By Barbara Kleban Mills
Updated July 12, 1982 12:00 PM

Sylvester Stallone was getting desperate in his search for the right blend of muscle and menace to play his antagonist, Clubber Lang, in Rocky III. He’d checked out more than 1,200 contenders, including Joe Frazier and Jim Brown, to no avail. Then one evening casting director Rhonda Young happened to switch on a TV competition for the title “America’s Toughest Bouncer.” And there, resplendent in a “Mandinka” haircut, tossing a 120-pound stuntman through the air, breaking down a door, jiving and rapping nonstop about his ghetto origins, was a 5’11½”, 219-pound bruiser who called himself only Mr. T “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Young. “The guy was not only different. He could talk.”

And how he could talk! Almost immediately the part of Clubber Lang was expanded from a few lines to pages of full-tilt rhetoric. Stallone made use not only of Mr. T’s verbal prowess but of his natural peacock splendor as well—including the plum-aged earrings that he has worn for years in jobs such as bodyguarding Muhammad AN. “I worked hard for Sly,” says Mr. T “And he worked hard too. I’d never been to acting school, but he trusted me.” Actually, says Mr. T, “I didn’t have to act. This guy Clubber Lang, I’ve been him all my life. He’s mean and hungry just like me.”

Mr.T’s hunger dates back to a childhood on Chicago’s tough South Side. Born Lawrence Tero 30 years ago, he has said he later changed his name to Mr. T “because I got tired of people calling me ‘boy.’ Now the first word out of anybody’s mouth has to be mister.” His father deserted his 13 dependents when Lawrence was 5. “My mother taught us that we shouldn’t hate him because he left,” Mr. T recalls. “My mother is a strong, wonderful woman. I could never be anything she didn’t want me to be.”

In 1962 the family moved to the Robert Taylor Homes, a once-model public housing project that soon became a breeding ground for young criminals. “I was mischievous,” Mr. T remembers. “I wasn’t bad. I stole food so we could eat. My mother didn’t know. I used to tell her some man gave me $10 to sweep out the yard. I was like Robin Hood. I took from the rich and gave to the poor. Me.” Lawrence won a football scholarship to Prairie View A&M University near Houston but returned after a year’s study to be a gym instructor in a federally funded program run by the board of education. “The kids had learning disabilities and were from broken homes,” he says. “Who knew about that better than me?”

When funds dried up in 1975, Mr. T worked full-time as a security guard, then as a “human shield” to the likes of Leon Spinks, Steve McQueen and AM. “To be a bodyguard,” he says, “is to be a kamikaze pilot. Dedicated. If someone tries to shoot my client, I will take that bullet.” Mr. T’s business card describes him as “Bodyguard Extraordinaire” and declares that “next to God, there is no better protector than I.” He has lately upped the ante to $5,000 a day for his services. “Cheryl Tiegs has made $2,000 a day for standing before a camera,” he says. “I figure I’m worth more.”

Since the release of Rocky III, agents and producers have been calling Mr. T constantly. But he claims he doesn’t like Hollywood (“They only want to market me”) and is sticking near his Chicago roots (which include a 12-year-old daughter who lives there with her mother, whom Mr. T never married). A devout Baptist, he is contemptuous of blacks who take the wrong route out of the ghetto. “If I do other movies,” he says, “I won’t be playing any superfly or pimp or dope pusher.” He’s also critical of groupies and refuses to sign autographs, but is at pains to explain his logic to each fan who confronts him. “I’m not a star,” he frowns. “I don’t feel I’m so great. So how can I make you feel great just because you’ve got my signature on a piece of paper?”

Yet Mr. T is not beyond using his celebrity to shape up ghetto kids experiencing the same “hunger” he (and Clubber Lang) turned into drive. Whenever he is in Chicago, he makes a point of going over to the Robert Taylor Homes. And he goes, of course, in full regalia. “Hey, Mr. T,” one of the kids invariably asks, “how come you got more gold chains on you than Sammy Davis Jr.?” His brows knitting in a terrible cleft across his nose, Mr. T replies, “Because I worked hard and bought them for myself. So that means I must be doin’ something right. Maybe you ought to try Mr. T’s way.”