The WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2014 continues to grow, as the organization announced during last night's (March 17, 2014) RAW that "Mr. T" would be the latest inductee, which caused a fair amount of "Universe" inhabitants to scratch their heads and wonder why.
Even my 11-year-old daughter turned to me and asked, "Who?"
Mr. T is sort of a unique choice in that he wasn't a wrestler, but rather a celebrity import with a great look (and a history of legitimate badassery) recruited to do work alongside mega babyface Hulk Hogan. Where and when? None other than the inaugural WrestleMania event inside New York City's Madison Square Garden on March 31, 1985.
The original "Granddaddy of Them All."
But to understand why Mr. T belongs in the Hall of Fame is to understand why WWE Chairman Vince McMahon went after him in the first place, way back when people wore parachute pants (guilty) and collected Garbage Pail Kids (still guilty).
Mr. T ruled the world.
Sure, there were plenty of celebrities with more mainstream popularity, but let's talk demographics. There wasn't a kid in the eighties who didn't know who Mr. T was. After all, he played Clubber Lang, the menacing knockout artist in Rocky III, the fourth-highest grossing film of 1982.
That led to his career-defining role as B.A. Baracus in The A-Team.
The hit television show returned top-10 ratings for its first three seasons, including 1985. Viewers were so enamored with the tough-talking, gold wearing, mohawk-sporting driver of the baddest van in small-screen history, that his brand blew up across multiple formats.
Blew up as in "had his own cereal," each one the shape of little "T."
The catchphrase? "It's cool."
Cool indeed. In fact, Mr. T was so cool, he was awarded his own Saturday morning cartoon, which at the time, was the most prestigious slot in its genre. That was like putting a comedy in NBC's Thursday night "Must-See TV" line up in the mid nineties, or a box office blockbuster opening Fourth of July Weekend.
Unfortunately it was crudely animated with a ridiculous premise, but still, he had his own cartoon.
I especially liked the part where he swims underwater with his boots and gold on.
But what a lot of people don't remember, probably because Mr. T was so good at playing the role of tough guy, is what an incredible human being he was. The one-time Army MP was deeply invested in the youth of America and used his popularity to teach kids about equality, respect, and self-confidence.
From his Be Somebody... or Be Somebody's Fool! motivational video:
Man, let me tell you from having lived it, the eighties were fucking awkward.
I know from my own personal experience that trying to build relationships across races and nationalities was a formidable task, primarily because my parents -- as well as the parents of the other kids in my school -- grew up in an era when it was okay to turn a fire hose on protesters of a different color.
Everybody was on egg shells, trying to figure out how to move forward.
Mr. T recognized that, but stayed true to himself. That's part of the reason why he styled his hair as an homage to Mandinka warriors (the other being it looked so damn imposing). He also shackled himself with heavy gold chains -- and sometimes slept in them -- to remind himself of African slaves.
Unlike so many other people of influence, he used his powers for good.
So here we had a guy who was in one of the biggest movies of the eighties, who had his own cereal in addition to his own cartoon AND happened to be on one of the most popular shows on television. Vince McMahon took one look at Mr. T and was like "Yeah, that's the guy I want."
Vince was (and is) good like that.
The gamble paid off as WrestleMania came in like a lion and went out like an M1 Abrams. Mr. T had an engaging feud with dastardly do-badder Roddy Piper and considering he wasn't a legitimate wrestler, did pretty well for himself when it counted.
But that's not why he's going into the hall of fame.
He's going because attaching his name to the event when his stock was at its highest took the pro wrestling company to an entirely new level. When it was first announced that he was Hogan's homie, it showed up in the sports section of my local newspaper, the first time the uppity rag had ever acknowledged WWF.
Unfortunately, the brightest stars burn out the quickest.
Mr. T would return for WrestleMania II in a "Rowdy" boxing match, but the Piper feud by that point had lost some of its luster. The A-Team took a nosedive in the ratings and was canceled the following year, not long after they pulled the plug on his cartoon.
He came back with the Canadian-produced television series T. and T., but the less said about that disaster, the better.
Today's pro wrestling fan may not be familiar with Mr. T or his limited body of work inside (as well as outside) the ring, but his role in the upward trajectory of the wrasslin' business cannot be overstated. What's more impressive is how it was accomplished in such a limited amount of time.
One million closed-circuit television viewers can't be wrong.