Jul 24, 2020
 in 
Entertainment

The Unlikely Rise of Tommy Davidson

 BY 
Genevieve Montague
T

ommy Davidson was a familiar figure on TV and movie screens in the 1990s. Perhaps best known for his pioneering work on the In Living Color series alongside the Wayans brothers, Jamie Foxx, and Jim Carey, Davidson also appeared in several popular Hollywood movies during this period.

His work output has dried up a little in recent years, but Davidson is still working hard today, 30 years after In Living Color made him a star. His biography is a fascinating one that is sure to inspire any up and coming actor or comedian looking to leave their own mark.

A tough start

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Tommy Davidson was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, in 1963. Life certainly didn’t start out easy for Tommy when he was abandoned by his birth mother when only 18 months old.

Not only was Tommy abandoned by his biological mother, but his tiny body was left dumped in a pile of trash. If not for the fortuitous passing of the person who would go on to become his real mother, Tommy would almost certainly have perished in the garbage.

While no doubt a traumatic episode that would leave a mark on his life forever, his abandonment by his birth mother was also the incident that saw his future opportunities in life become a lot more hopeful. After being rescued from certain death and then taken in by a white civil rights worker, Barbara Davidson, Tommy left behind the uncertain, chaotic life that would have surely been his fate if his biological mother had not left him such a young age.

Tommy’s guardian angel, Barbara Davidson, would become the only mother Tommy ever knew. And Tommy was brought up as an integral part of her family with two white siblings, Michael and Beryle.

Tommy’s integration into the Davidson family defined the rest of his life for the better. Still, Tommy has spoken about how growing up in an interracial family also presented its own problems. The racism and sense of being out of place was something that Tommy experienced from both black and white people:

“THERE WOULD BE SITUATIONS THAT WOULD POP UP WHERE I’D BE OUT WITH BLACK PEOPLE, AND THEY WOULD SEE MY SISTER, AND THEY WOULD LOOK AT ME DIFFERENT. AND THERE WOULD BE SITUATIONS WHERE I WOULD BE AROUND WHITES, AND I COULD FEEL THE RACISM IN THE AIR; WALKING TO A RESTAURANT OR TO A PARTY, I COULD SEE THEIR EXPRESSIONS CHANGE.”Tommy Davidson

Understanding the complex dynamics of the outside world was something that Tommy had to deal with quite early on. One clear thing, however, was that Tommy had talent, even as a youngster.

As Barbara Davidson once said:

“I ALWAYS FELT HE HAD IT IN HIM.”Barbara Davidson, Tommy’s Mother

A budding star

Some years ago, Tommy’s mother, Barbara, gave an interview to the Washington Post where she spoke of how precocious Tommy was as a child. And it was at a mere 7 years old when Tommy’s desire to perform first really stood out for Barbara during a “Rockin Robin” performance at a local recreation center:

“THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO SHARE THE MIKE. TOMMY WOULDN’T GIVE IT UP. I WOULD THINK A LITTLE KID WOULD GET SCARED. BUT THE MORE THEY YELLED, THE BETTER HE GOT.”Barbara Davidson

Despite his apparent yearnings to be a performer and the center of the attention, Tommy was a good student, and he graduated from the Bethesda-Chevy High School in 1982.

Tommy himself has admitted that he was not the world’s smartest student. Still, he was serious enough about his education to briefly attend the University of the District of Columbia. This attempt at gaining his degree was short-lived, as Tommy himself explains:

“I DIDN’T HAVE A WHOLE LOT OF DISCIPLINE INSIDE. I REALLY HAD A HARD TIME RETAINING ALL THE INFORMATION.”Tommy Davidson

Clearly not best suited to the demands needed of a college student, it was around this time that Tommy got his first big break in the career that was indeed his life’s calling.

Its setting may have been a bit of an innocuous one. Still, everybody has to start out somewhere, especially in those now seemingly ancient times before the whole world was connected by the internet.

An interesting big break

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A strip club is not the most glamorous venue for your big break, but this is where Tommy first met his public. And this was not just any strip club in some middle of nowhere town, this was a strip club in Washington DC.

Perhaps in some obscure connection to his problems with school work, Tommy decided to hit the strip club’s stage without having any material prepared. Despite this, and the fact that the strip club crowd was a tough one, Tommy’s first public performance was a big success:

“I JUST WINGED IT AND GOT THROUGH, AND IT ACTUALLY SOUNDED GOOD. AND I SAID, ‘WOW, MAYBE THIS IS WHAT I SHOULD BE DOING.'”Tommy Davidson

Tommy sounded so good that the club manager offered him a job for the rest of the month. At this time, Tommy decided to keep his future success in the family by bringing on his brother as his manager.

Tommy didn’t play in the strip club for too long. His talent was evident for everyone to see, and he was soon performing his stand-up show at parties and talent shows all over the country. It also wasn’t long before his ability came to be officially recognized.

