Sitcom comic Martin Lawrence seems an actor on the brink—of film stardom and self-destruction

By Steven Lang
May 12, 1997 12:00 PM

OUR STORY SO FAR: LAST NOVEMBER actress Tisha Campbell quit the Fox sitcom Martin and later, in a lawsuit, accused its troubled star Martin Lawrence of sexual harassment. She returned to the series March 21 but only, say sources, after wresting an unusual agreement from Martin’s producers: Whenever Campbell was taping scenes, Martin would not be allowed on the set of his own show. It was, perhaps, a Hollywood first—and definitely a challenge to the show’s writers and editors, who, for Martin’s final, one-hour episode that aired May 1, had to make the pair seem like a loving couple though they never stood in the same room.

It was only the latest tribulation for Lawrence, 32, who seems to be updating the how-to manual on career immolation. During the past year the talented but troubled comic has been arrested for punching a nightclub patron, sentenced to probation for concealing a loaded weapon, hospitalized after ranting at drivers on Ventura Boulevard and twice accused in court of threatening women—his costar Campbell, 28, and his estranged wife, Patricia, 26, who described him in an affidavit as a violent drug abuser who “exhibit[s] irrational and abusive behavior toward me” and “who loves [their 16-month-old daughter, Jasmin] very much” but can-‘t be trusted alone with her. Martin’s troubles spilled over to his work, Patricia contended in her statement, which told of a taping last fall during which he sobbed uncontrollably and had to be “pushed onto the stage to start [his] show.”

So far, Martin hasn’t publicly addressed his personal problems; and he has tried, mostly, to characterize the end of his series as a career choice. “Right now I’m going to take some time off for myself and then concentrate all my efforts on my film career,” Lawrence said in a statement last month. His professional services are still in demand. The actor reportedly was paid $5 million to $7 million to costar with Tim Robbins in the film Nothing to Lose, due July 16, and, separately, is expected to appear in three films from Columbia Pictures, with which he signed a $20 million deal in the summer of ’95. “When you’re successful in Hollywood like he is, every-one wants a piece of you,” says David Raynr, who coproduced Lawrence’s 1995 directorial debut, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. “It’s a blessing as long as it doesn’t become a curse.”

Fans first learned of Lawrence’s problems after the Ventura Boulevard incident in May 1996. “It looked like someone tripping out,” says Jon Olmstead, a hot dog vendor who witnessed the disturbance. Martin was quickly hospitalized for what his PR people called “exhaustion and dehydration.” Those closer to Lawrence already knew he was in trouble, however. According to court papers, he had been hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in July ’95 after a wild outburst on the Thin Line set. When he returned from his second hospital stay, a live-in nurse was hired to help supervise him in his six-bedroom Mulholland Estates mansion.

Even with that precaution, and medication prescribed by psychiatrist John Altman—who termed Lawrence “paranoid,” according to Patricia’s court statement—he got into trouble again last July 29 when, boarding a plane to Phoenix, he tried to pass through a metal detector while carrying a 9mm Beretta pistol. Detained at the scene, he eventually received two years’ probation. Soon afterward, Lawrence’s family flew with him to an Arizona drug-rehab center. Two days later, Patricia claims in her affidavit, he checked himself out and began getting high again on marijuana, even while seeing a drug counselor.

The situation worsened on Sept. 14, when, after returning from Hawaii at 4 a.m., he awakened Patricia, with Jasmin in his arms, and asked why his private nurse wasn’t home, said Patricia in court papers. When Patricia said she had given the nurse a few days off, the court documents allege, Lawrence erupted in rage, shouting, “I’ll bust your teeth in,” before pushing her back on the bed while still clutching the baby. After the incident, Patricia and Jasmin moved into a hotel. On Sept. 17, less than two years after he had married the former Miss Virginia before a star-studded crowd of 600, Martin filed for divorce.

Despite a temporary restrainíng order granted to his by-then-fearful wife on Oct. 30, Lawrence went to her room at the Universal City Hilton three weeks later, says Kirk Colby, president of a security firm Patricia hired to protect her. An unsigned note slipped under her door began sweetly enough. “I will do anything to have you back,” it read. “I miss my baby so much.” Then it turned menacing: “If I can’t have you then I will make sure that no-one [sic] has you. So come home now!!! If you don’t, then I will have to do what I have to do.”

After Tisha learned of those threats to Patricia, she quit Martin. The producers sued to force her back to work; she countersued, charging Lawrence with “repeated and escalating sexual harassment, sexual battery, verbal abuse and related threats.” Both sides settled out of court—with one condition being that Campbell would work only if Lawrence were kept away.

His problems continue apace. In March Lawrence allegedly slugged a man who had bumped into him on an L.A. club dance floor. He is scheduled to be arraigned on May 19. And on Nov. 12 he faces a potentially costly divorce settlement hearing. His recent arrest could cause authorities to rescind his probation on the concealed-weapon charge and order jail time.

Some observers think the drama surrounding Lawrence has been blown out of proportion. “It’s as if I’m reading about a totally different person than I saw on the set,” says Dan Jinks, producer of Nothing to Lose. Others believe Lawrence’s problems aren’t being taken seriously enough. “We think he’s not getting the help he needs,” says Suzanne Harris, Patricia’s attorney. “There are people making money in his coterie who are more interested in seeing the cash flow continue than in seeing him get better.”