go to our next segment, which addresses peer pressure. You won’t be surprised to know that Mr. T is against it. Because subtlety is not a strong suit in this program, a preteen boy is encouraged to smoke and drink when his friends surround him and shove cigarettes and open cans of beer in his face. Luckily, New Edition is just a few feet away, performing a song that warns against the dangers of peer pressure, while Mr. T. acts as a guardian angel, shaking his head in sober judgment. The pop group founded by noted crack addict Bobby Brown gives the boy the inner strength he needs to refuse his pushy friends.
Next is a very long segment in which Mr. T learns to breakdance, and seems to suggest that this is a valuable tool in the quest to be somebody. Again, to refer back to the fashion show sequence, the idea that maintaining a unique aspect or talent will make you stand out from the crowd is generally correct, but adolescents, particularly those in the 80s, valued being part of the “in crowd” above all else, and if you wanted to be part of the in crowd, you had to try to look and act as much like them as possible. Even as a naive, optimistic 12 year-old, who was sure that all I needed to do was learn how to slouch my neon pink Wigwam socks just the right way and I would attain instant popularity, I don’t think I’d have bought that showing my classmates some mad poppin’ ‘n’ lockin’ skills would have resulted in anything but derisive laughter and a few spitballs stuck in my spiral perm.
After that, Mr. T, wearing camouflage booty shorts, performs an ode to mothers. Rather than try to find the words to describe it, I’ll just direct you to the oft-viewed clip of it. Keep in mind, this was written by Ice-T, just four years before this.
Still wearing those camouflage booty shorts, Mr. T next teaches a group of lazy, junk food loving kids how to exercise by lifting a boom box and balancing a bag of popcorn on their heads. This leads into a montage of T and the kids cavorting in a playground, set to a synth heavy dance song with the extremely questionable lyrics “Let’s do it till we short circuit/burn, burn/sweat, sweat/make your body work, work/to get wet, wet.” Now, maybe I just have an ear for nuance, but I don’t think that has anything to do with getting fit.
T then suggests that kids learn how to rap (again, I direct you to the paragraphs above regarding fashion and breakdancing). The rest of the program is largely taken up with an uplifting song about the power of friendship, sung by Valerie Landesberg of TV’s Fame while meant to be meaningful statements like “Friendship is colorblind” and “Friendship is like a clear day…you look forward to it” (huh?) pop up on the screen. The last sequence is dedicated to the power of daydreaming, illustrated by a little girl playing baseball who fantasizes about being the first woman to play in the World Series. That little girl is played by Stacy Ferguson, who many years later would extol the virtues of her lovely lady lumps with The Black Eyed Peas. Mr. T’s advice is solid, she did indeed grow up to be somebody.
To sum up, here’s a general overview on how to be somebody:
And that’s it! You’re on your way to respect, popularity, and more gold chains than you could possibly wear.
I gotta say, in spite of everything, it is hard to dislike Be Somebody…or Be Somebody’s Fool. As stiff and unnatural as Mr. T comes off in some scenes (I pity whoever had to tell him about the dialogue he had to read for the fashion show bit), there’s a genuine warmth to him. He really does seem like he wants to help the youths, even if most of his advice is so simplistic that it’s nearly useless. It would make sense that in not following the crowd, eventually the crowd will want to follow you, except that, particularly for young teens, it just doesn’t work that way. Maybe now, when kids are more likely to find their tribes online than in school, it does, but in the 80s, when image was valued over integrity, “just be yourself” led to a lot of lonely lunch hours and school dances spent hiding in the bathroom. But, you know, I’m not bitter or anything.