“Do you know me? Of course you do. That’s because I’m famous!”
Be Somebody… Or Be Somebody’s Fool is an educational video from 1984 in which Mr. T—bouncer turned fighter turned actor turned pop-culture icon—provides kids with a series of life lessons. It was directed by Jeff Margolis, best known as a prolific director of awards shows; over the years, Margolis has won an Emmy and two DGA Awards for directing the Academy Awards, which is a nifty fact to have on hand if you ever find yourself trying to make the case that Hollywood can be, at times, just a tad insular and self-congratulatory.
This is a fascinating cultural artifact. Despite being almost an hour long (and currently only available via muddy VHS copies that various kind souls have uploaded to YouTube), Be Somebody… Or Be Somebody’s Fool is compulsively watchable, mostly due to the goofball charisma of its star. Mr. T expanded his fame by deftly exploiting the dichotomy between his outsized persona—his musclebound physique, his mohawk hairdo, his pounds of jewelry—and his sunny, softhearted nature; here, the latter serves him well.
The show is segmented into individual lessons on a number of topics, ranging from the prosaic (get plenty of exercise, resist peer pressure) to the less expected (learn how to rebound from public embarrassment, get in touch with your roots, express yourself through rapping and breakdancing). Let’s breeze through a few highlights:
Mr. T on Shyness:
A small child stammers and mutters her way through a commercial about shyness while the jackhole director berates her for, yep, being too shy. He angrily dismisses her from the set. Because I’m a cranky old adult, I can see the director’s point. Nobody should snap at kids, but seriously, if someone hires you to film a commercial, at a bare minimum you should be expected to deliver your lines loudly and clearly. His abuse sparks a fire in the shy kid: “I was asked to do this commercial about shyness, and I’m going to finish it!” she bellows at him before rattling off her lines like a pro and storming off the set, while Mr. T beams from the sidelines like a proud father. Well, good for her, I suppose. Most kids don’t need lessons in how to mouth off to adults, but for those who do, I’m glad Mr. T has their backs.
Mr. T on Roots:
Mr. T lectures a group of kids on the importance of knowing where you came from: “I was born in Chicago, and these boots I wear are the same boots my father used to wear, and they remind me of home. But long before that, my folks come from Africa, and they was from the Mandinka tribe, and they wore their hair like this.” He points to his signature mohawk. “And these gold chains I wear, they symbolize the fact that my ancestors were brought over here as slaves. You all have different roots!”
Boom! Drop the mic, exit stage left. When Mr. T talks about his roots, he talks about his roots. It’d sure be tough to follow his act, huh? One of the kids gamely tries, spilling out her own origin story: “I was born in L.A. And my dad was born here, too. But my dad’s dad wasn’t born here. He was born in Sacramento.” This is where Mr. T’s soft side comes out, because instead of scoffing and saying whatever the 1984 equivalent of “cool story, bro” was, he beams and nods and exclaims, “That’s what I’m saying!” Then the kids link arms and burst into a song about loving each other.
Look closely at that crowd of singing kids, because there are a couple of future stars in that batch. Like Martika here:
Yeah, that’s Marta Marrero, better known as the pop star Martika, who had a monster hit in 1989 with “Toy Soldiers.” And look at this wee blonde child:
That’s Stacy Ferguson, better known as Fergie, member of the Black-Eyed Peas and a platinum-selling solo artist. At this time, Fergie and Martika were starring together in the music-themed children’s show Kids Incorporated (a third costar, Jerry Sharell, is also singing his little heart out in this group of kids here, so obviously some weird Kids Incorporated/Be Somebody synergistic thing was going on). If Kids Incorporated has somehow never crossed your radar, and if you have a finely-honed appreciation of vintage eighties kitsch (which, if you’ve read this far, you almost certainly do), get thee to YouTube, posthaste. I’ll even link you to a video to jump-start your journey down the rabbit hole: Here are Martika and Fergie and their Kids Incorporated peers, cheerfully draining every hint of sex and menace and danger from Dead or Alive’s 1984 dance hit “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).”
