For Eddie Griffin, life is good - again

After heart attack, movies, stand-up keep actor ticking

Film

April 20, 2003|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARK CITY, Utah - Eddie Griffin's near good riddance to television happened suddenly. Which could not have been soon enough, except for the searing pain in his chest and shortness of breath. At age 28, Griffin was having a heart attack. Make that had a heart attack. He was dead.

Griffin would have done anything to leave Malcolm & Eddie, a by-the-numbers sitcom about two guys and a bar. Anything. Except dying. He was smoking three packs a day and inhaling fried chicken and pork-sauteed collard greens. All it took was a salsa-dancing scene. His heart ceased beating for 58 seconds. "They hit me with the jumper cables," Griffin says.

"You only live once but in my case, twice. I'm indestructible."

At least the hereafter could have severed his ties with the mortal sitcom world forever. Griffin spent 4 1/2 years on Malcolm & Eddie, which left the air in 2000.

"You know what TV is?" he asks. "It's 22 minutes of selling soap."

Griffin, sporting a beard, black leather coat and relaxed vibe at the recent Sundance Film Festival, says he could be 103 and soiling himself, and television would still be just a paycheck. Much of what else he says is unprintable. Much of it is funny. He lights up a cigarette. "I'm smoking a lot less," he assures.

Griffin, 34, has his stand-up and movie career rolling now. His DysFunktional Family, now in theaters, mixes cinema verite offstage with family and his stage act. And Griffin's My Baby's Mama is coming out soon. He plays one of three friends whose significant other is pregnant.

Rat Pack is calling

Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, in which he plays Rob Schneider's pimp, heralded his screen presence. His secret agent working against The Man in Undercover Brother confirmed it. Now Griffin has his sights on a career-defining performance. He hesitates talking about it but can't resist.

What Muhammad Ali did for Will Smith, playing Sammy Davis Jr. could do for Griffin. He jumps into an impersonation of the late Rat Pack star that elicits goose bumps. "I was telling Frank about it the other day," he says in full Davis. "He's a happening cat."

Griffin can even mimic Davis' glass eye with a droop of his eyelid. In a pitch to secure the rights, he performed his Davis routine for the entertainer's widow, Altovise, backstage in Las Vegas. He says she was blown away.

"He IS Sammy Davis," says David Permut, the producer of DysFunktional and the man expected to get the Davis biography off the ground. "For me, Sammy's story is a great story because he's the American dream. Eddie's story is the American dream. He's the kid who made it out of the ghetto. He was saying jokes instead of using drugs."

DysFunktional Family spotlights Griffin colliding with his background when he returns to his hometown of Kansas City for a one-night performance. One uncle is a porn connoisseur - both as an amateur actor and filmmaker. Another uncle is a gold-toothed former junkie and pimp, but was Griffin's inspiration to try stand-up. His mother reluctantly admits to beating him and chasing him down the city streets.

`Storytelling is lost art'

Skin and bones and attitude in a sweat suit, Griffin commands the stage. A lot of his humor magnifies the racial divide.

"It's still a black-and-white world," he says. "We have this smokescreen going that this is one big happy place."

Griffin hates being asked what separates him from other black comedians, because white comedians are never asked that.

"I'm one of the greatest storytellers ever," he says. "I take it to the core of old-time comedy '80s style, which is really kind of '60s, '70s style with Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. To sit down and tell a story and make all the characters come to life. Now it's all one hit and quit. Storytelling is a lost art. Mine is more one-man theater. That's what makes me stand out."

Griffin's preparation is pain- staking but a bit more by the seat of the pants than most. He'll show up unannounced at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. "It's just a dark room with a microphone," he says. "It drives you into yourself 'cause the only audience you see is the front row with the lights in your face. So, whatever sickness is in there comes out. For two-three hours, I just rattle then replay it at home. I've never actually sat down and written a joke."

He never tailors his act to points between New York and Los Angeles, either. Says Griffin: "It's like Hollywood is saying, will Middle America get it? I'm from Middle America. I get it."

Griffin married the first woman he slept with at age 16, and divorced a year later. He recently married Rochelle Lyn, the mother of their year-old daughter Alexa. Griffin pulls out a photo of her. "Tell me I don't make good ones," says Griffin, who has five children.

Life is good for Griffin. His ticker is ticking. And television is just a blotch on his resume.

"I have a lot of life experiences I have yet to tap into," he says.

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