Q: How do you navigate the unlikely path from the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” to Arena Stage in 2013?
A: Through Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
Bedrock decency and easy likability were the hallmarks of John Prentice, Sidney Poitier’s character in the famous film about a white girl (Katharine Houghton) bringing her black fiancé home to her San Francisco liberal parents (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn). Warner absorbed some of the classic Poitier traits at Bill Cosby’s knee as he played Cosby’s son, Theo, from 1984 to 1992 on one of the most popular and respected sitcoms in television history.
He sticks by that image, even if, sitting in a glass-walled atrium at Arena one recent afternoon, he looks like one cool L.A. dude. Black slacks and a sleek black long-sleeve tee are accessorized with a spiffy black ball cap and a heavy silver necklace. The mustache is a dapper touch.
But when the 43-year-old refers to his 1980s TV dad, it’s unfailingly “Mr. Cosby.” It has been that way since he was 15, figuring something out during a sprawling holiday party at the Cosbys’ house.
“I realized that out of all of these kids, I was the only one calling him ‘Bill,’ and calling Ms. Cosby ‘Camille,’ ” Warner says. “No one said anything to me. It just didn’t feel right.”
This is the courteous voice of the actor who is the face of the latest “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” — a project that has been making its way toward the stage since the middle of the past decade. Director Kenny Leon was long attached to the show, which in 2007 was announced as “Broadway-aimed.” It was being produced by Jeffrey Finn, who had recently routed the revival of “On Golden Pond” (starring James Earl Jones) to New York via the Kennedy Center.
Last year, Leon directed Todd Kreidler’s adaptation of William Rose’s screenplay in Atlanta, and was on course to direct at Arena until a TV opportunity came up. David Esbjornson has taken charge, and he says that Kreidler is largely faithful. “Guess” is still set in 1967, yet Esbjornson thinks the play will come across as “slightly rougher than the movie.”
“It was extraordinary just to do it, and get it on through the Hollywood system,” he says of the picture. “It was more polite, with an upper-class gentility to a lot of it. And of course they got the heavy-hitters to play the characters, which went a long way to selling the subject.”
After a week of rehearsals, Esbjornson, director of “Red Hot Patriot” last year at Arena, is finding Warner to be warm, serious and “a strong presence.” “This will be different portrayal from Sidney Poitier’s, for sure,” the director says by phone.
“I’ve got a little more freedom,” Warner suggests, pausing a long time before diving into what it means to try on a Poitier role. “We don’t have to be as careful. We can really deal with the weight of the issue at hand here. The wit and the humor are still there, but we’re not playing the comedy.”
If Poitier casts a long shadow, so does the culturally durable title (notwithstanding such problems as giving Tracy’s white father figure the long-winded last word). Warner recently mentioned that he was doing something called “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” to a friend at home in Los Angeles.
“This guy knows nothing about the business at all,” Warner reports. “And he says, ‘Must be a black man.’ ”
Whether this adaptation is Broadway-worthy is anyone’s guess. Esbjornson laughs that that’s always the distracting chatter, and an Arena spokesperson says no outside producers are attached. Warner unabashedly says he’d love for it to move. He also says, “Theater is my favorite platform.”
Actors say that a lot.
“Television is my favorite paycheck,” Warner clarifies.
He’s indelibly linked to the small screen, of course. “Cosby” was followed by four years of “Malcolm and Eddie” with comedian Eddie Griffin in the 1990s, and most recently Warner starred in BET’s “Reed Between the Lines” (not renewed this season). But he’s not entirely a stranger to the stage, having done a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in San Diego and his one-man jazz-funk and spoken word show “Love and Other Social Issues,” among other things.
“You get more than a week to work on a character, and work on a character with other people,” Warner says. “You get to work things out on the floor, feel each other. Do the dance. You get some of that doing a sitcom — or I should say, doing a sitcom in front of a live audience.”
He was exposed to the arts early enough that he recalls being 6 or 7 years old and telling his parents he was going to be a famous actor, poet or basketball player. His folks split when he was 3; Warner was born in Jersey City but moved to L.A. with his mother after the divorce, spending summers in Chicago with his dad.