In 1987, Tommy performed at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Not only did he perform, but he won its prestigious amateur competition. Not only did he win the competition, but he kept on winning it.

Clearly, it was time for things to level up.

Hitting the big time

Tommy’s success in Harlem encouraged him to move to Los Angeles, but everything was not all plain sailing from there. Tommy could find plenty of gigs. These were great for exposure, but they did not cover the bills.

To make ends meet, Tommy took work as a garnish chef. Unphased by having to take on a real job to achieve his dream, Tommy even looked on the bright side of this slight bump in the road:

“I WAS GETTING CLOSE TO BEING AN ARTIST AT IT, BUT AT LEAST I KNOW HOW TO MAKE A PLATE LOOK PRETTY IF I HAVE A LADY FRIEND OVER FOR DINNER.”Tommy Davidson

Perfecting his garnishing skills were not something that Tommy needed to worry about for too long. He was finally given a chance to play at the mythical Comedy Store in Los Angeles. It was here where he met famous director, comedian, and actor, Robert Townsend.

Townsend was so impressed by Tommy’s show that he invited him to be the warm-up guy for an HBO special.

This show at the Comedy Store was the major turning point in Tommy’s career. As Tommy himself explained:

“THAT WAS A BIG BREAK. THAT WAS THE FIRST NIGHT I GOT THE ATTENTION OF PEOPLE IN THE INDUSTRY.”Tommy Davidson

And Tommy did not let his big opportunity fall through his fingers. Within a few months, Tommy had secured an agent and had graduated from the small clubs to opening up for major stars, such as Patt LaBelle, Kenny G, Luther Vandross, and Anita Baker.

Tommy was ready for his close up!

In Living Color

Tommy Davidson and Jamie Foxx — Source

In Living Color was the show that made Tommy Davidson a household name. It featured a talented group of artists who would go on to have amazing careers. The Wayans brothers, Jamie Foxx, Jim Carey, and Jennifer Lopez were all brought to a broader audience by their roles on In Living Color.

Tommy stood out on the more than one hundred episodes that he was featured on thanks to his hilarious impressions of some of the biggest stars of the day. Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, Stevie Wonder, and Sugar Ray Leonard were just some of the stars that Tommy pulled a wicked impression of during his time on the show.

Tommy’s fame grew bigger than merely being a part of the In Living Color team. In 1990, he got his own comedy special, Tommy Davidson: Takin’ It to D.C and followed that up with another special this time called Tommy Davidson: Illin’ in Philly.

Tommy’s star was at its highest point during this period. He also appeared in a movie opposite Halle Berry called Strictly Business.

Unfortunately, In Living Color was canceled in 1993, but Tommy continued to make waves in the industry. He appeared alongside his now A-List collaborator from In Living Color, Jim Carey, in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. And he also got a lead role in a Fox show called Between Brothers.

The following years of Tommy’s career in movies seemed to be characterized by Tommy being lauded for his work, but the movies themselves were getting criticized for their poor scripts or plots. One particular review from the LA Times perhaps sums this up the best about the 1997 movie, Booty Call:

“FOUR VERY TALENTED PEOPLE TRAPPED IN THE SCRIPT FROM HELL.”The LA Times

On a personal level, Tommy also encountered some of the negative lifestyle distractions that so many succumb to in Hollywood. Clearly, not something that helped him get the movies or shows that his talent deserved during this period.

The Second Act

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Tommy never stopped working over the years. He is now still a respected figure on the Hollywood scene, an elder statesman who has put his flirtation with the dark days behind him. A man who is now focused on producing a new body of work.

In fact, on a recent appearance on The View, Tommy teased an In Living Color reboot, 30 years after the gang was first on-screen together.

Tommy had this to say of the show’s cast which includes Jim Carrey, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Lopez: “

IT’S POSSIBLE BECAUSE WE’RE OUT HERE. WE’RE ALL LOVING OUR CAREERS. ALL OF US HAVE BEEN HERE 30 YEARS OR MORE DOING OUR THING. WE’VE HAD OUR CHUNK OF SUCCESS AND WE WOULD LOVE TO WORK TOGETHER. WE’D LOVE TO GET IN ON THAT.”Tommy Davidson

Aside from the potential In Living Color reboot, Tommy continues to seek out movie and TV roles. And it was recently announced that the beloved animated series, The Proud Family, of which Tommy is an integral part, will be coming back 18 years after its launch on the new Disney + channel.

And of course, some things will never change. The medium which launched it all in the first place is still one that is close to Tommy’s heart. When not in LA, Tommy can often be found getting up on the stage again to deliver his hilarious stand-up routine.

The little baby who was abandoned in the garbage all those moons has come a long way, and there is a significant part of this story still to be told.