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Television Tue Mar 04 2014
Comedian Robin Harris.
Comedian Robin Harris made you laugh -- uproariously -- whenever he touched a microphone. His unapologetic "blue collar" comedic style, comprised of an effortless and expert blend of "signifying" and anecdotes, turned him into a household name.
Harris, a native of Chicago's South Side, put in major work in comedy clubs across the country, eventually landing in L.A.'s famed Comedy Store; however, it wasn't until 1985 when he became the house emcee for the Comedy Act Theater that people really began to take notice.
And boy, did they take notice.
Harris took over the comedy scene in the late '80s and along the way, caught the eye of Hollywood heavyweights -- Reginald Hudlin, Spike Lee, Eddie Murphy and Keenen Ivory Wayans -- and landed parts in hit films like Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Harlem Nights and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.
However, it was director, writer and producer Hudlin's 1990 hip hop comedy House Party that helped to solidify Harris as a bankable star; his starring role as "Pop," opposite Christopher "Kid" Reid, still stands as his most memorable role.
But Robin Harris's spotlight suddenly became dim: On March 18, 1990, after performing stand-up at Chicago's The New Regal Theater the night before, he was found dead in his room at the Four Seasons Hotel. He was only 36.
It is Harris's death which occurred during his meteoric rise to superstardom that is the subject of "Unsung: Hollywood," the TV One docuseries that features entertainers whose careers, for various reasons, have gone unrecognized in the industry.
I spoke with Hudlin (Django Unchained, "The Bernie Mac Show," Boomerang), who discussed the late comedian, how it was on the set of House Party, comparisons to another late Chicago comedian, and why the entertainment world should never forget Robin Harris.
You are a native Illinoisan, as was Robin Harris. Is that how you became acquainted and eventually worked with him?
We met in Los Angeles and I was casting House Party. Robin Harris was the guy -- everybody was talking about Robin. He really didn't have a lot of movie experience. He had a small part in Do the Right Thing and we knew he was shooting Harlem Nights with Eddie Murphy at the time. We had been warned that he didn't articulate clearly enough and that casting him was gonna be a bad idea. And we felt, "Oh now, we gotta cast him; basically, if you're saying his speech pattern is too black to be understood, then that's the blackest we're looking for."
You cast him as Pop in House Party; going in, what was that time like?
Robin had us meet him at the Comedy Act Theater where he was performing. He said that our name would be at the door. We're standing at the door and of course, our name was not at the door. So he pulled up in this Mustang with "Bebes Kids" on the license plate and he told the guy at the door, "These are the 'Hoodlin' Brothers -- they're with me!" So we get in and we see him perform and it's extraordinary, of course. And he's hilarious. We said, "Oh God, we gotta work with him," and so we cast him in the film. Everyday working with Robin was a joy. That's all I can say.
House Party, of course, was incredibly successful; and while the "party" was indeed the star of the movie, there is no denying that when it came to the lines, the "Robin Harris-isms" were also a contributing factor to the film's success. Did he improvise any of that?
Oh yeah. And every time we did a take, he'd create a different joke. It was really challenging because he just coming up with so many fantastic ideas -- he was just so funny. But the biggest challenge was when we were shooting, we actually had to keep a straight face because Robin would be so funny. Everyone would break character and just bust out laughing. There were even some takes where the camera man would laugh and the camera would shake. Robin would just waste film. He would ruin everything because he was so doggone funny.
In addition to working with you, Robin Harris also worked with Eddie Murphy, Spike Lee, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend -- which was obviously a testament to his talent and star power. What made him stand out?
Robin was the kind of comedian that you just couldn't believe still existed. He could be a contemporary of Redd Foxx and Pigmeat Markham -- he was just that kind of classic comic. And the fact that he was with us in our era, was sort of like we discovered gold. Why wouldn't you want to work with him? He was just so brilliant.
A couple of years go by and you've begun to lay down the work for Bebe's Kids when all of sudden, Robin Harris passes away. Could you take us back to that moment when you learned of his death and how you continued on with the project?
We figured that the next movie would be Bebe's Kids. We were gonna do it as a live action film with Robin as the star and have a bunch of kids and so on. We were making plans, doing the deal, developing the idea for the script and all that and we got the phone call from Spike Lee and he said that Robin had passed. We were told that he died in his sleep and that he had performed that night. Basically, you hear that and then your head spins. It just didn't make any sense.
Did you did have plans to work on more projects with him?
Yes! I wanted to work with Robin on everything! Why wouldn't you have someone who is as brilliant as Robin, whether it was movies or TV? We wanted to work with Robin forever. He was just a pleasure to work with. He was easygoing, smart and adventurous -- he just had so much. That's why when he passed, we said we'd make Bebe's Kids an animated movie; that way, it can serve as a tribute to him because he died too soon. We wanted people to remember him and his body of work. Then we found out that Faizon Love, who is [now] a comedy star in his own right, could do a perfect "Robin Harris," so we said, "We got it -- let's go."
You have close ties to another native Chicago comedian, the late Bernie Mac, who was also a friend of Robin Harris. Did he ever talk to you about him?
[Years] later, spending time with Bernie Mac one day back in Chicago, he told me that he was in fact with Robin on his last night and how that affected him. To lose Bernie shortly after that conversation was just so haunting because they both had that raw Chicago humor that I love so much. When you lose people like that, you never 100 percent recover. You can be working on an idea or a project and you realize who would be perfect in casting it, and you say, "Oh right -- that's not an option." And you then realize that there is just no one else...
In comparing the two comedians, some fans of comedy have opined that Robin Harris was "Bernie Mac" before Bernie Mac was "Bernie Mac" -- what are your thoughts?
Yeah, people say that, but here's the thing: That night when I talked to Bernie about Robin, I heard Bernie "do" Robin. And when you hear Bernie do Robin perfectly, you realize how different they are. Now are they comedic bluesmen? Yes they are. So the same way you can listen to Lightnin' Hopkins and Bobby Blue Bland and say, "Yes, they sound similar," obviously, the same is true for Robin and Bernie.
If Robin Harris were still alive, what do you think his place would be now in the world of comedy and entertainment?
He'd be a giant star. He'd be a movie star and a TV star. What you see happening with Kevin Hart right now, with movies and TV shows, that would be Robin Harris. He would've had that [kind of] impact almost immediately.
Robin Harris's death amid his rise in show business will be featured in this week's episode of TV One's "Unsung: Hollywood." What are your thoughts?
Well, I know the producers of "Unsung"; I hired them to do the "American Gangsters" series when I was at BET. But I know that for Robin, there were so many people who wanted to talk about him. There is an amazing line-up of stars like Dave Chappelle and everybody who want to testify on behalf of Robin, which is great. I love that series. I love that they remember folks like Robin who left us too soon. That's the point of this and that's a beautiful and wonderful thing.
Catch the Robin Harris episode of "Unsung: Hollywood" Wednesday, March 5 at 9pm on TV One.