Volume 75, Number 6 | June 29 - July 5, 2005

He pities the fool that doesn’t like Mr. T dolls!

Photo by Wheat Wurtzberger
Greg Rivera with his collection of 150 handmade dolls of Lawrence Tureaud, otherwise known as Mr. T.

By Ellen Keohane

While few 26-year-old men would admit to collecting dolls, Greg Rivera isn’t one of them.

Rivera’s show at the Orchard Street Art Gallery, “I Pity the Dolls! A Collection of Contemporary and Vintage Mr. T Dolls,” features his collection of 150 handmade Mr. T dolls.

All of the dolls in the show are based on a 1984 pattern for a “soft sculpture” doll by an Alabama-based company called Miss Martha’s Originals, Inc. The pattern mimics Cabbage Patch Kid dolls, which were immensely popular in the 1980s. But unlike Cabbage Patch Kids, the Mr. T dolls have Mohawks and wear a lot of gold jewelry. Some even have tattoos.

Rivera, who freelances in television and film production and is also working on a new street wear clothing line, has been into Mr. T since he was a kid. “He was my childhood hero,” said Rivera, who used to watch “The A Team” with his dad when he was 6 years old. Rivera got the idea for a show from his friends, who would “freak out” whenever they saw his immense Mr. T collection.

“He’s looking so mean,” said Rivera about a grumpy-looking doll wearing a belt, gold chains and large gold rings. They had to make the fingers big enough to wear the rings, said Rivera, while pointing to the doll’s oversized hands. He prefers to display the dolls as he found them, which is why some are missing certain elements — like pants.

“I like them all,” Rivera said of the dolls in his collection. “Each one has unique and funny aspects. None are exactly alike.” While the dolls differ in size and some have more chains and rings than others, all hold an uncanny resemblance to Mr. T, the actor best known for his catch phrase “I pity the fool!” as well as his role as Sergeant Bosco Albert “Bad Attitude” Baracus in the 1980s sitcom “The A Team.”

Mr. T, whose real name is Lawrence Tureaud, also starred in “Rocky III,” but has since faded from public view, although he occasionally pops up in 1-800-COLLECT commercials as well as in guest spots on television shows like “The Simpsons.” He also makes frequent appearances on TBN Christian television series.

Because Rivera’s collection is too big for his Upper East Side apartment, he stores most of it at his parent’s house in Deltona, Fla. Until recently, the dolls lived in a pile in his parents’ bedroom. “My dad thinks they’re funny,” he said. “My mom’s really into them.” Both of his parents traveled from Florida to attend the show’s opening on June 9.

The doll pattern book, which has a photo of a Mr. T doll holding a barbell on its cover, also includes instructions on how to make pants, vests, overalls and shoes for the doll, said Rivera as he flipped through the book in the Orchard Street Gallery on a recent Thursday afternoon. The hair is the hardest part of the pattern, said Rivera. Some people use yarn, but others just took strips of fur and glued it on the dolls’ heads.

For the show, Rivera asked some artists to create their own interpretation of the Mr. T doll from the Miss Martha’s Originals pattern. Rivera, with his mom’s help, also made a doll for the show.

The artist-made dolls will be auctioned for charity through the gallery and the Web site www.MrTandMe.com with money going toward the American Cancer Society and Cancer Care. Rivera’s mother is a breast cancer survivor, Rivera said. Mr. T also battled T-cell lymphoma, a form of cancer.

While some artists followed the pattern exactly, others strayed from it. Frank Russo and Martina Secondo, owners of the MF gallery at 157 Rivington St., decided to make a punk rock Mr. T. “We’re into punk and metal and just sort of put it in that direction,” Secondo said. “Frank had the idea of making a giant, removable Mohawk — more punk style than Mr. T’s.”

An artist who prefers to go by the name MAGMO the Destroyer decided to base his version of the Mr. T doll on his own self-named superhero that “destroys the things that screw up the world.” “I was totally inspired by Mr. T’s hair and his tough figure,” said MAGMO.

When Rivera lived in Florida, he started collecting all types of pop culture toys from the 1970s and ’80s. He had a few Mr. T items, but nowhere near as many as he owns today. He always admired people with complete collections and wanted to find his own collecting niche — something unique, Rivera said. When his friend Brian Cain decided to sell his Mr. T collection, Rivera bought all 50 items.

“I started collecting hardcore in 1998,” said Rivera. He frequented toy shows, flea markets and spent a lot of time on e-Bay searching for Mr. T items, including the Miss Martha Original dolls. “I started bidding on a every doll I found on e-Bay,” said Rivera. Some of the dolls cost as little as $1 (plus shipping), while other, more well-made dolls with jewelry, cost as much as $40, he said.

Each doll has a story behind it, said Rivera. Some are signed while others came with cards listing the name of the person who made them. Rivera would like to do more research and find previous owners. Some, he thinks, were made for sale. But for the most part, the dolls were probably handmade by parents as gifts for their children.

While bidding on e-Bay, Rivera met fellow Mr. T enthusiast Mike Essel. The two became friends and created a fan Web site called www.MrTandMe.com. They also appeared on the VH 1 television show “Totally Obsessed.” Now they’re working on a book, which they hope to get published.

Mr. T bridged the race barrier by breaking stereotypes, said Rivera. He could be a tough black man. “Mr. T once said that he wore the chains because they represented the chains his ancestors wore,” Rivera said.

“You never hear anything bad about Mr. T,” said Rivera. “Except for that time when he cut down all the trees in his backyard.” In 1987, Mr. T infuriated his neighbors by taking a chainsaw to about 100 trees on his estate in Lake Forest, Ill.

Rivera has never met Mr. T, but remains optimistic that the two will meet some day. He invited Mr. T to the show’s opening, but he didn’t show. It would be surreal to talk with him, especially after collecting something with his image on it for years, said Rivera.

Lifting the right leg of his jeans, Rivera exposed a tattoo of Mr. T on his lower leg. “This was my first tattoo,” he said. “I got it five years ago in Orlando, Fla., at a tattoo shop called Devotion.”

“I Pity the Dolls! A Collection of Contemporary and Vintage Mr. T Dolls” will be on display through July 9 at the Orchard Street Gallery at 139 Orchard St. The gallery is open on Saturdays and Sundays 1 p.m.-7 p.m.

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