Webster's Child Star: Emmanuel Lewis

Emmanuel Lewis is a 39-year-old, American actor who is most famous for portraying the title character in the 1980s sitcom Webster, which ran for four years on the ABC television network from September 16, 1983 to September 11, 1987. Lewis was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 9, 1971. Emmanuel stands only 4 feet, 3 inches tall; for this reason, among others, he is often compared to the late Gary Coleman who stood 4 feet, 8 inches tall and starred in his own situation comedy, Diff’rent Strokes. Emmanuel attended Midwood High School and graduated in 1989. He then went on to university, attending Clark Atlanta University and graduated in 1997 with a degree in theater arts. Emmanuel’s college life lasted all of those eight years, because he busied himself with acting gigs in between his college classes.

Early Life

Emmanuel grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He is the youngest son and has four siblings; Lizziebeth, Roscoe, and Chris. Lizziebeth was born in 1964, Roscoe was born in 1968, and Chris was born only a year ahead of Emmanuel in 1970. His parents divorced when he was only two years old.

Emmanuel attended public schools in Brooklyn, New York until relocating to Hollywood California to pursue a career in acting. It was in Hollywood that Emmanuel started to make industry connections and break into show business. One day as he and a friend, who was already acting professionally, advised Emmanuel to tell his mother to get in contact with the Shuller Talent Agency. The Shuller Talent Agency was known for working with gifted child actors and helping them to break into acting through television commercials. Emmanuel had the ideal face and personality for commercials. Little did anyone know that according to a wide audience of the American viewing public, Emmanuel also had an ideal face and personality for much more than just TV commercials; he was well on his way to becoming a household name.

Commercial Acting Career

After signing with the Shuller Talent Agency, acting opportunities for Emmanuel were readily available. He was offered parts and starred in commercials for pizza, pudding, coffee, toys, soup, glue, stereos, cars, fruit juice, and even Burger King fast food. After a string of successful commercials for Burger King, he became the child spokesperson for Burger King’s Whopper burger. The child actor’s tally for commercials eventually numbered an impressive 50 to 60, and included big names like Life cereal, Burger King, Colgate and Campbell’s Soup. Emmanuel’s Colgate commercial also appeared in the movie Splash; during the scene when the mermaid named Madison enters into the mall, there are TVs playing in the background. On these TVs, it is possible to see Emmanuel star in his Colgate commercial.

One of Emmanuel’s early acting jobs included an appearance in a production of the Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the part of The Changeling Boy. He also guest-starred on a few television talk shows, including The Phil Donahue Show and The Tonight Show. These appearances helped Emmanuel to gain recognition and make a name for himself. He also gained a strong following in Japan with a television show called Samurai, which was filmed in New York.

Webster 

Webster was an American TV show that ran on the ABC broadcast network from 1983 to 1987, though it ran in syndication until 1989. Webster covered many of the same topics and issues as Diff’rent Strokes, including the theme of inter-race adoption. It is Emmanuel’s role in Webster that not only made him a bona fide star, but is also the role and character for which he is still recognized for the most.

The sitcom was set in the city of Chicago, where Webster Long (Emmanuel Lewis) is an orphan after his parents were killed in a car accident. Webster’s biological father, Travis, played professional football with George Papadapolis in the 1970s; it is with George and his wife, Katherine, that Webster finds his new home. Much of the series’ early tenure was set at the Papadapolis’ luxury high-rise apartment in the city, and Webster was the main character although the marriage between George and Katherine was also addressed occasionally. George and Katherine work as a sportscaster and a psychologist.

Vince Neil

There are other major characters besides Webster, George and Katherine. One of them is Katherine’s male secretary Jerry Silver, a social-climber who was portrayed as Katherine’s close friend and confidant. Another mentionable character is Webster’s uncle Philip Long, portrayed by Ben Vereen. Philip expressed issues with Webster living with the Papadapolis’ because of their socio-economic position and race.

