Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Albany Daily News. Posted by Ryan Frost
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Ryan Frost
Undeclared, Think Like a Man, Ride Along
Currently Known For:
Actor, Comedian, and Television Host
2001 - Present
July 6, 1979
Undeclared, Think Like a Man, Ride Along
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“My goal is to make everyone and anyone a Kevin Hart fan.” Kevin Hart is an actor and comedian who found overnight fame in the last two decades after first getting his start as a standup comedian in his native Pennsylvania. Traveling New England with his comedy act, Hart won numerous stand-up and open mic night competitions before he snagged his first big job opportunity when Judd Apatow cast him in his 2001 Fox sitcom, Undeclared. Although the series was canceled in its first season, Hart made a lasting impression and went on to appear in films like Paper Soldiers, Soul Plane, Scary Movie 3, Little Fockers and In the Mix before hitting it big in 2008 with the release of his debut comedy album, I’m a Grown Little Man. A few years later, he landed even bigger roles in flicks like Think Like a Man, About Last Night, and Along for the Ride with his most recent credits coming in hits like The Secret Life of Pets, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Now listed as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” let’s take a look at the 39-year-old Hart’s rise to fame after getting his start on the rough streets of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Born and Raised
Kevin Darnell Hart came into this world on July 6, 1979 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he was raised by a single mother in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the district. His father, Henry Witherspoon, was a drug addict who was in and out of jail, making sporadic appearances in Hart and his brother’s lives until he accidentally dropped the young Hart off at the wrong school, which led his mother to limit their visits altogether. Things escalated even further when Witherspoon robbed the family for drug money and later crashed his brother’s car and robbed his barbershop, which only added to the turmoil of Hart’s childhood and teen years.
“We come from the worst living conditions,” Hart’s brother, Robert, said of their childhood. “My father didn’t escape any of it—jail, drugs, addictions, ruining your family to a point where my mom didn't want me and my brother to be around him,” Hart added. “Seeing the stuff firsthand. Seeing the reality behind drugs and addiction and what it can really do to a person, that’s why I don’t do drugs. I learned what I shouldn’t be doing from what my dad did.”
Staying on the straight and narrow, Hart used humor to cope with his family life but never thought his jokes would amount to any type of career. Instead, he focused on his studies at George Washington High School in Philadelphia and, after graduation, enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia. However, it was apparent that college wasn’t for him as Hart packed up and moved to New York City and then Boston, Massachusetts where he worked as a shoe salesman. Although he was finally on his own, something was still missing.
Taking a huge leap of faith, Hart returned to Philadelphia where he visited a local nightclub one evening and found the nerve to go up on stage during open mic-night. Performing a few jokes for the audience, Hart was invigorated by the laughter as he toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in comedy. “In the beginning, I was trying to be versions of what I saw or what other people were doing,” Hart said of his early years on stage. “It was all, ‘What’s the new schtick? Oh man, everyone’s coming on stage and they’re using music. I need to give them some music or I need to be loud.’”
Writing his first set based on a fight he had with his girlfriend, Hart’s jokes were well received as he accepted his first real job in the industry as “Lil Kev” at The Laff House in Philadelphia. However, his beginner’s luck quickly wore off as Hart’s set fell flat on a new audience as many criticized him as a copycat. However, Hart was determined not to give up and set out to develop his own style as he traveled to Massachusetts where he signed up for several comedy competitions. Eventually finding his rhythm and sharing more of himself and his past experience with the audience, Hart developed his open-book style of joke telling that finally caught the attention of talent manager Dave Becky who saw one of Hart’s early performances at the Carolines Comedy Club. “You could just tell he was a star,” Becky said of his first impression of Hart. “It was self-deprecating stuff about not being the macho guy. Every word out of his mouth was funny.”
Rising to Fame
While Hart obsessively toured the country perfecting his act, he slowly built his network and made as many contacts in the industry as possible, which further impressed his future manager, Becky. “When he was out on the road he was collecting those emails, he was getting those comment cards, and building a database,” Becky recalled. “There weren’t a lot of comedians doing that. He was mixing his unique comic voice with a strong business sense.”
That business sense finally paid off when Hart signed on with Becky and, by the new millennium, landed a few more opportunities beginning with his first television role in Judd Apatow’s 2001 show, Undeclared. Although the series was short-lived, it was enough to put Hart on the map as he made his film debut in Paper Soldiers the following year and followed up with credits in Scary Movie 3, Soul Plane, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Little Fockers, and Death at a Funeral.
