Actor/comedian Martin Lawrence started the 21st century off with a bang, starring and executive producing Big Momma's House, the story of an FBI agent posing as a corpulent Southern matriarch, which went on to gross more than 100 million dollars, despite universally negative reviews. The success of this film pushed Lawrence ever closer to joining the much-coveted 20-million-dollar club, cementing his reputation as one of the biggest comic stars for years to come.
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Lawrence was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 16, 1965, and eventually settled with his family in suburban Maryland around his sixth birthday. Soon after, his father left the family; Lawrence claims he got his start as a comedian by cheering up his mother, who was forced to support her six children by cashiering in various department stores. He attended Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Landover, MD, dabbling in sports and sticking with comedy, even agreeing to stop acting up in an art class in return for performing his stand-up routine in front of the other students.
Soon after graduating, the bug-eyed performer earned a chance to perform on Star Search, which led to a role in 1985's What's Happening Now! Lawrence kept honing his frenetic schtick and by 1989, won two big breaks -- a supporting role in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and MCing HBO's Def Comedy Jam. Lawrence continued to rack up scene-stealing roles throughout the early '90s, including parts in House Party, House Party 2, and Boomerang, eventually landing his own series on Fox in 1992, appropriately named Martin. The show became a huge success, its risqué humor making it a ratings stalwart for more than five years and winning two NAACP Image Awards in the process, although some detractors criticized Lawrence for promoting the image of an oversexed, insensitive black man.
Two years after Martin's successful launch, Lawrence released You So Crazy!, a raunchy, vulgarity-laced comedy that originally received the NC-17 rating and was later released unrated. Its crudeness, however, didn't matter much to audiences, as You So Crazy! went on to become one of the highest-grossing concert films of its time.
Lawrence appeared to have it all, professionally and privately; in 1995 he married former beauty queen Patricia Southall in a lavish ceremony and the pair had a daughter, Jasmine. Around this time, however, Lawrence's success story began to slip away, his off-camera behavior setting up what should someday be a fascinating E! True Hollywood Story.
On the set of his directorial debut, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Lawrence erupted in a violent outburst and began taking psychotropic drugs. A few months later, he was arrested for another disturbance, where he reportedly brandished a pistol and screamed at tourists and others on Ventura Boulevard. Over the next two years, his behavior became even more erratic as he racked up a series of gun-related arrests. He landed in drug rehab and filed for divorce from Southall after she got a temporary restraining order against him for yet another vicious eruption.
But the most bizarre and unsettling charges were yet to come. Tisha Campbell, Lawrence's co-star on Martin and the House Party films, filed suit against the star and the show's producers, HBO Studios, claiming Lawrence sexually harassed her to the point that she feared for her safety. The studio brokered a settlement that allowed Campbell to finish the show's final season, although she and Lawrence would never be on the soundstage together again.
Despite all the trauma, Lawrence seemed as popular as ever. He starred in four hugely commercial successes between 1995 and 1999, including Bad Boys with Will Smith, Nothing to Lose with Tim Robbins, Life with Eddie Murphy, and on his own in Blue Streak. These films made Lawrence extremely bankable -- his salary broke the ten-million-dollar mark for Big Momma's House and it seemed as if his previous troubles were behind him.
Then in 1999, while jogging to lose an extra few pounds before filming began on Big Momma's House, Lawrence collapsed into a severe coma due to heat exhaustion, delaying the production's start and firing up the old rumors of drug use and unpredictable behavior. But after recuperating, Lawrence said the coma scare put him back on the straight and narrow.
His career trajectory certainly supported this -- after the success of Big Momma's House, he reportedly earned 13 million dollars for What's the Worst That Could Happen? with Danny DeVito. He earned upwards of 16.5 million dollars for Black Knight, which featured Lawrence as a down-on-his-luck employee of a theme restaurant who finds himself transported back to medieval times. Lawrence's next film appearance, Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat, once again found the popular but controversial funnyman taking to the stage, though this time in a far more personal bid to humorize the sometimes startling headlines that had left many fans fearing for both his health and sanity. Seemingly purged of his current demns and eager to settle back into a lucrative film career, Lawrence took to the screen opposite Steve Zahn for the high-speed action comedy National Secuity (2003) before gearing up for the sequel to Bad Boys. After a relatively quiet 2004, Lawrence attempted to broaden his appeal by playing a basketball coach in the family-oriented comedy Rebound. In 2006 Lawrence performed in his first animated film, Open Season, opposite Ashton Kutcher, and released the sequel to one of his biggest comedy hits Big Momma's House 2. That same year he filmed the biker road comedy Wild Hogs alongside Tim Allen and John Travolta. ~ Stephanie M. Kuenn, Rovi