The show, in addition to addressing social issues and stereotypes of the time, was very comical and used circumstantial comedy to lighten the issues. For instance, in the second season of Webster, Webster burns down the Papadapolis’ luxury apartment, which sends the racially mixed family to live in a sizable Victorian house, still in Chicago; this forced the characters to react to their new environment and adjust to life in their new neighborhood. From this point onwards, new characters were introduced to keep plot lines and themes on the show fresh. Primary among them were Rob Whitaker (a classmate of Webster), the couple who leased the new Victorian house to the Papadapolises (Cassie and Bill Parker), and George’s aging dad, George Sr. (Papa Papadapolis).

Ratings Drop

Sadly, Webster was pulled from the air in 1987, when ABC declined to renew the series for another season after the show dropped in the ratings. Webster had been on for four seasons on ABC network, and it finished admirably in the top 30 of Nielsen programs for the yearly television season. Unfortunately, for its 1986-1987 season, Webster’s ratings dropped sharply, to the point where it was ranking only at number 46 among all American TV shows for that season. In the previous television season, it had already dropped out of the Nielsen top 30 rankings, finishing a disappointing 41. With two back-to-back years of falling ratings, ABC chose to abandon Webster.

Syndication

After ABC’s refused to renew Webster for a fifth season, the show continued on, but only in syndication for another two years. A significant reason Webster was so successful was because it was allowed to continue creating new episodes in syndication due to younger viewers. Despite the ratings drop over at ABC, younger viewers were still immensely loyal to Webster. With the move to first-run syndication, new changes to the cast also occurred. One of the more prominent changes happened when the Papadapolis home added a new household member with the nephew of George, who went by the name of Nicky. Nicky’s role was to be some kind of a big brother figure to little Webster, however, Nicky would not return for the 1988-1989 season.

Time to Move On

During Webster’s run in syndication, both Emmanuel and the husband-and-wife team of actors Alex Karras and Susan Clark (George and Katherine) came to an increased and mutual sense that it was time to end the TV show. One of the reasons was that Emmanuel was aging out of the character, even though many Webster episodes still retained and enforced the “cute factor” aspect of the series, which was seen in Emmanuel’s portrayal and timing. While he gained more creative control with the series at this point; his own production company became a co-producer, along with Karras and Clark and the show matured a tiny bit with more pre-teen subject matter, Emmanuel was getting bored with his role and the show. Therefore, in the last season of Webster, Karras and Clark decided together that the show should end. The show ended with a minor bang of sorts: The whole, racially mixed Papadapolis family ventured on a space adventure in an episode entitled “Webtrek,” which featured Lt. Worf from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Emmanuel’s Webster sitcom was very successful, running for six years and landing in the Nielsen top 30 in the ratings for half of the seasons that it aired on ABC. Even after the series officially ended in 1989, networks including USA Network ran it in syndication in the time period of September 22, 1997 to March 13, 1998. Station WGN in Chicago aired reruns of the show in syndication from September 21, 1998 to September 2, 1999. There are plans to release Webster on DVD, with a release date of January 25, 2011 being set.

Development of Series

The development of the series that was to become Webster actually took place, initially, without its main star, Emmanuel Lewis. Originally, Alex Karras and Susan Clark started their own production company, and it was then that ABC took notice of them and approached them with an idea for a TV sitcom. The show that would go on to become “Webster” was first titled, tentatively, “Another Ballgame.” However, ABC’s then-programming chief, Lew Erlicht, spied Lewis in a Burger King commercial—which instantly made him desire to install Lewis in his own sitcom. At this point, ABC felt they had to move quickly to cast Lewis before he grew even another inch and therefore jeopardized the “cute factor.” Since the number of pilots already greenlighted for the 1983 season was so high that it would make it impossible for Lewis to get his own series, he had to be worked into an already existing pilot.

This is why the Karras-Clark vehicle became a contender to have Emmenuel worked into the plot. When Karras and Clark were approached by ABC about the inclusion of Emmanuel, they immediately responded favorably to the proposal of a theme that included a black boy being adopted into a white family. After their acceptance, Emmanuel’s character was then officially worked on. While there were some instances of stormy relationships among the cast in the first couple of seasons, these eventually straightened out so that the whole cast was able to get along famously for the remainder of the TV series.