Mr. T on Style:
Fashion tips from Mr. T! Excellent. He scoffs at designer labels: “Would Calvin Klein or Bill Blass or Gloria Vanderbilt wear clothes with your name on it? No! Of course not!” I was hoping he’d finish this up with “…because, unlike those aforementioned design legends, you’re just a dumb kid who hasn’t had years of training and experience in the fashion industry”, but no such luck. Instead, he veers in another direction: “So tape over the label, and wear your own name.” Well, that’s one approach. There’s a high-spirited fashion show in which kids model various eighties-appropriate (read: bizarre as all hell) getups. Mr. T describes model Martika as, “Our subway sweetheart, taking the A-train to fashion. With her mustard socks and ketchup sash, she’s a real hot dog!” And somewhere out there, Anna Wintour feels a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.
Mr. T on Peer Pressure:
Five kids scavenge an unopened can of Budweiser and a couple of cigarettes out of a trash can on the beach and begin to party. One kid refuses to participate in their lawless shenanigans and is resoundingly mocked.
In the background, Bobby Brown and the rest of New Edition sing a lively tune about avoiding peer pressure. Look, if Bobby Brown tells you to do something, even in song, it’s probably a good idea to do the opposite, just on general principle.
Mr. T on Recouping:
Mr. T, who is inexplicably dressed as a surgeon, gives a lesson on rebounding gracefully from humiliating situations. His example: If you make an embarrassing pratfall in public, turn it into an impromptu breakdancing routine. This is excellent advice, and I intend to follow it the very next time I fall on my ass on the subway stairs.
Mr. T on Creating:
More breakdancing! A cluster of talented kids flaunt their skills. A cute girl teaches Mr. T how to pop and lock. It’s actually very cool to see Mr. T taking a bold pro-breakdancing stance, since I remember most adults in 1984 being terribly worried we’d all break our necks and die from headspinning, as in that (totally false, obviously) urban legend about what happened to poor Alfonso Ribeiro while filming his Pepsi commercial with Michael Jackson.
Mr. T on Treating Your Mother Right:
As near as I can tell, this lesson boils down to this: Don’t tell “yo mama” jokes. Because, as Mr. T puts it, “When you put down one mother, you’re putting down mothers all over the world.” Then he raps for a while about the awesomeness of moms. You know who wrote his rap? Ice T. No, really, he did. I know it sounds like I’m trying to make some lame and belabored Mr. T/Ice T joke, but I’m dead serious: Ice T wrote this rap. Sample lyric: “T is for the time when she stayed up nights/And took my temperature when I wasn’t feeling right.” Outstanding.
Mr. T on Working Out:
Mr. T harasses a bunch of kids just patiently waiting at a city bus stop. He chides them for sitting around eating potato chips (…and waiting for their bus) when they could be getting some exercise instead. He waves away all their excuses: “You don’t need no fancy gym and pay all that money! This is a gym right here!” Then he teaches them how to clean and jerk a boombox.
This segues into a lengthy exercise montage. A rousing anthem about burning and getting wet plays in the background, which scandalized me for a moment, until I realized the lyrics were probably referring to fitness. My bad.
Mr. T on Rapping:
Mr. T raps to a bunch of kids: “Stop being so depressed, cheer up, don’t be sad/ ‘Cause they ain’t dropped the bomb, so it ain’t that bad.” Ah, yes, I remember the unique stresses of being a kid in Cold War-era America. Has anyone nuked you yet? No? Then stop complaining, you’re fine.
Mr. T on Friendship:
Actress Valerie Landsburg—Doris on TV’s Fame—walks barefoot on the beach while singing a very long song about friendship. Landsburg is a powerhouse singer (and Doris was always my favorite), but the song’s a drag. Check out her cover of Lionel Ritchie’s “Running With the Night” instead.
Mr. T on Storytelling:
Mr. T regales a bunch of kids with stories about his rough-and-tumble childhood on the gang-ridden streets of inner-city Chicago. It gradually becomes apparent he’s just rehashing the plot of Romeo and Juliet, and—twist!—the segment turns into a lesson about how reading is awesome. The kids don’t seem disappointed, but I am. Look, I’ve already read Romeo and Juliet. I want to hear more about the tough Chicago gangs!
And that’s pretty much it. Mr. T wraps it up with some closing comments, finishing with, “I’ll be there whenever you push the rewind button.” I’m counting on it, Mr. T.
Bonus video! Here’s a pretty brilliant 2013 Key & Peele sketch lampooning this video: