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The Tragedy of the Comic

Martin Lawrence Is Torn. Under the Easygoing Star a Troubled Actor Has Emerged.

By Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
June 24, 1997

Sometimes Petitioner is himself and sometimes he is not. I can never be sure. -- From a statement by his ex-wife requesting a restraining order against Martin Lawrence

LOS ANGELES -- There are two people at war inside comedian Martin Lawrence.

One is a wiry, raunch-minded, fast-talking, off-kilter smartass, a little guy with a big mouth and a keen eye for a weak spot. A guy who nonetheless wouldn't hurt a fly, say those who know him.

The other is a ranting, incoherent menace. A gun-wielding madman. A basket case.

The two are locked in battle inside a man who a few years ago was commonly referred to in the national press as "the next Eddie Murphy" or, alternately, "the next Richard Pryor."

It's still unclear which Martin Lawrence will prevail. One has a bright Hollywood career with a movie coming out next month. The other appears to need professional help, is unable to control his rage among friends or strangers. Which is the real one? Impossible to say. Only one thing seems clear: They cannot both survive.

Melodramatic, you say? Hollywoodian? Well, possibly. Certainly it wouldn't be the first time that overnight success, easy fame and untold riches destroyed a perfectly tolerable Hollywood talent. The Rise and Fall of -- take your pick: James Dean, Roman Polanski, Richard Pryor, River Phoenix -- is by now a well-worn morality tale whose lesson seems never to be learned by those who need it most. Money. Drugs. Women. Cars. Fans. Too much too soon.

Hollywood doesn't care: There'll always be another Martin Lawrence. Worse yet is that Lawrence may not even belong in this category. But it is hard not to wonder about him after the recent, much-publicized events that have plagued the actor, who rose to stardom from the comedy clubs of Washington.

In May 1996 Lawrence was detained by police after being found wandering in the middle of a busy L.A. intersection, mucus smeared across his face, raving, "Fight the power!" with a loaded handgun in his pocket. Three months later he was arrested at Burbank Airport for trying to board a plane to Phoenix while carrying a loaded 9mm Beretta. He told police he thought guns were allowed on interstate flights. No charges were filed in either case. Then last October, a month after he filed for divorce from Patricia Lawrence, his wife of 20 months, she won a restraining order against him after, among other things, she told a judge that he threatened to kill her and her family.

Matters have gone downhill from there. In January Lawrence's TV co-star, Tisha Campbell, filed a suit alleging a pattern of sexual harassment and battery, which he denied. In March Lawrence was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery for having allegedly punched a Los Angeles man in the face twice after they bumped each other at a dance club. A pretrial hearing is set for June 30; Lawrence's lawyers entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment. His divorce recently finalized, Lawrence still faces a battle with his ex over custody of their infant, Jasmin, child support, a prenuptial agreement that she now contests and her demand for living expenses.

But, in the meantime, there is this other life. The 32-year-old actor has made a movie, shot the final season of "Martin," his sitcom, and appeared in comedy clubs. True, colleagues and acquaintances say that he looks unwell -- painfully thin and sleep-deprived. But they also vouch for Lawrence as a kind, hard-working, sensitive soul who's going through something they don't really understand.

They say that the Martin Lawrence they know is nothing like the Martin Lawrence suggested by the headlines.

"He's one of the sweetest guys you ever want to meet," says Topper Carew, a former manager of Lawrence's. "I basically and fundamentally believe he's a good person."

"I know him as a person. I know the guy's heart is deep and genuine," says Scott Day, the talent coordinator at the Comedy Store, a stand-up venue where Lawrence occasionally performs. "When I heard these things, it was very out of character for me. To be quite honest, he's always been a true gentleman."

"He shows up to meetings on time. He seems fine. Normal. Professional," says Barry Josephson, a producer who signed Lawrence to a $20 million, three-movie development deal at Columbia Pictures. "We have a script that we'll be showing Martin soon."

No Comment
But then there are days like the one in May of last year, when Lawrence was busy shooting "Nothing to Lose," a Disney comedy co-starring Tim Robbins that -- studio officials report -- is "testing through the roof." Robbins plays an uptight advertising executive who cracks when he learns that his wife is sleeping with his boss; Lawrence plays a small-time crook who tries to carjack him. They befriend each other and take off for Arizona.

But that day on the set Lawrence was having trouble remembering his lines. An assistant called his then-wife to say the actor "was laughing hysterically over nothing and was unable to stop," according to a declaration she filed to the divorce court. Director Steve Oedekerk ("Ace Ventura, Pet Detective") says he sent Lawrence home, but the actor did not show up there until 5 a.m., according to the declaration. He was up again at 8 or 9 a.m., rambling on about wanting to wash the car. He went to the carwash, a gun in his pocket, and wandered out into a Sherman Oaks intersection, screaming and yelling at no one in particular.

A witness, Aaron Berg, told a local TV station that Lawrence was shouting, "Fight the power! Don't give up!" Said Berg, "He was like a madman . . . and I was like -- `That's Martin Lawrence!' "

Police subdued the comedian and sent him to Cedars-Sinai hospital, where a doctor announced that Lawrence was "suffering from exhaustion and dehydration."

A hospital spokesman later said, "Mr. Lawrence was suffering from a seizure as a result of his failure to take prescribed medication." The spokesman did not specify what medication.

The next day Lawrence's doctor, William Young, who did a toxicology report, said drugs were not the cause of the incident, the actor was not on prescribed medication and he had not had a seizure.

After two days of rest, Lawrence went back to the set as if nothing had happened. "The day he came back, he did a scene when he's out on a balcony -- it's his most brilliant work in the movie," says Oedekerk, who admits to being mystified.

"When I hear these things, it just jolts me," he says. " . . . It's like another person. You say `yikes.' It really doesn't mesh with what I know of Martin Lawrence. I've only seen the guy as polite, easy to communicate with. But I'm not dumb. I realize that other stuff is going on there, but I'm not privy to any of that."

Apparently few people are. And no one from Lawrence's entourage, including his sister, brother, several childhood friends who now work for him, lawyers, business manager, publicist and agent, wants to talk about it.

"We're not commenting right now. We're not doing any interviews," says Joe Sutton, Lawrence's publicist, clearly uncomfortable with this non-response. The comedian is scheduled to do interviews this month -- but not with print media -- at an event organized for the scheduled July 11 release of "Nothing to Lose." This means interviews will be no longer than five minutes each and are unlikely to touch on personal issues. Lawrence recently taped a segment for the show of old pal Rosie O'Donnell, but producers confirm she asked him no personal questions. Sutton promises that Lawrence will speak to print reporters after the movie opens.

(After weeks of canceling appointments, the actor finally met with a studio-hired writer in May for a promotional interview for the press kit, according to a non-studio publicist. His people crossed off three-quarters of the questions on the list; Lawrence said next to nothing and the frustrated interviewer left in tears.)

Oedekerk says he's not worried that Lawrence's escapades will hurt the film. "I toss that up to the luck of the draw," he says, "but I don't think it will matter. Whether it helps or hurts the movie -- I'm happy with either. I think a lot of comedians get a certain mystique by being the bad boy."

Back to Family Values?
"My mother . . . said, 'No matter what, try to find a way to respect the woman.' When you see the `Martin' show and . . . all the crazy things I do for her [Campbell], it's to show you can be cool and at the same time respect your woman, who will hopefully become your wife, who will hopefully become the mother of your kids. America needs to get back to family values." -- Martin Lawrence in Us magazine, April 1994

Sound and Fury
What is wrong with Martin Lawrence? Patricia Lawrence writes in court papers that her ex-husband smokes marijuana every day and that he occasionally drinks -- but these are not the sort of drugs that generally send people off into delusional rants. There are, she says, "bouts of irrational speech." There was the time in July 1995, according to her statement and news stories, when Lawrence went off incoherently on the set of his show, screaming and cursing and refusing to be restrained. He was admitted to Cedars-Sinai and was later found wandering the streets in his pajamas, muttering about going to a surprise party for himself at the Hard Rock Cafe. There was a night in July 1996 when he drove his Ferrari along Benedict Canyon, swerving off the edge of the road, terrifying his wife, who was in the car. In mid-September, she alleges, he woke her in the middle of the night, picked a fight and then shoved her, hard.

After things soured in the Lawrence household that fall, Patricia moved into the Universal City Hilton. In late November, she says in the divorce filings, Lawrence called and said, "You'll pay for what you've done to my family." The next day he allegedly called and said: "I'm going to have to kill you. . . . I'm going to have to kill your family." The following day he called to apologize. Three days after that she received an unsigned note, stating: "I will do anything to have you back. I miss my baby so much!!! Both of you please come home!" And then: "If I can't have you then I will make sure that no one has you. So come home now!! If you don't, then I will have to do what I have to do." It was signed, "I love you to the death."

In divorce court, Lawrence's lawyers did not file a response to her allegations.

Then there's Tisha Campbell's lawsuit, the substance of which Lawrence denied in a statement saying he was "being used as a pawn" in a contract dispute between the actress and HBO. In the complaint, the actress describes an escalating cycle of mistreatment and obsession, starting innocuously in the show's first season when Lawrence, then single, would ask her for dates, but turning unpleasant in the second season, when he became "increasingly manic and volatile," according to the suit, threatening to fire cast and crew members for no apparent reason.

