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The A-Team Of Collectors
Need an Action Figure Who Is Also A Father Figure? Mr. T to the Rescue.

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005

The first thing that Greg Rivera and Mike Essl want you to know about their massive collection of Mr. T memorabilia -- a trove that includes lunch boxes, ceramic piggy banks, Thermoses, plush toys, greeting cards, pencil sharpeners, toothbrushes, Mr. T crayons, gumball machines, comic books, wallets, badges, action figures, drinking glasses, a Mr. T Chia pet, four boxes of Mr. T cereal, about 600 handmade Mr. T dolls and more than 5,000 other Mr. T items -- is that it is not a joke.

It might look like a joke, particularly when viewed at Essl's one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where you'll find dozens of cardboard boxes crammed with Mr. T stuff in a storage room, as well as a mini shrine above his dining table and Mr. T artwork and posters on the walls.

And when you meet Rivera and Essl you might assume that they are the sort of guys who might acquire all of this ironically. They are 26 and 31, respectively, which means they were reared in the age of irony, and they look suspiciously like scenesters. On this particular evening Rivera is wearing a Dolce & Gabbana trucker hat, the bill pulled slightly to the left. Essl has brightly colored tattoos up and down each arm, plus studs in both ears and a shaved head. He looks like a bouncer at a club where they offer bands you've never heard of at volumes you won't enjoy. ("There's a whole section of society that is scared of you because of tattoos," says Essl, chuckling. "I think I enjoy that.")

They understand the perplexed looks they get whenever anyone grasps the full extent of their Mr. T commitment. But as Essl puts it, "I don't come at this from a place of irony." Then he tells a story about something that happened a few years ago.

"When I met Mr. T, I cried. It was at an autograph signing, with Mary Lou Retton, of all people, and I got my arm signed and my photograph taken with him. Then I just went outside and I cried."

Even as he recalls the moment, Essl verges on welling up.

"I wanted him to sign my arm because I wanted to tattoo his signature on my biceps. He was totally friendly -- he called me 'big buddy' -- but he had this guy who was there to make sure people moved along and before I knew it, the whole thing was over. So instead I got this."

Essl rolls up a sleeve. On his arm is a huge, brightly colored tattoo of Mr. T.

"I got mine first," says Rivera, smiling. He rolls up one pant leg. Mr. T is glowering on Rivera's shin.

This is what it's like to kneel at the altar of Mr. T: They have collected him, catalogued him, warehoused him, fetishized him. And still, in popular lore, the rest of us tend to consider Mr. T to be a sideshow. He is legendary yet absurd, both cursed and blessed with an instant recognizability that spans decades. He is a 53-year-old walking talking cartoon character sporting a mohawk and several pounds of bling around his neck, always ready to spout his signature declaration: "I pity the fool!"

In his world, fool was pronounced "foo," and Mr. T pitied plenty of them -- Rocky Balboa, or the thugs who'd dare cross him on the 1980s TV action series "The A-Team," or the characters in his Saturday morning cartoon show who lacked his moral clarity. With impish Gary Coleman and regal Nancy Reagan by his side, Mr. T pitied the fool who would not "just say no" to drugs. But his shtick faded, until finally Mr. T was himself pitied as a piece of celebrity flotsam.

Except for all those little boys in the world who adored him, long past childhood, and who perhaps needed him in ways not previously articulated.

So a gargantuan collection of Mr. T ephemera runs deeper than irony. But how deep?

T Squared

Rivera and Essl have never hidden their love for "T," as they often call him, but last month they went public in a big way. The tiny Orchard Street Art Gallery on the Lower East Side mounted an exhibit called "I Pity the Dolls," which showcases 150 Mr. T figures.

All of them were plucked from eBay by Rivera over the course of years, some for as little as a dollar, others for as much as $50. They were based on a Cabbage Patch-y pattern sold by a company called Miss Martha Originals, which in the '80s was trying to cash in on the craze for all things T. Mothers and grandchildren stitched them together as gifts for kids; because they are handmade by different people, no two are alike.

"We've never had an exhibit that got a reaction like this," Orchard Street owner Ally Ha says of the show, which closes Saturday.

Though Essl never bought any of the Miss Martha Mr. T's -- they just never appealed to him that much -- he bought everything else. So did Rivera. Inevitably, the two collided in cyberspace one day in 2000, when Rivera realized that he'd been outbid on a bar of Mr. T soap. After a bit of research (eBay allows you to rummage through anyone's purchasing history) he realized that someone else had been snaring tons of Mr. T merchandise.

"It wasn't just 'A-Team' stuff," Rivera says. "It was Mr. T."

So Rivera, who at the time lived in Florida (and eventually moved to New York, where he now works in television production), sent an e-mail to Essl, who then lived in Manhattan (but eventually had to move to Brooklyn to find more space for his T effluvia). Rivera introduced himself, wondering if he'd found a fellow fanatic.

