By Dennis Tuttle
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 1, 2006
As Terry Crews navigates through Hollywood traffic with a cell phone in one ear and his struggles to stardom still buzzing in the other, the accidental actor keeps his focus on the road ahead without reflecting on his discouraging days as an office clerk, floor-sweeper, security guard, jilted artist and journeyman pro-football player.
"I look at my wife almost every day and say, 'Can you believe this?'" said the former Washington Redskin and one of the stars of Chris Rock's hit UPN comedy "Everybody Hates Chris."
The show portrays the Brooklyn upbringing of a 13-year-old Chris (played by Tyler James Williams), the oldest of three children, who lives in a tough neighborhood in the early 1980s.
As the second half of the show's freshman season opens this month, Crews, who plays burly, hard-working father Julius, also begins a new year in which he has become a highly in-demand talent and a sudden success story.
"I've done a lot of crap in my career [to make ends meet], just like a lot of people have," he said, "and all those experiences taught me to continue moving on."
Acting was never in the plan for Crews, who played for several NFL teams from 1991-1997. He had aimed for work in storyboarding and special effects, with an eye toward directing. But he had to take various jobs -- just like his TV character -- to sustain his family.
"I was never a superstar player. I never made a lot of money. I had enough savings for the first six months out here before it was gone and done," said the father of four daughters and a son. "I had to do various odd jobs. It was bad, man. My wife asked how long we were going to give this before deciding it wasn't going to work out. I said, 'We are never leaving. If I'm 90 years old and it hits, it will be worth it.'"
Crews, who attended Interlochen Arts Academy and Western Michigan University, played for the Redskins in 1995 and produced a children's book with one of his best friends, fellow linebacker Ken Harvey. Crews and Harvey seldom go more than a few days without talking. On several occasions in those dark times in Los Angeles Harvey would ask, "'Are you okay? . . . Want me to send you a little something in the mail?'" Crews said.
"You get to know certain people, and you hope to do right by them," Harvey said. "Terry is one of those guys that, if he borrowed from you, he called the next day and said, 'Thanks.' I am the ultimate believer in people, and if anybody could do this, I believed in him."
Crews once was sweeping floors at a factory when an onlooker said, "You don't look like you belong here. You look like somebody."
"That's when your soul is purified," Crews said.
But an enormous, unexpected break was forthcoming. At 6-foot-3 and 245 well-sculpted pounds, Crews landed a job as a security guard on the set of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "End of Days." Famed makeup artist Jeff Dawn mistook Crews for an actor.
"You ought to try acting," Dawn said. "You've got a great look. You need to try."
Others agreed. Inspiration, advice and guidance soon came, on location after location, from people such as Schwar-zenegger, Ice Cube and Keenen Ivory Wayans.
"When I was on the sets working security, I was watching and learning. It was like being in film school for free," Crews said.
He landed a stint on the syndicated "Battle Dome" game show, which led to roles in Schwarzenegger's "The 6th Day," followed by "Serving Sara," "Friday After Next," "White Chicks," "Starsky & Hutch," "Soul Plane" and "Baadasssss!" among a few others. Those appearances led to a prominent role in "The Longest Yard," which starred Rock. And that led to a starring part in "Everybody Hates Chris."
"Chris is always tweaking the scripts, working on the jokes, coming onto the set to suggest something to make things a little funnier." Crews said. "He came up to me the other day and said, 'Man, the show is good, all right. But I want to make it great!' "
As a confessed fan of Chris Rock, Crews said he "didn't know what to think" about the edgy comedian writing a family sitcom.
"Funny thing is, he surprised everyone," Crews said. "Chris has a style of comedy everyone can enjoy."
Crews said Rock has the show planned to last no more than six seasons, when the final episode, the final act, closes with an 18-year-old Chris stepping through the doors for his first comedy club gig.
"Everybody thinks Chris was this cool kid, but he wasn't," Crews said. "So the show will never hit his 'cool' stage. It will never be about his comedy career. It will stop when it's supposed to stop.
"I trust Chris when he says he's not afraid to stop it at its height, just like he did with his HBO talk show," Crews said. "All of a sudden, he had nothing more to say, and on to the next thing."
"Chris" has helped form Crews's future, too. He's got three movies on tap in 2006, as well as plans for writing and directing. Crews, a gifted graphic artist who has sold lithographs to NFL stars, also has been preparing for his own art show.
"You think all of this would have happened if I wasn't famous now?" he wondered.
Probably not, so Rock pokes constant fun at Crews about his nonstop work ethic and underlying fear that all this good fortune might end any minute now.
"Man," Rock said, "don't you have a movie to do somewhere, like 'Madagascar 2' or something?"
EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS