Steve Harvey: 'Hollywood Is More Racist Than America'

Steve Harvey on the set of his talk show
Steve Harvey on the set of his talk show
 Tim Klein

The black talk show host, who has outlasted Jeff Probst and Ricki Lake, is gaining fast on Katie Couric and has managed to achieve the multicultural golden mean in audience. Could he be the next Oprah?

"Steve is a father figure in a way," says Lathan, who produced Harvey's WB sitcom. "He's somebody that you believe. Some comedians, you don't really take them seriously. But there's something about Steve that reminds me of people in my family; people who were wise, elders. He's got a real homespun credibility."

Harvey followed Act Like a Lady with 2010's Straight Talk, No Chaser: How to Find, Keep, and Understand a Man, which became another New York Times best-seller. "I never mention color in my books," says Harvey. "My show is not an African-American show." In fact, more than half of Harvey's daytime audience is white. "I'm not beating people over the head; I'm black, we black! And that's how I look at it," he continues. "I'm not going to let them put me in a box and pigeonhole me."

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Harvey grew up poor in Cleveland. His father, Jesse, worked manual jobs (construction in Cleveland, coal mines in West Virginia) and occasionally ran numbers for Don King. Harvey's father was devoted to his mother, Eloise, a homemaker and Sunday school teacher who never learned to drive and instilled in Harvey his faith. "She did not walk for anything," he notes. "My father took my mother everywhere: grocery store, beauty salon, church."

Asked whether he thinks the media is hostile to religion, Harvey says: "I don't think that they care for that to be your explanation. When they ask me, ‘Steve, how do you explain your success?’ And I tell them that it’s prayer. It’s like, ‘Well, I mean really, who’s your agent, who’s your manager?’ I don't think it's cool for people to say, 'You shouldn't reference God because I don't believe that, and I don't want to hear it.' Well, there's a lot of stuff I don't believe that I still gotta hear. I don't believe in the Ku Klux Klan, but they exist. I don't care for the Confederate flag at all. But they're on state buildings down South."

And it was partly his faith that gave him the fortitude to buck convention and pursue his dream to become a comedian. His grades at Kent State University -- where he admits he only went to avoid having a summer job working construction become his permanent job -- were awful. "But when I flunked out of college, I ended up working at Ford Motor Co. Now, I'm right back to where I wanted to get away from."

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Harvey's epiphany came Oct. 8, 1985, when he won $50 at an open-mic night at Hilarities Comedy Club in Cleveland. He was 27. The next day, he had 500 business cards printed up that read: Steve Harvey, Comedian and included his phone number. Then he went to work at the Ford plant, where he was making $13.75 an hour on the assembly line; after his shift, he put his belongings into a box and quit. His boss told him he wasn't funny. Recalls Harvey: "He said, 'Take that stuff in your box and put it back, and we'll forget this ever happened.' I said: 'I'm leaving. I'm going to go be a comedian. I'm going to be a star one day.' "

That day did not come right away. He crisscrossed Middle America in his car, taking any gig he was offered. He would duck into five-star hotels because bathrooms there offered hot towels and had stall doors that reached the floor so he could clean up in private. "I did three years of that. Every now and then, a comedy club gave me a condo or a hotel room for a few nights. But right after that, I'm back in that car."

All the while, his first wife, Marcia, was at home with their twin toddler daughters, Karli and Brandi. In the late '80s, as he was headed out on yet another drive, she gave him an ultimatum. "It was an 'if you leave, don't come back' kind of conversation," says Harvey, quietly. "I mean, how do you support a guy who comes in the house and says, 'I'm going to tell jokes?' " They eventually divorced in 1994. Today, his twins are 30. "And they're very well off because of their dad," he says. His vast business empire -- which includes best-selling books, movies (including backend profit participation on Think Like a Man), Family Feud (including a ratings bonus structure), a long-term deal with Clear Channel radio and an ownership stake in his daytime talk show -- is worth in excess of $40 million.

Adds Harvey, laughing, "Yeah, them jokes paid."

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That first open-mic night is long in the distance. Feud, which films during the summer months in Atlanta, where Harvey lives when he's not in Chicago taping his talk show, has been renewed through the 2014-15 season. On Jan. 10, Steve Harvey distributor NBCUniversal Domestic TV announced a second-season pickup for the talk show. Five days later, Clear Channel Media, which distributes Harvey's radio show, signed him to a new five-year deal that includes the international expansion of his radio program, development of new programming, a spokesperson role and charitable events. (Harvey and his third wife, Marjorie, whom he married in 2007, administer a charitable foundation that includes camps for boys growing up without fathers. They have seven children between them -- she has three, and he has four, including the twins and Steve Jr. with Marcia and Wynton with his second wife, Mary -- ranging in age from 15 to 30.)

As he sits backstage at Today, Harvey muses that he's going to "start getting rid of some jobs." He famously retired from the stand-up circuit in August but says he'd like to do the daytime show for 10 years, five more years on the radio, a few more on Feud. If he stops doing Feud, he reasons, he can have the summers off to travel with Marjorie. "We're going to go see a lot of places that we've never been able to see. Egypt. Israel. I want to see the Holy Land."

But not yet. The pull to entertain audiences is too strong. Comedy, he says, "is a gift that you have to be born with," he says. "There is no school for this. I mean, for me, not to be funny … it would be like I'm not breathing."

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