The fits of fury increased in the third season, and in the fourth year, Campbell alleges, Lawrence groped her, forced his tongue into her mouth and simulated intercourse with her on the set in front of the cast and crew. By this past season, Campbell said, he was so out of control that in November she walked off the show, "terrified and concerned for her safety." She returned to complete the show's last two episodes after reaching a settlement, which was kept secret by both sides. She won the assurance that she would have no scenes with Lawrence, a tall order for the hour-long conclusion of a five-year run.

What does Lawrence's mercurial behavior indicate? This much we know, from his ex-wife's declaration: Since July 1995 Lawrence has undergone psychiatric treatment and taken "psychotropic medication," which may be anything from a tranquilizer to lithium. He has had a full-time, live-in nurse since May 1996, she said.

Psychiatric testing last September found "impairment in his thought processes," evidence of paranoia and lack of rational perspective, again according to Patricia Lawrence's statement filed with the court. "It was clear to both of us," she says of herself and her ex-husband's psychiatrist, John Altman, "that Petitioner [Lawrence] is suffering from mental conditions that interfere with his day to day functioning."

One leading psychiatric expert also says Lawrence's symptoms suggest illness rather than addiction, though she noted that she has not examined him. "It's highly unlikely that drugs alone would account for such severe behavior. It sounds like mental illness," says Lori Altshuler, director of the mood disorders research division at UCLA Medical Center. "Marijuana smoking is not usually associated with psychotic thinking, and certainly people who have manias often drink to try to quell their problem with racing thoughts and an inability to sleep."

There are similarities, she says, between Lawrence's irrational episodes and the symptoms of bipolar disorder, or what's commonly called manic-depression. The illness often shows up in a person's twenties. "People fluctuate in their mood, from a high, where they feel tremendous energy, have little need for sleep, often have increased productivity, increased sexuality. It sometimes progresses to irritability, to grandiose delusions and paranoia. If left untreated a person can become increasingly psychotic, and lose touch with reality."

'Porker's' Revenge

Lawrence was born in New York, and his family moved to Landover, Md., when he was 3. His father was an Air Force sergeant who left the family when Martin was 8; his mother raised six children working as a cashier. The impoverished family remained close-knit. In 1993 Lawrence told an interviewer, "We grew to know the meaning of love. That is what allowed me and my family to stay close together."

A chubby kid, Martin -- nicknamed "Porker" -- used to practice comedy routines on street corners and, after graduating from Greenbelt's Eleanor Roosevelt High School, started to perform on the Washington club circuit -- the Comedy Cafe, the Comedy Connection. Fate struck: He was noticed by a scout for the TV talent show "Star Search" in 1987, propelling him to Hollywood, where he got a part in a show called "What's Happening Now!" But the momentum quickly fizzled; the show was canceled after 14 episodes.

He worked the clubs, finally hitting his stride in 1992 with his in-your-face hosting of HBO's "Def Comedy Jam," a showcase of young comic talent. He built his name on a routine filled with unrestrained and -- to many -- offensive scatological and sexual jokes and was criticized by Bill Cosby, among others, for projecting a gutter image of black men. Lawrence reveled in the controversy. In 1992 he began his Fox sitcom, playing a Detroit deejay in an innuendo-filled relationship with Campbell. In the interim he has had a hit concert film, "You So Crazy," and a hit action-comedy, "Bad Boys," co-starring Will Smith, and has directed his first feature, "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate," in which he also starred.

But if the pressures of fame were getting to Lawrence, it didn't show in public, at least not until last year. He hired his family members and hometown friends, buying them houses and cars as he grew increasingly wealthy. He met former Miss Virginia Patricia Southall in 1992 and married her in January 1995; they soon had a child. Friends of Lawrence's whisper vindictively that Patricia is a gold-digger out for the comedian's money and contacts. She is contesting a prenuptial agreement and demanding $50,000 a month to maintain the lifestyle to which she's become accustomed.

But Patricia Lawrence says she still loves her ex-husband and left him only because she feared for the safety of herself and her child. She says she fervently hopes he gets help. "I do not think that [divorce] was something she wanted, no," says her lawyer, Suzanne Harris. "It doesn't mean she doesn't love him. . . . But he wasn't doing these crazy things when they met."

What, Me Worry?
It may be that Martin Lawrence doesn't think he has a problem. He may believe that things are under control, that the negative publicity will pass if he just ignores it. He has not showed up at any of the court hearings related to his alleged behavior and failed to attend the proceedings of his own divorce. A successful movie right about now might be one way to refocus attention from all this nasty stuff. But it will do nothing to erase any problems. His sitcom is finished and there are no films in the works, despite producer Josephson's promise of an upcoming script. But for the moment, at least, he still has friends in Hollywood. "I'd work with him in a second," says Oedekerk. "He comes from a place where he may not go through life behaving as everyone else, but he genuinely is a nice guy."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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