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From '80s catchphrase to '06 cable, Mr. T is back Wednesday night

Jonathan Storm [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

"Mr. T," my fellow critic asked sweetly. "Why do you pity the fool?"

Simple on its face, it's as complex and philosophically deep as "Why did that apple fall on my head?" or "Why do women wear those ridiculous shoes?"

"That is a good question," responded Mr. T, who has looked deeply into the reflecting pool of life and whose new show, which is actually named "I Pity the Fool," premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT on cable's TV Land.

"That is a good question, and a legitimate question. And I'm the man to answer it."

Clearly, Mr. T's knowledge overfloweth. But it seemed like he had never gotten the query before his little presentation to TV critics last summer, even though he has been pitying the fool since 1983, when "The A-Team" premiered.

It was one of his catchphrases, along with "You bettah watch out, suckah," on the cartoony "A-Team," about a bunch of rogue commandos who somehow managed to battle evil spectacularly while hiding from a government that wanted to imprison them. The show is perfect fodder for the nostalgic fields of TV Land, where June Cleaver is always 39 and the Jeffersons are forever moving on up to the East Side.

And Mr. T, who has magically been elevated to the status of "self-help guru," is a perfect choice to dispense advice entertainingly on the lighthearted cable network. Who would you rather listen to, the No. 1 Jibba Jabba Attacka or the blah blah blah of Dr. Phil?

"My show ain't no Dr. Phil, where people sit around crying, `What's wrong with me, Dr. Phil? What's wrong with me, Dr. Phil?' " said Mr. T.

"You are a fool! That's what's wrong with you. ... My show is the Dr. Phil on wheels."

"I ain't no shrink," says Mr. T, "but I don't shrink from no challenge, neither."

Watch the show five minutes, and you, too, will find it hard to stop talking like Mr. T.

But enough suspense. Why do you pity the fool?

"You pity the fool because you don't want to beat up a fool," Mr. T explained. "You know, pity is between sorry and mercy. See, if you pity him, you know, you won't have to beat him up."

This sort of incisive logic is the cornerstone of "I Pity the Fool." In Wednesday's premiere, Mr. T visits a dysfunctional New York City auto dealership.

"Sell unto others as you would have them sell unto you," Mr. T, a born-again Christian, advises. After long sessions with some of the colorful characters, he appears to have things running smoothly. But who knows, now that Mr. T has moved on, if Vince the Closer is back to his old hocus-pocus calculations, gouging every dime from customers?

I pity the fool who gives away the details, but the long-term outcome of another intervention is more clear-cut. The object of Mr. T's gentle ministrations is a sewage-plant worker who out-Archies Archie Bunker, spending every minute at home in his easy chair while wife and kids do all the work.

"The chair is my wife," this guy says. "It hugs me. It snuggles me." His human wife is not amused, though you, dear viewer, may be.

"The biggest room in the house is the room for improvement," Mr. T counsels.

His talk to the critics at their annual summer gathering in Los Angeles was equally poetic, focused, a la "Sesame Street," on one particular letter. Even a fool can guess what it was.

"I put the T in TV Land. ... For the women and children, it stands for tender. To the bad guys and thugs, it stands for tough. ...

"What helped me in my career? To be on time. That's it. That's what the T stand for, on time, baby, definitely. ... "

"T stands for being nice. T stands for manners. ... T stand for working hard. T stand for loving thy neighbor. You know, T stand for feeding the hungry, you know. T stand for just working, working, working, being happy on the set, you know, lifting everybody's spirits. T stand for just a nice guy."

Mr. T told the critics he finally put away his 35 pounds of gold chains after the sadness of Hurricane Katrina, that the gold is now in his heart. He has lost about 40 pounds since his tough-man days. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1995. It has been in remission for years, but he continues to take medication.

There is no Mrs. T. "I'm not married or nothing like that," said Mr. T, "because ... it's hard for me to find a woman that has the qualities of my mother. They always say, you know, `Just when you find a woman that cooks like your mother, she looks like your mother.' "

Now those may not sound like the words of a bona-fide self-help guru, but you sell him short at your own risk.

He was born Laurence Tureaud in 1952, second-to-last of 12 children, and had a hardscrabble upbringing on Chicago's South Side. In 1980, he changed his name legally.

"I wanted to be sure everybody called me Mister," said Mr. T.

___

© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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