Post-Webster References

When Webster was stopped filming, Emmanuel was in his late teens and finished with high school, but he would go on to university and graduate from Clark Atlanta University with a degree in theater arts in 1997. He took eight years to finish university because he was also balancing his acting career. Emmanuel made cameo appearances in a number of different television shows and films, such as the one he made for the 2003 David Spade comedy film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. Emmanuel has also provided voice over and character services for the popular television cartoon South Park; in an episode by the name of the “F-Word,” he is shown as the editor of the dictionary (as in Webster’s Dictionary). Another cameo appearance was for the 2007 comedy film Kickin’ It Old Skool, about a young breakdancer who falls into a coma for 20 years and then, upon waking, looks to restart his breakdancing career.

The musical group known as the Bloodhound Gang mentions Emmanuel Lewis in their song called “Fire Water Burn.” On the TV show Robot Chicken, he is the subject of a parody in which he is called “Manny Moe.” This take on Emmanuel features him ridiculing rival Gary Coleman, as well as appearing on celebrity reality TV. Both the Family Guy TV cartoon and the TV show Tripping the Rift have made mentions of the actor. On Family Guy, Emmanuel is parodied along with Gary Coleman in a cutaway that relates to Peter Griffin’s 1980s sitcom called “My Black Son.” On the Tripping the Rift TV show, Emmanuel is depicted as an attorney who is defending against the devil.

Friendship with Michael Jackson

During a part of Michael Jackson’s life, Emmanuel Lewis and the “King of Pop” enjoyed a long-time friendship. Starting around the time of Emmanuel’s popularity on Webster, he and Jackson first met at an awards ceremony, and from that point onwards, they were very close. Jackson insisted Emmanuel accompany him to all sorts of highly publicized and visible awards shows, including the Emmy Awards and the Academy Awards. The two would also frequently dress similarly. A favorite activity between the two friends would be spending many hours with each other as they discussed the state of show business and the art of performing.

When Jackson died in 2009, the news of the singer’s death hit a nerve with Emmanuel. When the celebrity-news website, Celebuzz, tried to reach Emmanuel for a comment regarding Jackson’s death, a statement was given through his agent. The agent quoted Emmanuel as being “sincerely devastated at this time” since Jackson’s death was “very personal and very emotional” to him. Instead of appearing in public and releasing statements himself or speaking to the media directly, the former child star chose to grieve in private.

Guest Appearances

Since the end of his sitcom Webster, Emmanuel has wanted to further his acting career and take on new roles, but has found that many people still associate him with his role as Webster Long. This has led to his possibilities being fairly limited; he continues to accept guest appearances on various TV shows. In 1995, he made a guest appearance for The New Adventures of Mother Goose, a TV special that starred Sally Struthers. He has also guest-starred on the Steve Urkel-centered sitcom, Family Matters, appearing in two 1997 episodes entitled “Beauty and the Beast” and “Odd Man In.” The next year, he made yet another guest appearance on UPN’s Moesha, and in 1999, the short-lived sitcom Malcolm and Eddie saw him make a guest appearance. In 2005, he made one more guest appearance on the show called One on One, another short-lived sitcom.

Reality TV

Emmanuel has also made a number of appearances on reality-themed TV shows; a genre that is particularly suited to establishing shows for celebrities from past TV sitcoms. In 2003, he made a comeback to TV of sorts by starring in the WB show called The Surreal Life. The premise of the show was to assemble a bunch of former TV stars, make them live together in Glen Campbell’s old mansion, and then film the results and interaction between their different personalities. In 2005, Emmanuel briefly appeared on the MTV series My Sweet Sixteen. In 2007, the former child star made a return to The Surreal Life when he starred in a spin-off of it called The Surreal Life: Fame Games. The premise of this iteration of the series was that an assemblage of 10 alumni from the prior, six seasons of The Surreal Life would compete for $100,000 in a 10-week competition set in Las Vegas.

Current Years

Emmanuel Lewis has kept busy with other ventures besides his acting career. In 2000, he established his own music label called Emmanuel Lewis Entertainment. In February of 2002, he returned to his roots—his commercial roots, that is. He appeared in a commercial for the full-service family restaurant/coffee shop chain, Denny’s. He is still a movie actor; being currently active in his profession, and nothing demonstrates this better than his upcoming role in a straight-to-DVD feature Doesn’t Texas Ever End, where he plays a doctor.