December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

The couple that laughs together stays together. At least it works for Duane Martin and Tisha Campbell. One night in 1995 Martin invited his girlfriend of five years to a late dinner at an L.A. Denny’s. They ordered their usual: chicken fingers for the lady, apple pie à la mode for the gentleman. Then Martin dropped to one knee and asked, “Will you be my best friend forever?” Campbell said yes with a sentimental sob. But, she recalls, “this was a crunchy Denny’s with prostitutes and pimps. One girl overheard us and said, ‘Uh-uh. Not in no Denny’s. No, no, no. He’s stupid.’ My tears just turned to laughter.”

Eight years, one child and two sitcoms later, the pair are still entertaining each other—and millions of TV viewers too. Campbell-Martin, 35, who costarred in the House Party movies and the Martin Lawrence sitcom Martin (1992-97), is now in her fourth season acting opposite Damon Wayans on the ABC sitcom My Wife and Kids. Earlier this year, Martin, 38, who had some commercials and a few TV and movie roles on his résumé, landed a breakthrough role on UPN’s freshman hit All of Us—better known as the show inspired by executive producers (and the couple’s longtime pals) Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. “The other day,” Campbell-Martin says, “we were driving down Santa Monica Boulevard and there was the big billboard” for the show, which features only Will’s and Jada’s names on it. “I just turned my head and started smiling, and he says, ‘Go ahead and say it.’ I paused for a second and I said, ‘I hear Will and Jada got picked up for the rest of the season,’ and he just started cracking up.”

In other circles, Martin’s the big name: A real-life Jerry Maguire, he’s a fulltime partner in Impact Sports, an athlete-management company representing the likes of Ravens running back Jamal Lewis. Still, “Duane hasn’t allowed success on the sports side or the entertainment side to change who he is,” says partner Mitch Frankel. “His feet are still on the floor.”

When he was a kid, they were more often on a basketball court. The Brooklyn-raised Martin went to New York University on a basketball scholarship and had a tryout with the Philadelphia 76ers. (“I only played with them for, like, a minute,” he says ruefully.) Campbell-Martin grew up in nearby Newark, N. J., where she won her first talent contest at 5. Offered roles on children’s TV, then teen movies, she made her way to L.A. The pair met while auditioning for a TV pilot in 1990. “They’re very loving,” says Damon Wayans. “The little things he does for her are cool. For example, they have a wedding basket and it’s all this memorabilia from their dating years—little obscure stuff that women remember and guys get harassed by other guys if we do this.”

Martin’s sensitive side came out in full force two years ago, when their son Xen was born. “We have a great schedule,” Martin says. “We both get home by 6 or 7 o’clock so our son is able to see us every day.” At their sprawling five-bedroom L.A. home, says Campbell-Martin, “we take time-outs for ourselves on weekends and go to the mountains as a family.” That sometimes also includes both their moms, whose proximity is almost sitcom-worthy. Martin, one of four kids, bought his mother, Betsy, a retired social worker, a house in their neighborhood. (His father, Jake Daniels, died in 1990.) Campbell-Martin’s mother, Mona, a retired talent manager who was divorced from Tisha’s dad, Clifton, when she was 13, lives just an exit or two down the freeway.

The couple haven’t yet agreed on another nursery collaboration. Martin is ready for child No. 2—”I want a little girl,” he says, joking. “I want my shot at creating that perfect woman”—but his wife is less enthusiastic. She’s still shedding her pregnancy weight, 80 lbs. and counting. One thing the couple adamantly agree on: separate careers. “Duane and I have had many offers to work together because our chemistry is crazy,” says Campbell-Martin. “But we feel what we have together right now is perfect, so why ruin it?”


Monica Rizzo and Ulrica Wihiborg in Los Angeles

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