When Anthony Anderson was 9 years old, he saw his mother rehearsing for a production of A Raisin in the Sun at a community college in Compton. "I'll never forget," says the actor, now 46. "I was in the back of the theater with my two brothers. I just happened to look up onstage and say, 'That's what I want to do with the rest of my life.'" When I suggest that it must've been an inspiring performance to have left such an indelible mark, he corrects me: "She was horrible. She's a horrible actor."
In case he hadn't sufficiently articulated his mother's lack of ability, he continues, "Seriously. It's no lie. There's a reason you've never seen my mother in a stage production or on a television show or in a movie. There's a reason for that."
Actually, there's a decent chance you have seen Anderson's mother, Doris, on TV. She recently appeared in an episode of Anderson's hit ABC sitcom Black-ish and she serves as co-host and scorekeeper on the To Tell the Truth reboot Anderson hosts on the same network. She may suck at acting, but she's hilarious. When asked what her favorite part is about her recent brush with fame, she frequently says that it's her paycheck, which Anderson jokes serves to support her "bingo habit."
He can joke all he wants, but the story is much sweeter than that, which he reveals when I ask what it's been like to work with his mom, who was a telephone operator at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center for nearly 40 years. "It's been great. Entertainment is something my mother always wanted to do. She had to put that dream on hold, raising me as a single mother at one point. For me to be able to allow my mother to finally live out her dreams is truly a blessing."
Raised in Compton in the 1980s "at the height of crack cocaine, gang violence and all that" and a graduate of the Hollywood High arts magnet, Anderson has enjoyed a career that's consistently allowed him to develop both as an actor and as a TV persona. Besides a slew of movies, the sitcom — which he also executive produces and helped create — and the game show, he hosted the Food Network travel show Eating America With Anthony Anderson and currently hosts Animal Nation With Anthony Anderson, Animal Planet's take on a late-night talk show.
If the average American filmgoer wasn't familiar with Anderson at the outset of 2000, chances are that by the end of that year, they could at least pick him out of a lineup. He had supporting roles in Romeo Must Die, Me, Myself & Irene, Final Destination 2 and Big Momma's House (which, say what you will, was the 17th highest-grossing film of the year, outperforming Remember the Titans, The Patriot and Miss Congeniality). But while it was all happening, Anderson never recognized that he was breaking out. "I never thought about, 'Oh, this is my jump-off moment,' you know?" he says. "No, it just so happened that one opportunity got the next one. I was like, 'OK. Hopefully this keeps going.'"
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A more recent boon came when a manager arranged a meeting between him and television producer Kenya Barris, who'd co-created America's Next Top Model with Tyra Banks. "In talking to one another, we quickly threw business out the window and realized that we had more in common than we didn't," Anderson recalls. Barris is from Inglewood and Anderson's from Compton. They're both married, "first-generation successful" black men raising kids in predominantly white L.A. neighborhoods and sending them to elite private schools. "We're from the 'hood and still connected to the 'hood and want our children to have that connection, not only to the 'hood but to their identity," Anderson says. "[We both want them to know] who they are and where they come from in this homogenized world that we live in."
Black-ish was born of that conversation, and certain storylines have been borrowed directly from Anderson's life, for instance the time his then–13-year-old son came home from school and told him he wanted to have a bar mitzvah (that made it into the show's pilot episode). Anderson has two children. His 21-year-old daughter is studying sociology and African-American studies at the University of San Diego and wants to "write policy and change the world." "That's why I work so hard," Anderson says, alluding to the high cost of her tuition.
His 17-year-old son, however, wants to be an actor. In 30 years, when someone asks the younger Anderson how he got into acting, it's safe to say he'll have a more flattering anecdote to share.