A middle-aged Mr. T still as good as gold

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In these troubling times of terror and man's increasing inhumanity to man, we need Mr. T now more than ever. He reminds us, in his distinctive rough-hewn street style, that making the world a better place all really comes down to a few things: don't lie, cheat or steal, be respectful of your fellow man, don't do drugs, don't join a gang, stay in school -- and love your mother.

The same old Mr. T, right? Well, yes and no. He's 54 now and a cancer survivor. And while the bluster and the off-kilter Mohawk hair style remain, his trademark 50 pounds of flashy gold chains do not. He now wears a coat and tie and, as he stood before a group of critics gathered for the Television Critics Assn. press tour event in Pasadena in mid-July, T looked positively dapper.

What happened to the neck jewelry whose value exceeded the GNP of many nations?

"I stopped wearing the gold as of last year during Katrina," he told the assemblage. "See, as a spiritual man, I felt it would be a sin against my God to keep wearing all of that gold. I saw all of these celebrities going to New Orleans and doing photo ops. It was disgusting. Those people didn't have nothin'. So the gold is in my heart now."

Mr. T (born Laurence Tureaud) was working the room over the summer like the secular preacher he is, promoting his new inspirational "reali-T" series "I Pity the Fool" that premieres tomorrow night at 10 on TV Land. You might think of "Fool" as Dr. Phil-Meets-Tony Robbins-Meets-Dog Chapman.

Whatever it was that the T-Man was selling, the critics were lapping it up. He had this cynical bunch eating from his oversized palm, which is quite a trick for a dude long dismissed as more sight-gag than human being. The years have helped transform the onetime star of "The A-Team" into a genuine icon of courtesy and clean living who has walked the walk long enough to deserve America's ear.

I have mounds of respect for this man because his message has scarcely wavered over the better part of a quarter-century. He was born the poorest of the poor in the Chicago projects and made something of himself despite the lack of any formal education.

I'd far sooner follow the motivational teachings of Mr. T than I would someone with a foundation to support or a church to fund. He shoots straight, pulls no punches, asks for no money and has no interest in peddling anything apart from his example.

"I ain't no Dr. Phil," assures Mr. T. "I go out there to the people -- to the barrio, to the ghetto, to the farms. I tell the kids that just because they grew up on welfare don't mean they can't make it. They can. I did, and I ain't nothin' special. I grew up in the ghetto, but the ghetto didn't grow up in me because I loved and listened to my mother."

It sounds so quaint, this idea that if you listen to your mom everything will turn out OK. But Mr. T seems to understand that a large part of the problem in America is the family disconnect, this dysfunction borne of soaking up the street instead of looking to parents for guidance.

Suffice it to say society would be a far more decent and hospitable place if more kids (and adults, for that matter) subscribed to the gospel according to the T-Man. The irony is that such a live-action cartoon character should ultimately emerge as a singular voice of reason and sage wisdom. Be that as it may, let us launch the campaign right here and now: Mr. T for President in '08.
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