Amid his growing success in television and film, Hart never forgot his standup roots and launched his first official comedy tour, I’m a Grown Little Man, in 2009. The tour’s success prompted a second tour, Seriously Funny, in 2010 and Laugh at My Pain in 2011, the latter of which grossed over $15 million making it one of the top-selling comedy tours of the year. In the meantime, Hart’s popularity flourished as he promoted his talents on social media using popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to build his personal brand. Before long, Hart was a household name recognized for his impressive knack for business and comedic timing.
In 2012, Hart caught his biggest break to date when he landed a starring role in the romantic comedy, Think Like a Man, which did moderately well at the box office. He reprised his role in the sequel and added in credits opposite Ice Cube in Ride Along and Ride Along 2. Then, in 2013, he proved his talents behind the scenes when he co-created a new series, The Real Husbands of Hollywood starring celebrities like Duane Martin, Nick Cannon, Robin Thicke, and Nelly. Following a similar layout to The Real Housewives, the show was an instant hit and enjoyed five seasons before it was canceled in 2016.
Although the series was canceled, Hart was a bankable Hollywood star and had little trouble finding work as he lent his voice to Snowball in The Secret Life of Pets and released his stand-up film, Kevin Hart: What Now? From there, he voiced George Beard in Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie and has since earned credits in The Upside, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Night School with his most recent project, The Secret Life of Pets 2 and Ride Along 3 still in the works! As for his work on television, he’s hosted a handful of episodes of Saturday Night Live as well as the 2016 MTV Movie Awards and is set to appear on an episode of TKO: Total Knock Out in 2018. So, what else does Hart have time for outside of his work as an actor and comedian?
Personal Life – Relationships, Projects, and More
“You can’t expect to give 100% if you’re not in a physical place to give 100%.” While he is certainly an overachiever and a self-described workaholic, the 39-year-old Hart knows that hard work pays off both in his professional and personal life. In fact, after a tumultuous childhood and a strained relationship with his father, Hart has reconciled with his father, a decision that came after Hart became a father himself. “It takes too much time and energy to keep hate alive,” Hart said of their reconciliation. “My dad said I was supposed to be on drugs. I was like, ‘Dad, shut up.’ But then I thought about it, and it was stupid, but it made sense. He was saying that basically he was my example to never go down that road.” Now, Witherspoon is actively involved in his son’s and his grandchildren’s lives, which makes Hart incredibly happy. “He’s as good as he can be,” Hart says. “He’s very much in their lives. He talks to them. He sends them messages. He Facetimes. He’s serious about making his presence felt.”
While Hart has reconciled with his father, his relationship with his mother, Nancy, took a sudden turn in 2007 when she learned she had terminal cancer but swore everyone to secrecy to protect Hart and his career. At the time, Hart was set to star in Fool’s Gold opposite Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in Australia and Nancy knew her son would give up the film to stay home to care for her. “I need him to be able to go forward because I see him doing great things,” she told Hart’s brother Robert. Hart only learned the truth a few weeks before his mother’s death. It wasn’t until after she passed that Hart truly knew how much she followed his career after never seeing him perform on-stage.
“She was religious. There was going to be drinking and alcohol and smoking stuff. She didn’t want to go around that mess. She didn’t like to be in environments that were not conducive to her spiritual growth,” Hart said. Then, after she died, Hart found a box filled with newspaper and magazine clippings of every interview, show, film, and tour. “Anything I’d ever done, she had it. She never missed anything,” he said.
Determined to honor his mother’s legacy, the 39-year-old Hart has set out to build an empire around his name—likening himself to the comedic Oprah. “He’s going to build companies and invest in companies and do the things that Oprah and LeBron James do, where they don’t just do their craft—they create industries,” Hart’s manager Dave Becky says. That’s exactly why Hart has befriended several mentors including Oprah as well as Jay Z and Tyler Perry, all of whom he turns to for advice. “I’m a student,” Hart admits. “It’s about getting their nod of approval and knowing I’m going in the right direction.” So, what direction is that?
Hart has ventured into branding and signed an endorsement deal with Nike in addition to becoming a pitchman for and an investor in Tommy John underwear. However, he doesn’t want to stop there. “I want to own it. I want that last name Hart, when all’s said and done, to mean so much.” But, he’s not stopping there. In 2017, he also became a published author with the release of his book, I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons, which is now a best-seller recounting the gritty details of his early life, his father’s addiction, and his rise to fame. “People get to see the comedic persona, but there’s more to me,” Hart says. “This is a story that can be told, and I chose to tell it. It’s funny, but there are serious components to it.”
Of course, despite his plans to build an empire, Hart promises to never give up on his comedic roots simply because he loves it too much. Yet, he remains realistic saying, “You never know what life is going to do to you…” While true, we hope the end of Hart’s on-stage career doesn’t come anytime soon!