I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that the 1980s were a strange time in American pop culture. During this Greed is Good era of excess, people with a larger-than-life look or personality could make a name for themselves in even the most conservative households. A perfect example of this is the mohawk-sporting, gold chain-wearing, muscle-bound monster of a personality known as Mr. T.
Mr. T was born Laurence Tureaud on May 21, 1952. Laurence was the youngest of twelve kids raised by a single mother in a three-room apartment in Chicago’s Robert Taylor housing project. He was a natural-born athlete, excelling at wrestling, football, and martial arts, and even attended Prairie View A&M University in Texas on a football scholarship.
Right around the time he went to college, Laurence legally changed his last name from Tureaud to a simple T to distance himself from his absent father’s legacy. He used the formal moniker Mr. T as a way to force respect from those who would prefer to call black men like himself, “boy”.
Unfortunately, school didn’t work out for him and he joined the Army as a Military Policeman in 1975.
After his discharge in the late-1970s, T became a bouncer at the Dingbats Discotheque in Chicago, where he started developing his signature fashion style by wearing the jewelry left behind by patrons of the club. He also adopted a mohawk hairstyle, inspired by an article he read in National Geographic about the Mandinka warriors of West Africa.
He parlayed his bouncer job into a career as a bodyguard, protecting such high-profile clients as Steve McQueen, Michael Jackson, LeVar Burton, and Diana Ross. He was even the personal bodyguard for boxers like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Leon Spinks.
T was quite a boxer himself, winning a couple of matches during two episodes of the short-lived TV series, Games People Play, that ran on NBC from 1980 to 1981. This exposure got him noticed by Sylvestor Stallone, who cast T as Rocky’s competition, Clubber Lang, in Rocky III. T’s signature catchphrase, I pity the fool, was actually a line in the film.
After Rocky III and a few small TV roles, Mr. T was cast as BA Baracus on NBC’s The A-Team, which ran for 98 episodes between 1983 until 1987. On the show, BA was a tough guy, mechanical genius who was scared to fly on planes. While he would star in other movies, like DC Cab, appear on numerous TV shows, and even had his own music albums, The A-Team would define his career.
However, Mr. T was such a big personality, that no single TV role could contain him. By the mid-80s, T had become his own brand, licensing out his likeness for merchandise mainly aimed at kids.
Of course there were Mr. T shirts and coloring books, but there was also a Talking Mr. T doll and extra large plush rag dolls that kids could wrestle with.
Perhaps one of the strangest T tie-ins was a backyard water sprinkler called Mr. T’s Water War, where kids would stand on either side of the sprinkler and throw sponges at Mr. T’s head mounted on top. When they hit his head, the water would switch to the other side and spray those kids until they hit his head again and sent the spray back to the other side.
Mr. T had his own line of plastic jewelry so kids could dress up like him. And to further the Mr. T cosplay possibilities, he even had his own Ben Cooper Halloween costume, complete with plastic mask and plastic smock.
In 1984, he made a motivational video for kids called Be Somebody…or Be Somebody’s Fool. Featured in the video were multiple rap songs, all ghostwritten by none other than Ice T (no relation), that eventually led to a record release of one track, the now-infamous Treat Your Mother Right.
He also put out another album, Mr T’s Commandments, in 1984, filled with more lessons for kids and more rap songs by Ice T, including the title track.
And, of course, because the 80s, Mr. T had his own cartoon.
The cartoon, titled simply, Mister T, was produced by Ruby-Spears and aired on Saturday mornings on NBC for 30 episodes between 1983 and 1985. On the show, Mr. T is the coach of a multi-ethnic gymnastics team that travels around for competitions and just happens to solve mysteries while they’re at it, Scooby-Doo style. In fact, the show even had its own canine sidekick, Bulldozer, that sported a mohawk like Mr. T.
Each episode started with Mr. T introducing the story and ended with Mr. T reinforcing the moral of the story. Although the show ran for two years, it’s pretty much just a pop culture footnote at this point. Perhaps the most significant impact it had was the cartoon tie-in cereal, Mr. T, from Quaker Oats that was available from 1984 until 1993, well after the cartoon had gone off the air.
Aside from the cereal, there were a few other pieces of merchandise to promote the show, like lunchboxes, a board game, Shrinky Dinks, and four read-along record books put out by Starland Records in 1984.
The Starland record books were adaptations of episodes 1, 2, 3, and 8 of the first season of the show. However, unlike some other record books based on cartoons, these weren’t just the audio lifted from the cartoon and put to vinyl, but all new recordings with an abridged story, a different voice cast, and even a different intro from Mr. T.
As of right now, I only own three of the four records – The Mystery of the Golden Medallions, based on Episode 1 of the cartoon, The Mystery of the Forbidden Monastery, based on Episode 2, and The Mystery of the Mind Thieves, based on Episode 3. I’m missing The Dilemma of the Double-Edged Dagger, based on Episode 8.
For low-budget record books, these Mister T adventures aren’t too bad. The music is funky, the voice acting isn’t any worse than it was on the animated show, and it really is Mr. T playing himself on the record. The artwork ranges from perfectly fine to dollar store coloring book, but the animation on the cartoon was never all that great either. If nothing else, they’re a fun and fascinating time capsule of a very strange era in American pop culture.
Over on my podcast, When You Hear This Sound, I’ve released the audio of the first two record books, The Mystery of the Golden Medallions and The Mystery of the Forbidden Monastery, and will release the other two once I’ve gotten my hands on The Dilemma of the Double-Edged Dagger. If you’d like to listen and read along with the scanned-in books, head over to spacemonkeyx.net and check them out!