Nothing tugs at the heartstrings quite as unexpectedly as when a stoic tough guy reveals his tender side, and there is no tougher guy than Mr. T. On last Monday night’s episode of Dancing With the Stars, a show normally notable for its sexy and flamboyant (if sometimes awkward) dance routines, the A-Team star moved everyone with a quiet, unassuming performance of praise and gratitude for the faith that got him through his bout with cancer.
In the episode called “Most Memorable Year Week,” the celebrity participants chose the most important year in their lives and danced to a song that represents that year for them. The sixty-four-year-old Mr. T (“My first name is ‘Mr,’ my middle name is ‘period,’ last name is ‘T.’”) chose 1995, the year he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
The scowling ex-boxer and ex-bodyguard—real name Lawrence Tureaud—grew up in a Chicago ghetto, became a college athlete, then a pro wrestling personality before going on to star in Rocky III and The A-Team TV series. His signature Mohawk haircut, gold chains, and lines like “I pity the fool!” and “Prediction: pain!” turned him into a lovable pop culture icon of gruff masculinity.
Then came the cancer diagnosis. “Back in the day, I had money, cars,” he said in the introductory video to the DWTS performance. “I had achieved what I wanted to achieve and then everything really stopped.”
He suddenly found himself helpless in the face of an antagonist he didn’t know how to fight. “I called on God,” Mr. T says in the video. “I said, ‘God, give me strength to do your will.’ That’s when it really hit me: What’s really real? My faith in God. That was real, because only God could save me.” It worked, because twenty years later he stands as a humble testament to his faith, courage, and perseverance.
For the DWTS performance, Mr. T and his professional dance partner Kym Herjavec decided to waltz to a live accompaniment of “Amazing Grace.” It was clear that his intention wasn’t to wow the judges with dazzling footwork but to express his gratitude from the heart. Preparing the dance was a process at least as emotional as it was physical. Behind-the-scenes video from the show revealed that both Mr. T and Herjavec were occasionally overwhelmed with tears in rehearsals.
Although the performance may not have been technically superior, the judges and audience nevertheless were moved by its elegance, sincerity, and emotional power. A tearful Carrie Ann Inaba had to compose herself before rating the dance, and her voice broke as she told Mr. T, “Some people might be winning the race with fancy moves and high scores, but you are definitely winning our hearts. Your faith radiated out of you in that dance and provided us all with, like, another level of faith. It was gallant, it was genteel, and it was full of grace.”
“Thank you,” he responded humbly.
Judge Julianne Hough said, “I’m choked up too, because God is good.” Even the normally bombastic judge Bruno Tonioli seemed genuinely touched and told Mr. T, “You really are a good man, a man with a heart of gold. Your faith is inspiring all of us, not just in this studio — millions of people are watching this and are moved by what you did, and this dance reflected who you are.”
The inspirational performance didn’t earn a high enough score, however, to enable Mr. T to make the cut, but he was given a rare standing ovation upon exiting the show. The next morning he confessed to Good Morning America host Michael Strahan that “I can’t dance, but I was dancing to give my share of the purse to St. Jude and Shriners Hospitals,” a revelation which rightfully earned applause from the audience.
Many of the fading celebrities who appear on Dancing With the Stars likely do it for the money and another stint in the spotlight, but there’s no doubting Mr. T’s sincere desire to share publicly his inspirational victory over cancer, to express to God and man his gratitude for it, and to donate generously to help cancer-stricken children with their own struggle. There is no more worthy use of one’s celebrity.
Commenting on their experience together, Kim Herjavec, appearing with her dance partner on GMA, said, “He says T stands for tough and tender—he’s like a teddy bear.” Mr. T admitted, “I’m nothing but a big, tough, butt-kicking, God-loving, overgrown momma’s boy. That’s what I am.” And as Bruno Tonioli put it, a good man with a heart of gold.