“My character’s name is Andre Johnson; it may as well be Anthony Anderson,” says Anderson, a two-time Emmy nominee for his lead role on the show. “It’s not far from reality in terms of wanting to give my children better than what I had growing up on the streets of Compton as a kid, just like Andre’s trying to do for his kids. That’s me you see on the screen.”
Like Andre, Anderson, 46, refers to himself as a “first-generation success.” Born in 1970, he grew up in a California neighborhood dominated by gang violence and crime, but he escaped that world through acting. He attended a performing arts high school in Hollywood and earned a scholarship to Howard University, where he graduated with a degree in theater arts.
During the past 2 decades, Anderson has compiled a long list of credits in film and TV, both comedy and drama. He played Detective Kevin Bernard on the final three seasons of NBC’s Law & Order and, on the opposite side of the law, he portrayed Antwon Mitchell, a vicious drug lord, in a standout role on FX’s The Shield. He hosts the reboot of ABC’s To Tell the Truth. And he has appeared in more than 20 movies since his 1999 film debut, including Barbershop, ScaryMovie4, and The Departed.
Twice before, Anderson’s played a dad for laughs, first as a struggling actor and single father on the 2003 WB sitcom All About the Andersons, and then nearly 10 years later as a stay-at-home dad on NBC’s Guys with Kids. Both lasted only a season. Black-ish, on the other hand, proves that the third time’s a charm.
On the Emmy-nominated sitcom, which debuted in 2014 and is now in its third season, Anderson plays a successful advertising executive who grew up in Compton, California, and who’s now married to a doctor, played by Tracee Ellis Ross. The fictional couple and their kids live in an all-white neighborhood, where the show focuses on Andre’s efforts to maintain his and his family’s black identity in a world that’s very different from the one he knew in childhood. His own children’s experiences often inform the show’s story lines.
“Not only was my son the only chocolate drop in his class, he was the only chocolate drop in his grade for more than 3 years,” Anderson says of his son Nathan, now 16. “He saw what was going on in inner cities, in particular with young black men, and that wasn’t his experience. Because of that, he told me, ‘I don’t feel black.’ “
Anderson convinced his son that his own life did not make him any less black, and Nathan surprised his father by asking if he could have a bar mitzvah, like so many of his friends at school. That story appeared in the first episode of black-ish. “On the show, it became a bro mitzvah,” Anderson says. “The way we write the show, it’s often about the experiences I’ve had with my kids and telling these stories to friends and family. The next thing I know, it’s an episode. Everything is pulled directly from our lives.”
Managing a Chronic Disease
One story line that Anderson has spared his on-screen self: type 2 diabetes. In 2001, Anderson, 31 at the time, learned he had the disease. He says the diagnosis shocked him, though in hindsight, he recognized the signs.
“I was taking midday naps, something that I had never done before,” he recalls. “I was developing a television show, I was doing movies — I was fatigued, but I thought that it was just everything catching up to me.”
A doctor at his neighborhood clinic told him otherwise. After a night during which he consumed 5 gallons of water — excessive thirst is a hallmark symptom of diabetes — Anderson went for a checkup. Before that, he’d rarely seen a doctor. He regrets that now. A simple blood test in the years leading up to his diagnosis would have sounded alarms about his rising blood sugar level, possibly in time to prevent the disease. That’s a lesson he wants young people to learn.
“Young men especially have to go to the doctor,” says Anderson. “They’ll take their car in for an oil change every 3,000 miles, they’ll care for an inanimate object, but they won’t go get themselves checked out. They need to do that.”
Type 2 diabetes affects African-Americans at nearly twice the rate of non-Hispanic whites, and health experts don’t know all the reasons why, says Robert Gabbay, MD, PhD, chief medical officer of Harvard’s Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. He points to high rates of obesity as a primary cause, as well as to genetic factors that make African-Americans less sensitive to insulin, something else that raises the odds of having diabetes.
However, says Gabbay, it’s not all grim. “There’s so much people can do to prevent diabetes, to prevent complications,” he says, pointing to a healthy diet and increased exercise as critical components of any diabetes prevention or treatment plan. “That’s one of the most important messages. In large part, it’s an education issue. Not everybody realizes the risks.”
Right after his diagnosis, Anderson changed his lifestyle. He ate the same foods but cut the portion sizes. While a good first step, it took him years to commit fully to taking care of himself. He recalls a morning in 2008 when he woke up ready for change.
“Out of the blue, I decided it was time to get serious,” he says.
With exercise and healthy eating, he dropped more than 45 pounds. “In my Law & Order dressing room, I looked in the mirror,” says Anderson. “There was a picture of the old me there. I was fat. Not anymore.”
These days, he bikes, he hits the treadmill, he lifts weights, he gardens. He spent time as a vegan but now allows himself fish and chicken along with organic fruits and vegetables. He still loves fried chicken and steak with butter, but both are infrequent treats.
“It’s all about moderation,” he says.
That message, he says, has reached his children. “My kids live healthy lives. They exercise, they run around. I tell them, eat brown rice. Don’t drink soda. You don’t need that.”
Spreading the Word
Diabetes and other health issues make the occasional cameo on black-ish. In one early episode, Andre’s twins refuse their Halloween candy because they’ve just learned about diabetes in school and are now afraid of sugar. In another, Andre’s father, played by Laurence Fishburne, confesses he hasn’t seen a doctor in decades, just like Anderson’s own father, who was diagnosed with diabetes a few years after Anderson and died of complications.
“My father, good old country boy that he was, was like most men,” says Anderson. “He didn’t care to go to the doctor, so we have no idea how long my father had been living with the disease before he was diagnosed.”
Anderson has been an advocate for diabetes awareness for years. In late 2015, he joined an American Diabetes Association Step Out to Stop Diabetes walk in Los Angeles. He continues to spread the word whenever he can.
“I give my testimony,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on TV, if you’re famous. This can still happen to you, just like it can to anybody. But I also want people to see that you can get through it. No matter who you are, you can make the changes that you have to make, and you can beat it.”
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