The hardest-working man in show business, circa 2014? We nominate Terry Crews. This year, the former NFL player continued to steal scenes in the latest chapter of The Expendables franchise, he made more bizarre commercials for Old Spice, and he anchored the extremely funny sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine as the muscular cinéaste Sergeant Terry Jeffords, a.k.a. the Ebony Falcon. (Season Two kicks off on September 28.) Oh, and in his spare time he’s the new host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. We caught up with Crews while he was on his way home from a Millionaire taping in Connecticut.
At what age did you become a physically imposing guy?
I’m not trying to be political, but as a young black teen, you’re instantly intimidating. I’ve seen little bitty five-foot black kids come into places, and people say “Oh my goodness.” I had big hands and big feet, and I was lanky, but I wasn’t really giant. But in my neighborhood, you were 12 or 13, you could go to jail with 19- or 20-year-old people. I came up in Flint, Michigan, during the crack epidemic, where there were young kids going to prison. And the same kid from across town in the white area was getting probation, for the same offense. I had to work out, because I had to fight my way into the school. I could not get beat up again. I started lifting weights when I was 14 years old, and I’ve been working out for 30 years straight.
What did you want to do with your life when you were 16?
I was an artist all the way: painting, illustration. I saw Star Wars in 1977 and it blew me away — I was really into sci-fi, and I thought I was going to be a special-effects artist. I used to get Fangoria magazine. I was going to go to the Detroit Center for Creative Studies, but I wanted to play football, because I knew I could get a full scholarship. So I went to Western Michigan University on an arts excellence scholarship. Very small, but it allowed me to walk onto the football team. I got my full scholarship, and went to college that way.
When I was playing football, me and my friend decided we were going to make a movie called Young Boys, Inc. We shot it all over Detroit during my offseason from the Washington Redskins. We got kicked out of locations, we ran out of money, the movie was horrible. But I said, This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Who was your most memorable NFL teammate?
My best friend to this day is a guy named Ken Harvey. He played with the Redskins, I was his backup, we’ve been friends forever. He was a superstar — I used to trail around with him and get free dinners. And now, he trails around me to get his free dinners.
Is there a secret to hosting a game show?
You have to know the game, but more importantly, you have to like people. My job as host is to make people relax, because it’s their first time on TV.
The first time you were on camera, were you comfortable right away?
Not at all. My first entry into entertainment was a game show called Battle Dome. It was American Gladiators on steroids, or Wipeout with more blood. We put people in the hospital. I played a character named T-Money: They put me in a cage, lit the ends on fire, put me in there with this guy, and I had to push him out before he did that to me. I think that show was the beginning of modern MMA. It was way ahead of its time; they cancelled us after three years, because it was way too violent.
How did that turn into an acting career?
I auditioned for a movie called The 6th Day with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first scene I had with Arnold, I choked. My mouth could not open. Something was wrong with the camera, so they didn’t even know. I pulled myself to the side: Dude, if you don’t do this, you’re going to end up doing security for the rest of your life. You’re never going to have this opportunity again. So I went back and I jumped in Arnold’s face. Now, every time Arnold sees me, he’s like, [in Schwarzenegger voice] “I’m so proud of you. You really have become a major star.”
Are there more egos in football or Hollywood?
Exactly the same. You have stars in both. A lot of times, people with great success — it doesn’t matter if you work for General Motors, or if you own a chain of dry cleaners — feel like they’re worth more than other people. And when you hit failure, you feel you’re worth less than other people…that’s what depression is. But the truth is you are priceless. So when you are successful, if you know everyone on earth is priceless, then you realize you’re just having a good day.
What usually happens if you’re a big black dude is that you get big black jokes.
How did Brooklyn Nine-Nine come about?
I actually had two other pilots coming at me real hard. We had some decisions to make. [Executive producers] Mike [Schur] and Dan [Goor] called me up and said, “Terry, we know you haven’t read a script yet, because we’re still working on it, but your character’s name is Terry. We hope you have a doppelganger, because whoever gets this part is going to be named Terry.” They were taking things out of my life. I told them how I enjoyed driving a minivan, that it was the perfect car for a family — they put that in the show. The fact that I was scared to get hurt when I was in the NFL because I was wondering how my kids were going to survive — they switched that around to the anxiety of police work. It was so cool; no one had ever done that. Brooklyn is the first show that gets me. What usually happens if you’re a big black dude is that you get big black jokes.
Who on the show is the least like their character?
That’s Stephanie Beatriz [who plays Detective Rosa Diaz]. The sweetest, most light-hearted, beautiful lady, and every week, she goes into this dark place.
When you played the father on Everybody Hates Chris, what did you learn from working with Chris Rock?
Chris is the most honest man in America. You can count on Chris to tell it like it is. Not everybody’s going to like it, but everybody’s going to respect it. I try to do that with my acting. I never play a character just for laughs. When Terry Jeffords says, “Don’t give candy to a baby, they can’t brush their teeth,” he’s not kidding. He is really giving you a fact right now. My earnestness is what people pick up on. One of my big breaks was in Friday After Next. I did a scene in a bathroom where I tried to take advantage of Katt Williams, and it was a comedy — but if you turned the sound down, it looked like The Deer Hunter. When I’m pitching Old Spice, you know it’s a commercial. I’m telling you it’s a commercial.
When they pitched you the Old Spice campaign, did you have any idea how weird it was going to be?
Yes. They sent me the art and they were really nervous. They had no idea I was just as twisted as they are. On the set, we actually came up with three more commercials on the spot. I’ve been given more moments than an actor is allowed. I look at The Expendables, the first one, where I save everybody, to White Chicks, the moment in the car with Marlon, to The Longest Yard, with the cheeseburgers…I just get moments, man! To me, it’s more important to have a moment than having a whole movie that nobody cares about.
What haven’t you done in your life that you’d like to do?
I’d love to do theater. I always see myself being Mufasa in The Lion King. I would love to play a superhero. My key to be as versatile as possible: I can do comedy and drama and action. I’m running out of things to do in entertainment, to be honest with you. Game shows, commercials, cartoons, movies, television, reality — I’ve done pretty much all you can do so far. I think claymation is my next move. Everything I do is so I can leave a legacy for my kids’ kids. If you ever wonder about what decision you should make, just ask your unborn grandkids. One wrong move, and those kids could be in the projects — that’s how I think.
The entertainment business is not for the squeamish. You laugh, you play, it’s all fun, but these people will rape and pillage you if they get the chance. They will burn your house down to smoking ashes, and the next awards show, they’ll have “In Memoriam: Terry Crews.” Everybody will clap as they pick through what’s left of your estate.