PASADENA, Calif. - Former NFL defensive end Terry Crews has made 30 movies in the last decade and he has his own television series now with "Are We There Yet?" on TBS, but as he was munching on a steak salad at a Pasadena diner on a recent afternoon, he explained that fame is a fickle thing. "The people that recognize me, the ones that stop me on the sidewalk, it's because of that Old Spice commercial. I didn't know the meaning of viral before those commercials came out. I can't get away from those things."
The quirky and unsettling commercials show the brawny Crews - usually wearing just a towel - knocking down skyscrapers, riding a stuffed tiger or screaming his head off about Old Spice body wash. (One time, in fact, his head actually explodes, but don't worry, it's just a special effect.) The commercials are a weird sensation - they've been viewed more than 9 million times on YouTube (and the same nutty campaign has made a star out of the horse-riding Isaiah Mustafa). Adding to Crews' new-found ubiquity, he's also sharing the screen with Sly Stallone, Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis in the all-star commando movie "The Expendables," which opened Friday.
The 41-year-old Crews shook his head, chuckled and took another bite of medium-rare. At this point in his strange Hollywood adventure, he will take fame and opportunity as it comes and will happily stare down conventional notions of credibility. "When I was filming the first Old Spice commercial I knew it was either going to be the best thing I had ever done or the absolute end of my career. But that seems to happen to me a lot and I kind of like it. All or nothing. If it's going to shut down, so be it."
After football, Crews, who is an accomplished illustrator, revived his dream of using his skills in the movie business - perhaps as special-effects artist - and moved to Los Angeles with his family just to be near the industry. He ended up doing bodyguard work and, as a lark, tried out for a television show called "Battle Dome," an "American Gladiators"-style knockoff. He won the role of the wild-eyed villain T-Money.
That ridiculous duty led to more screen work, and the movie titles could be strung together as commentary on Crews and his career: "The Benchwarmers," "The Longest Yard," "Harsh Times," "Get Smart," "Middle Men," "Gamer" and, now, "The Expendables." There's plenty of muscular, glowering actors, but Crews has made his mark as the big man who can flip easily into broad comedy and winking irony. As Ice Cube, who once employed Crews as a bodyguard and then shared the screen with him in "Friday After Next," puts it: "Terry is the funniest muscle-bound man in America."
For black America, Crews is something of a franchise guy - he, his wife, Rebecca, and their five children even had their own realty show "The Family Crews," air for 11 episodes early this year on BET. The real breakthrough for Crews was playing the father role on "Everybody Hates Chris" for four years, a role that echoes now in TV's "Are We There Yet?" which premiered last month.
Crews grew up in Flint, Mich., where he watched the crack cocaine pandemic, factory closures and despair turn a community into civic ash and scorched lives. His escape came through artwork and athletics; his great aspiration was to illustrate movie posters such as the ones he saw for "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but he was also a standout on the football field. He was good enough to eventually reach Western Michigan University, where he studied painting and became a star ballplayer.
"I was a walk-on on the team, I really wanted to play, it was in me - I had a lot of rage in me and a lot of pain and I had to get it out and playing ball was the way to do that," Crews said. "People were telling me I couldn't do things my whole life and it made me angry. I got a scholarship 2 1/2 years into it. And then I got drafted in the 11th round of the NFL draft by the Rams."
For Crews, his career highlight in the NFL was getting knocked out on "Monday Night Football." He makes a joke about that, the same way he candidly confesses he was the "fourth or fifth choice" for "The Expendables" behind Wesley Snipes, Forest Whitaker and 50 Cent.
"I don't mind, that's how it goes. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't the weakest one in the movie. This is the big leagues for acting. The people from all over the world, the best of the best, come here to be famous and nobody hands you anything. The good thing for me is I was never a star anyway, not in sports, not in art. I was open to failure. And that's how you find success."