"I wrote back this really cocky e-mail," Essl recalls. "It was all about how I have the biggest Mr. T collection." It was a lame attempt at intimidation. "Basically, I just wanted him to stop bidding against me."

Rivera sent a reply, which included a couple of digital photos of his stash. It was the size of Essl's -- times three.

"I was completely humbled," Essl says. "I thought, this guy has me beat, hands down."

They traded more e-mails and decided to call a truce. No more bidding against each other. The guy who spots the item on eBay first wins it. This worked most of the time, though because they both were trolling online pretty much nonstop, they occasionally bid within the same minute.

"I'd get this e-mail from Greg saying, 'How come you bid against me?' And then we'd look at the bidding history, which eBay tracks down to the second, and we'd realize that we bid almost simultaneously."

After a while, they began to think of their collection as a unified whole. They know whose stuff is whose, of course, but it quickly seemed that as long as one of them took a given item home, they both won. They started talking about building a Web site together, and maybe publishing a buyers guide. The two had yet to meet in person.

The Story of T

Rivera and Essl don't know much about Mr. T's life. Sitting next to each other on a sofa in Essl's living room, they recite the basics:

Born Laurence Tureaud in 1952, he was raised in the projects on the South Side of Chicago, with 11 brothers and sisters; his big break came when Sylvester Stallone spotted him in a "World's Toughest Bouncer" contest, which led to a starring role in the 1982 film "Rocky III" as the sadistic boxer Clubber Lang. That, in turn, led to the role of Sgt. Bosco "B.A." Baracus on the "The A-Team," one of television's highest-rated action shows during its four-year run.

Mr. T became a Character. His persona was all flash and menace on the outside, but warmth and inspiration when he started talking.

If today you are older than, say, 35 and younger than 25, it's likely that you never paid much attention to Mr. T. If you did, you found him colorful but kind of silly. Every generation has a figure just like him -- a showbiz personality who seems faintly comical to all but those who encountered him during that impressionable moment when the search for a hero begins. Evel Knievel seems like a crank in a cape to most people unless you were a middle schooler when he jumped the Snake River Canyon. In that case, the guy will always be a daredevil.

Essl first spotted Mr. T as a 10-year-old. At the time, his home life could be accurately described as chaotic.

"Well, to start with, my dad was a biker," he says. "Just think about whatever image that word raises in your mind and that's my dad. He was like a Hell's Angel, even though he wasn't a Hell's Angel."

Essl would rather not get into specifics, mostly because he thinks it would embarrass his parents, but suffice to say, he grew up surrounded by drugs. By the time he became aware of it all, he was a huge Mr. T fan, and he started to hear T's public-service announcements during Saturday morning cartoons. The message never varied: Stay in school and don't do drugs. That's it. Two very simple instructions, over and over.

Essl loved Mr. T so much he decided to grab hold of those two commands and never let go.

"I thought, 'I'm just going to do what Mr. T tells me.' And I did. I've never done any drugs in my life. Not one. I didn't take a drink until I was 23. And it somehow dawned on me that if I didn't do drugs, my younger brother wouldn't, either. And he hasn't. He's never even had a drink."

He took the stay-in-school theme just as seriously. His childhood memories revolve around school -- studying for school, staying late at school. He went to college, then to graduate school to study design, then started his own Web design firm. A few years ago he went back to school, this time as a tenure-track professor at Cooper Union in Manhattan, teaching design. He was so thrilled to land the job that he tattooed the school's name and one of its buildings on his chest.

"Mr. T was like a light to me," Essl whispers. He says this like he knows how nuts it may sound, but he doesn't care, because it's the essential truth of his life and everything he treasures -- his job, his marriage, his skills as a designer -- flows from this truth. "The guy was my moral compass."

'A Baaaad Dude'

Greg Rivera is nodding and smiling through this monologue. In part, that's because Rivera is nearly always nodding and smiling, and in part it's because in Essl's tale he hears echoes of his own.

Rivera grew up in a financially strapped family in the then-crumbling city of Bridgeport, Conn. His father, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, was 54 years old when Greg was born. The age and culture gap between the two was huge, and the elder Rivera never made much effort to bridge it. The guy had a drinking problem, too, which didn't help. Greg would sometimes tag along to watch his dad play dominoes with friends in a parking lot.

But father and son didn't have much to talk about -- until "The A-Team." It turned out to be the only thing both of them loved.

"He loved the fact that nobody ever got hurt," says Rivera, who was about 8 when the show ended its run. "Some Jeep would be heading for a land mine and he'd be like, 'You watch, Greg-o. Not one scratch!' " And of course the A-Team would just walk away from the explosion. And he'd be like, 'You see! That Mr. T, he's a baaaad dude!' "

It's a story as old as the Bible and as new as the latest "Star Wars" prequel. What really created the Rivera-Essl Mr. T collection -- what transfixes all men sooner or later -- is that hoariest of quests, the search for a father. For Rivera, Mr. T is a way to relive the very rare moments that he connected to his dad, who seemed more like a grandfather, except when "The A-Team" was on television, kicking butt.

