Despite the phenomenon of many young actors struggling for years to break into Hollywood -- driving taxicabs and waiting tables until determination, persistence, and raw ability reel in a breakthrough -- a select few stumble into acting and celebrity by sheer happenstance. Malik Yoba epitomizes this idea. While working in a field with virtually no connection to the entertainment industry, Yoba decided, simply for fun, to attend a casting call session for a forthcoming Disney comedy called Cool Runnings. When his phone rang one month later, that single call changed Yoba's life forever.
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Born September 17, 1967, in New York City, Yoba came of age in the crime-ridden ghettoes of the Bronx and Harlem -- so crime-ridden and dangerous, in fact, that he found it impossible to escape the reach of violence. He fell into the path of a bullet at age 15, which hit him in the neck but (fortunately) did not inflict permanent injury or disability. A self-described "misunderstood child," Yoba empathized deeply, as a young man, with troubled inner-city youth, and regarded many as the victims of widely held racial and social misperceptions. Yoba thus opted to devote himself to volunteering, and later (in his early twenties) to full-time counseling, with endless exhaustive hours spent in NYC youth organizations. His specialties and passions in this role included teaching music and acting to school-age children and adolescents, and he would often organize teenagers around a specific cause, to pass on the flame of activism -- encouraging them to mount their own grass-roots social activism. These years found Yoba paying fervent and frequent visits to such institutions as secondary schools, homeless shelters, and penitentiaries.
The open casting call for Cool Runnings arrived in late 1991, and Yoba reportedly only sought it out on a lighthearted note, at a friend's request. By all accounts, he auditioned and then promptly forgot about it, only to be astonished one month later by the studio's callback and invitation to co-star in the picture alongside John Candy, Leon, and Doug E. Doug. Released in October 1993, the comedy stars Candy as the out-of-shape Olympic gold medalist Irv Blitzer, recruited by a bunch of happy-go-lucky Jamaicans to coach their bobsledding team in the 1988 Olympic Games; Yoba played irascible and cantankerous team member Yul Brenner. Critics responded coolly to the film (many attacking it as yet another in a seemingly endless string of formula sports pictures), but audiences disagreed, and Cool Runnings shot up to break the 68-million-dollar mark at the domestic box office.
Yoba then landed one of the two highly coveted lead roles in the first season of the Fox series drama New York Undercover. Something of an ethnic update of ABC's controversial smash hit NYPD Blue (which had premiered exactly one year earlier), the gritty program co-starred Yoba and Michael de Lorenzo as, respectively, J.C. Williams and his partner, the Puerto Rican detective Eddie Torres, assigned to the Harlem beat and juggling personal difficulties (including extramarital parenthood, the ups and downs of "playing the field," and family members with substance-abuse problems) with routine drug busts and criminal pursuits. Critics heavily lauded the series for its intense, take-no-prisoners realism, high-voltage street slang, and careful reliance on hip contemporary music (via a slew of pop and R&B guest stars who turned up, one per week, for a live musical performance at the end of each episode).
New York Undercover lasted four seasons and wrapped in late June 1998; in the meantime, a brief supporting role as cigar-store patron named The Skunk in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's beautifully wrought and understated slice-of-life drama Smoke (released stateside in the late summer of 1995) reunited Yoba with occasional Undercover co-star Giancarlo Esposito. A turn in Wang's improvisational follow-up (and semi-sequel), Blue in the Face, ensued that fall.
At around the same time, Yoba returned to activism with full force, helming a series of interactive lectures for troubled urban youth called "Why Are You on This Planet?" The program combined exercises in reading, writing, art, music, and visualization to teach children self-empowerment and the wisdom of solid decision-making. "Why Are You on This Planet?" qualified as an instant, triumphant success and continued seemingly without end; in the meantime, Yoba perpetuated his dramatic efforts as well, with contributions to innumerable motion pictures. He essayed a pair of small, impressive performances in two very different 1997 indie dramas -- first as Detective Carson in James Mangold's all-star New Jersey policier CopLand (1997), then as a studio engineer in George Tillman Jr.'s ensemble comedy drama Soul Food, alongside Vivica A. Fox and Vanessa L. Williams.
These options suggested that Yoba had an inherent strategy of signing for parts in small, finely wrought low-budget pictures outside of the Hollywood mainstream. Nevertheless, several of Yoba's project choices during the late '90s and early 2000s (though in keeping with this trend) brought the him decidedly mixed success and thus challenged the "foolproof wisdom" of this strategy. The films Oh Happy Day (2004), Kids in America (2005), and They're Just My Friends (2006), for instance, scarcely made a splash with critics or the public, and thus did little to advance Yoba's career. On the small screen, the stock-market series drama Bull (2000), co-starring Yoba and Donald Moffat, appeared and disappeared almost instantly. Yoba fared far better with his second billing in an acclaimed 2006 crime series, Thief; he plays Elmo, a member of master thief Andre Braugher's safecracking team. Thief premiered on the FX network in March 2006 to excellent ratings. In 2007 he appeared in the TV Series Raines, and also starred in Tyler Perry's Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? He appeared in that film's sequel three years later and also tried his hand at small-screen success again in the show's Defying Gravity and Alphas. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi