Cartoon Spinoffs – Mister T

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[previous entries in this series — DroidsEwoksChuck Norris Karate Kommandos Rambo]

It’s hard to convey just how ridiculously famous Mr. T was in the eighties, and how fast it all happened. His breakout role of Clubber Lang in Rocky II hit theatres in May of 1982, with The A-Team debuted the following January, as an immediate hit. Later that year, in September of ’83, the rather formally titled cartoon, Mister T, landed in the iconic Saturday morning cartoon slot. It would run until ’86, right through T’s most bountiful years of fame; a period which took in the movie D.C. Cab, in-ring appearances at the first two Wrestlemanias, a top-selling motivational video, and lending his persona to Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. As an aside, perhaps a more polite ‘Just Say No Thank You’ would have been more effective.

Mr. T’s anti-drug PSA; furiously ranting about drugs in a diner, so mad that he crushes his milkshake glass, eventually bundling the camera to the floor in rage — “don’t, or else!” — but ending on a smile; was a thirty-second distillation of Mr. T’s character; tough, brash, but good-hearted; a cartoon, even before it was inked onto an animation cell. Mister T is the show on which all ‘real celebrities teaching animated morals’ toons sprang forth, from the earnest (Chuck Norris’ Karate Kommandos) to the parody (Mike Tyson Mysteries), and what a perfect figure to nab the wandering attentions of kids. Being in the perfect age range at the time, I was a huge fan of Mr. T, and an avid watcher of the cartoon, with a bunch of tie-in books and books on tape, to shut me up on long car journeys. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of walking to the shops with my gran, and finding an unpeeled sticker sitting on the pavement. Mr. T’s scowling face on a plain blue background, the 6-year-old me convinced myself it was some kind of backstage ticket for the A-Team set, or maybe even membership to the team itself. It wasn’t, but still, when Mr. T spoke, I listened.

01

Mister T‘s set-up has the famously-nimble star as the coach of a team of teenage gymnasts, who drive around in a bus solving mysteries, generally of a non-paranormal bent, in what’s essentially a secular Scooby-Doo. Aside from the teenagers, the large gang includes such characters as Ms. Priscilla Bisby, a Southern school marm type with the catchphrase “my stars and garters!” and a mohawked dog named Bulldozer. Because it’s required in these shows, so’s to give an audience surrogate, Mr. T’s the guardian of a young boy, Spike, who dresses like his hero, in denim waistcoat and gold chains, and grunts all his lines in a T-like voice, with a gruffness so thick, the voice actor must’ve been hocking blood into a spittoon between takes. Though she didn’t appear in the episodes I watched, Wikipedia also notes this character, which may help give an idea of the tone:

Courtney Howard — An African-American girl gymnast whose father is a major in the military. Her uncle is a magician who was previously a burglar.

Like Karate Kommandos, Mr. T does his own voice, but unlike Kommandos and the Rambo cartoon, which were outright action shows, Mister T is surprisingly light on fight sequences. Primarily, there’s a real kid-detective vibe, like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, with everyone looking for clues, and the soundtrack heavy with ‘sneaking’ music. Detective/Spy stuff in general was a big fad at the time, with those brilliant Usbourne books that taught children the basics of spycraft, like writing invisible messages in lemon juice, making false soles in your shoe, or fatally poisoning foreign journalists with Novichok.

02

Episode one sets out its crime-solving stall in the Mystery of the Golden Medallions. Of course, the best part is the bookended live-action inserts, and the first sees a really stern Mr. T, perhaps yet to find the right level for a children’s cartoon, angrily introducing himself as “Mr. T. First name is Mister. Middle name is dat period. Last name is T.” Fucking hell, alright mate, don’t hit me. With each moral linked to the adventures we’re about to see, it’s established that, just like Chuck Norris, the cartoons depict real things that happened, and that animated Mr. T and real Mr. T are one and the same.

We open in San Francisco, where the young team are unimpressed at new boy Woody’s flawless display on the rings. They don’t want him on the team, and aren’t shy in letting him know, all hands on hips sneering and chucking a towel at his face. Unfortunately, as Woody’s black, their open disgust at his presence unwittingly comes off a bit racist. Sadly, Woody misses out on a gold medal, as the medallions get stolen by bad guys, with Mr. T and the gang giving chase. Kids constantly get abducted in these shows, and Spike gets bundled into a van, with his abductors dropping a list of addresses as a clue. “Can I help?” asks Woody. “Yeah,” says Jeff, “stay here.” Sure sounds like someone started watching Jordan Peterson videos and got red-pilled by the algorithm.

03

Spike’s sister, Robin, plaintively bounces a basketball around the gym in worry. The name and sight of the redheaded, freckled Robin unlocks the vaguest fingertip brush of a memory in me, with a feeling I may have had a nascent crush on the character back then, which would explain my crippling fetish for leotards and poorly-animated women who move at about five frames a minute. The gang split into two teams (Woody with Mr. T, as the others refuse to work with him, creating an awkward racial divide) to search a posh restaurant and an ancient medieval castle; the Clubhouse of the Dragon Slayers Society. Sounds very Masonic, I hope Savile’s not inside.

They realise the goons want the medals because there’s a hidden microfilm inside; the 80’s espionage equivalent of a USB stick containing jpegs of a politician’s genitals; and a bunch of nonsense happens, including baddies jumping out of a giant cake, a dog biting an arcade machine to reveal a boy locked inside, and Mr. T diving in the sea to beat up some sharks. It’s in the action where the show luxuriates in its gymnastic angle, battling baddies with backflips and roly polys, with an “alley-oop!” as Robin locks a goon in headscissors (no doubt instilling confusing feelings in the young me). But these are more than just simple gymnasts, for instance, Robin’s got a catchphrase — “what the hairy heck?!” while Kim (the Asian character), is superhumanly good at maths. Anyway, the microfilm’s recovered, and Woody finally earns the respect of the gang. “Lookin’ good!” says Mr. T, throwing up the ‘okay’ hand sign, which has since become the universally accepted symbol for white supremacy.

04

Episode 16 takes things in a noticeably “ruh-roh, Shaggy!” direction. The live opener has Mr. T with his foot on a picnic table, admiring the crafts of neighbourhood kids, with today’s lesson about making money off your own work, not that of others. The sheer level of gold chains around his neck is ludicrous, clanking with every step, and they must’ve reinforced the ground to stop him from sinking. Perhaps that’s why he’s so angry as he introduces us to “The Mystery of the Panthermen!

The gang show up to an island for a gymnastics exhibition, but it’s almost deserted, as rumours of men who can transform into panthers has been scaring people away. Meanwhile, a property developer tries to convince the island’s elderly owner to sell. I think you can figure it out, in a conspiracy that involves the cops, crooked real estate, and weirdos in masks who control jaguars with a dog whistle. There’s a slapdash quality to the animation, with geometry shifting wildly depending on what the story calls for. Do three people need to stand on each other’s shoulders to see out of a window, or can a dog casually hop though it a few minutes later? Occasionally, they forget to move characters’ mouths when they speak. Eventually, Dozer the dog befriends a baby seal, who helps them out by distracting baddies and saving Mr. T from drowning. In the live-action sign off, he orders us to not go “tearing up the environment trying to make a fast buck.” Someone get this DVD to our politicians; right, guys? [is immediately hired as new host of Have I Got News For You]

05

Drugs, backtalk, playing with yourself in the bath; by the time we get to episode 22, it seems like they’ve used up all the big moral no-nos, as this week’s lesson is the incredibly specific “get your damn eyes checked, fool!” In UFO Mystery, Woody’s refusal to see a doctor over his eye-strain leads to a world of trouble. Taking a wrong turn when visiting an old inventor friend, he gets picked up by a flying saucer and dropped over a mountain. The gang go searching for him at the inventor’s place, only to find a robotic Mr. T, who introduces himself as “Mr. T II, anything I can do?

Oh, so this inventor who doesn’t know and has never met Mr. T can build a fully working robot version of him and it’s fine, yet my Anna Kendrick doll made from old newspaper stuffed into a onesie is “really creepy” and “inappropriate to bring as a ‘date’ to a wedding”? Fine. That said, as a noted fan of robot insults, I’m thrilled when Mr. T hits his imposter with burns like “junkyard reject” and “you metal man!” So, they rescue Woody, fight at a hospital, including Woody shooting out of an ambulance on a bed to roll along the street like Norman Wisdom, and get trapped in a cave by a UFO. They’re freed by Mr. T II, hijack some mules, and catch the baddies by swinging from Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore. The UFO was merely an invention, stolen to rob money trucks, figuring the drivers would be too embarrassed to tell cops they’d been abducted by aliens. See, kids? If you don’t get your eyes checked, this exact chain of events will happen to you!

06

All this ridiculous shit, inapplicable in the real world, makes the turn the show takes in episode 23 all the more jarring. It’s wild they got this far before tackling the biggest lesson of all, in the suggestively titled Mystery of the Stranger. The live action opening sees Mr. T calling a kid away from a stranger’s car with a whistle. “You gotta learn how to deal with ’em; YOU GOTTA!” Its status as a Very Special Episode is marked by Mr. T’s insistence “I want to you get your mother, your daddy, your uncle or your aunt. I want them to watch the ‘Mystery of the Stranger’ with you!” To say my mother was confused when I left a panicked voicemail and forced her take a seat would be an understatement, presumably assuming I was finally moving out of her airing cupboard, however I didn’t want to incur the wrath of the big man.

Confusingly, we start on a pirate ship, where the gang fight off enemy boarders with gymnastics. Mr. T’s in full puffy shirt and jaunty feathered hat. If he’s trying to warn about paedophiles, he’s doing a good job looking like one. But it’s just a movie set, and an audition to be Hollywood stunt doubles, though Spike and Bulldozer are too small to be stuntmen, so mope off into the streets of Los Angeles. A van-nonce immediately tries to lure Spike inside by asking directions to a hamburger stand. Robin stops him just in time, but after a stern warning, the little idiot’s straight back out again, this time getting snatched with the old “your sister’s been in an accident!”, leaving Dozer on the kerb as they speed away.

07

It was all pretty relaxed when Spike got kidnapped by feckless goons in episode one, but there’s a disconcerting realness here, with his abductors, an unassuming man and woman, roughly tying his arms behind his back and chucking him down with another pair of crying children. “A lot of people want kids,” the woman casually admits, “we go out and find them. We get a lot of money for the kids we bring back.” They children talk amongst themselves about how they got snatched; the boy was offered a free puppy (classic), while they showed the girl police badges and said they were cops. Using a different cover story for each kid, if nothing else, you have to admire the work ethic of these horrible paeds.

Dozer does a Lassie, alerting the gang to what’s happened, and they borrow a helicopter from the film set to search for the van from above. Brilliantly, Mr. T’s A-Team fear of flying is canon here, (which makes no sense; is B.A Baracus real too?) but for the good of Spike, he takes flight. Briefly, the children escape at a red light, although Spike and the boy are recaptured. This scene really demonstrates the shifting attitudes to pedos over the last 30 years, with bystanders ignoring the kids as they scream for help while being dragged away; the captors explaining “don’t worry, he’s just my naughty son!” Nowadays, wrong’un spotting is a national pastime, and local Facebook pages are flooded with angrily-snapped pictures of men who must be nonces because they’re out on their own in a public place, with thousands of comments from people you were at school with about hanging the sick bastards. For a show that’s done evil magicians, sea monsters, and a robot Mr. T, it’s surprisingly powerful when the escaped girl runs into a cop, triggering flashbacks to when the baddies pretended they were cops. It’s a distressing example of how trust can be permanently broken with a single act of abuse, and when she runs to a lady in a flower shop to confirm that he’s a real cop, hugging him and tearfully pleading to be taken back to her mom and dad, I, an adult human in 2019, shed an actual tear over the Mr. T cartoon.

08

Eventually, Mr. T gets the licence plate, the cops track the kidnappers down, and with some bullshit gymnastics, the kids are rescued. Returned to their families, a detective darkly tells them “I’ve got a big file on kids who were never found.” And that’s the sinister backbone of Mystery of the Stranger, with no wacky reveal for Spike’s unspoken fate. The kidnappers talk about how they’ll finally be able to “afford that trip to the islands, with the dough we get for these two,” and it’s clear they’ve stolen and sold a lot of children, who were never seen again. But to who? For what? In the real world, those answers are unthinkably grim, but this is a silly cartoon, so they were surely being shipped off to work in an under-volcano diamond mine for a voodoo priest, and barely getting minimum wage? Nope. Spike and those kids, and all the ones Mr. T didn’t rescue, were literally getting sex trafficked. The villains weren’t cackling goons in eye-patches, slipping on banana peels, but regular-looking grown-ups you couldn’t pick out of a crowd. Chilling.

09

We end with cartoon Mr. T telling Spike never, ever to get in a stranger’s car again, but in POV, with his finger coming right down the lens, addressing the audience. Real Mr. T talks about kids who are never rescued, and forbids us to take toys, candy, or puppies from strangers (can’t promise I’ll stick to that last one), and suggests making a secret codeword with your family, in case someone says they’re here to pick you up. “If they don’t know it, you don’t wanna know them. Take it from me, Mr. T!” Like I said earlier, Mr. T talks, I listen, and I will not be talking to any more strangers. Unless they’ve got a free puppy, in which case, lemme in your dang van!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on August 5, 2019.

One Response to “Cartoon Spinoffs – Mister T”

  1. […] [previous entries in this series — Droids — Ewoks — Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos — Rambo — Mister T] […]

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