For Essl, Mr. T laid down rules and set boundaries, a role that daddies usually play. There was a void in Essl's life that was going to be filled by some paternal force and for whatever reason he chose a charismatic black man with killer biceps and a catechism you could memorize in less than a minute.

T in L.A.

On a recent Thursday, that man is standing in a room at the Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles, rewriting a cue card.

Mr. T is wearing a red, white and blue sleeveless T-shirt, tucked into red, white and blue stretch pants, and red, white and blue sneakers. His gold chains are in place, mohawk intact. Mr. T looks thick and powerful and has the antic energy of a boxer before a bout. Lights and a video camera are trained on him. A tech company, which for competitive reasons asked not to be identified, has hired Mr. T for a commercial shoot. Everyone except the star of this show seems exhausted.

"I've got to change 'isn't' to 'ain't,' " he tells the woman in charge. "Mr. T doesn't say 'isn't.' If I said that they'd do a drive-by on Mr. T. Not to shoot me. Just to have a serious discussion." Then he cracks up.

Mr. T can turn on that famous scowl, but it's an act. After taping all afternoon, he sits for an interview by the hotel pool, along with his teenage son, who is known as TT.

In 1998, Mr. T complained to "Entertainment Tonight" that he had only $200 in the bank, but today he seems more fortunate, traveling in a limousine. He talks about the various projects he's working on, including, yes, a reality TV show. Mr. T knew nothing about Rivera and Essl until his manager gave him the details the day before.

"It's really humbling, really," he says, shaking his head. "Wait till my mother hears this."

Mr. T talks a lot about his mother. He says all his ambition, his entire code of conduct, came from his mother, a religious woman who raised 12 kids on a welfare check and housecleaning jobs in the suburbs. (His father left when T was 5.) She never told her children to stay away from drugs, or lay off booze. They just did.

"Drugs and crime were over me, under me, around me but they weren't in me," he says. "Why? Because I loved and respected my mother. I wasn't afraid to go to jail, I wasn't afraid of fighting. But if I did something wrong or bad, that would hurt her. And I couldn't do that."

Rivera and Essl were hoping that Mr. T had heard about their Orchard Street doll show, or perhaps had heard about their Web site, MrTandMe.com, an exhaustive chronicle of their devotion.

He had not. It's almost as if the real Mr. T cannot comprehend this jibber-jabber, the glorified status some have assigned him.

But he's brought along a pair of bobblehead dolls, which he autographs: "To Greg" on one and "To Mike" on the other, plus the date, and the words "Be cool." Mr. T is a religious man and he considers the public his ministry, but most people, he says, think of him as a guy who beats up people, and "I'm never sure my message is getting heard."

Today, he sounds sure. The bobbleheads are probably as close to a sign of approval that this father figure has to offer, and for Rivera and Essl, it will have to do.

Family T

Which raises a question: What do Essl and Rivera's actual fathers think of this Mr. T thing? "He thinks it's funny, but he doesn't really get it," says Rivera. There are a few hundred dolls at his parents' place in Florida; his mother, he recently learned, rotates them, giving different ones better placement week to week. "It's like she's curating a little doll show in their bedroom," he says with a laugh.

Essl Sr. finds Mike's affection for Mr. T amusing. The whole surrogate-father angle is something he's never really considered. Reached by phone Tuesday at his home in Houston, Mike "Crabby" Essl is candid about the hard-living days that so alienated his two sons and led them to swear off drugs.

He remembers the pace of his partying skyrocketed when he turned 30. Getting older freaked him out. "I just got out of control," he says. "It felt like the world ended when I turned 30."

After splitting with his wife in 1984, he saw less of the kids. Then there was a crisis: Crabby's own father died, and that startled him even more than turning 30.

Mike Jr. remembers his father hitting bottom, hard enough that he worried the guy was going to die. "I decided that I'd rather never see my dad again than see him drunk," Mike says. So he issued an ultimatum that went something like this: Quit drinking or you will never see me. Ever. Crabby Essl quit.

"Drunk on a motorcycle is no way to go through life," he says, words that could be vintage Mr. T. "I wanted my kids to get back to knowing the real me." Crabby's decision to go "clean and sober," as he puts it, came 15 years ago. In part, it was his sons' no-drugs pact that inspired him.

A weird role reversal, when you think about it. Usually it's the dad that sets the example, and the children -- after bitter experience -- follow. But maybe the only thing worse than not having a father is not having a son. And after a certain age, television is no place to hunt for an imaginary family.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company