“My mother and father have been like brother and sister my whole life. I don’t ever remember them together. But they always had a close friendship. And it’s had a significant impact on my relationships, during and after,” says Warner, who is single after a breakup last spring. “I am the product of two people who can still have a relationship beyond being in a relationship.”
He found his way on stage doing community theater in L.A. as a kid, where his mother looked for things to keep her only child occupied. He was 9, and the curtain call was a gas. Soon enough, an agent was sniffing around.
“Agents come to community theaters to try to sign kids,” he says of Los Angeles.
Very quickly, he was busy, working on industrials, stage productions, “Matt Houston.” By 12, he remembers, “I’m in school, and I’m like, dude: I’m all right!” But in eighth grade, he got no offers, despite auditioning like mad.
The word he uses now is “humbling.”
“No one ever had this conversation with me,” he says, “but I remember having this thought: ‘Wow, as quickly as it can come, it can go.’ And at 13 years old, it immediately chilled me out. I kind of got it. At 13, I don’t think the word ‘humility’ was necessarily in my vocabulary. But that was my experience.”
And then came “Cosby.” Looking back, how was it? You actually have to censor the bombshell word Malcolm-Jamal Warner uses in front of “awesome!” to describe it.
“It was the ’80s, I was a teenager on the Number One show in the world, I was living in New York,” he says, and there’s nothing laid back about him now. He radiates.
But he also tempers it. Warner had his head on his shoulders, never gravitated toward “knuckleheads,” and took the cues about where he was.
“I understood that I was not only a reflection of my parents, but also of Mr. Cosby, and everything that show stood for,” he says. “So there were certain boundaries that I was aware of.”
A grin spreads across Warner’s face. “But within the confines of those boundaries, I did everything I could that was legal, and that was underneath the radar just enough, that I was able to stay out of trouble.” No deets, even now: “We’ll just let that ride.”
Professionally, he kept his eyes open, learned from his mother to manage his money sensibly, and thought long term about his career.
“I watched Mr. Cosby make that show happen for eight years,” Warner says. “All the stereotypical things you don’t see on ‘Cosby’ wasn’t always because the writers weren’t writing them. It was because Mr. Cosby was like, ‘No, that’s not the show we’re doing.’ So I saw how that worked.”
He also saw how rare that was as he tried to bring that sensibility to “Malcolm and Eddie” on UPN.
“My experience was, ‘Well, I’m not Bill Cosby, and ‘Malcolm and Eddie’ does not have record-breaking numbers to give me Bill Cosby clout.’ It was like having gone from the top university to suddenly being in junior college. It was uncomfortable the whole time.”
That’s when he took up bass, which led to his jazz-funk group, Miles Long, which he fronts with his spoken-word compositions. (You can catch some of his smoldering romantic grooves on YouTube.) He has made guest appearances on Angie Stone’s “Rich Girl” and on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s current “Black Radio 2.” His own CDs are “Miles Long Mixtape” (2002) and “Love and Other Social Issues” (2007). Don’t look for him to get too raw.
Warner has another CD in the works, but he still seems tethered to TV. He has his eye on pilot season when “Guess” wraps up. And he has noticed that his residuals from TV directing are a little better than those he gets through the acting union.
Yes, Malcolm-Jamal Warner still has to work. But he’s secure enough to be choosy.
“I have a grind, but it’s a comfortable grind,” he says. “My hustle is a comfortable hustle.”
The “Cosby” ties still bind; he recently bumped into Lisa Bonet at a Gary Clark Jr. concert. He and Tempestt Bledsoe yakked in the vitamin aisle of an L.A. Whole Foods for 40 minutes. He talked with Phylicia Rashad about “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” because last summer she was in the show in Atlanta. Several members of that cast are performing at Arena, but not Rashad.
He reflects soberly on a few artist friends who recently threw in the towel. “They literally had to stop because they had to get nine-to-fives,” Warner says. “So as hard as it can be on the soul at times, there’s still the gratitude that you’re an artist. And for me, specifically — I’m not a starving artist.”
By Todd Kreidler, adapted from the screenplay by William Rose. Nov. 29-Jan. 5 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.