Born December 29, 1975, in New York, NY; son of Rhoda Phifer (a teacher); married Malinda Williams (divorced); children: Omi (son).
Office —NBC, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112.
Actor in films, including: Clockers, 1995; High School High, 1996; Girl 6, 1996; Soul Food, 1997; Hav Plenty, 1997; I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, 1998; Hell's Kitchen, 1998; An Invited Guest, 1999; Shaft, 2000; Head Games, 2001; O, 2001; The Other Brother, 2002; 8 Mile, 2002; Paid in Full, 2002; Imposter, 2002; Honey, 2003. Television appearances include: The Tuskegee Airmen (movie), 1995; New York Undercover, 1996; Homicide: Life on the Street, 1996, 1998; Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground (movie), 1997; A Lesson Before Dying (movie), 1999; Carmen: A Hip Hopera (movie), 2001; Brian's Song (movie), 2001; ER, 2002—.
Rising Star Award, American Black Film Festival, 2002.
Prolific film and television actor Mekhi Phifer starred in more than 20 films between the year of his acting debut in Spike Lee's Clockers in 1995 and 2003, in which he appeared in Honey. In addition to his film work, he joined the regular cast of the hit NBC medical drama series ER in 2002 in the
Phifer, whose first name is pronounced "Muh–KIE," explained to Amy Dawes in the Los Angeles Daily News, reprinted in the Plain Dealer, that his name "derives from the Muslim holy city of Mecca, and relates to water, and how water sustains life and is one of the strongest elements."
He grew up in New York's Harlem neighborhood. Phifer's family includes, in addition to his mother, his twin brother; they have never met their father. Phifer and his family had very little money while he was growing up, but he considered himself rich in experience and with the love of his mother. His mother taught in public schools, and after she got off work in the afternoon, she was able to spend a lot of time with her children—a factor he later said contributed to his staying out of trouble, even though many of his peers were involved in illegal activities. His home was across the street from a rough housing project, where many people he knew were involved in drug dealing and other crimes.
Phifer's mother was perhaps the strongest influence on him as he was growing up. For instance she made sure he got home at a reasonable time at night, instead of letting him stay out on the streets until late, as so many of his peers did. With his mother's help, Phifer managed to steer clear of run–ins with the law. He also worked hard at odd jobs starting at the age of 13, developing a strong work ethic. Jobs that kept him in spending money included doing building maintenance, distributing snacks at a community center, and working as a clerk at the Gap clothing chain.
Strongly interested in acting from an early age, Phifer participated in community theater productions in Harlem, and in talent contests. Before becoming a professional actor, he won a national talent contest, which resulted in his landing a record deal with Warner Bros. to cut a rap album.
Phifer got his start as a professional actor at the age of 19. He had just graduated from high school in 1994, and had been admitted to a college to study electrical engineering. He was dividing his time between working on the rap album for Warner Bros. and a construction job in New York, when he heard from a cousin who was an actor that director Spike Lee was casting his next film through an open call. Almost on a lark, he decided to accompany his cousin to the audition.
The only problem was, he did not have a set of actor's eight–by–ten–inch headshots. So, on the way to the audition, he stopped in at a Woolworth's store and had small, passport–sized pictures taken. The film for which Phifer auditioned was Clockers, and he was somewhat daunted at the audition to find that it was being held in a large auditorium full of professional actors, each of whom had the large, professional quality headshots that Phifer lacked; he felt less than prepared, with his, as he told the Toronto Sun 's Bob Thompson, "postage stamp pictures."
Even so, Phifer was noticed at the open call, and after a short interview, was told to report for a call-back at a smaller audition in a week's time. At the callback, Phifer met Lee, who impressed Phifer with his style and poise. The feeling was mutual, and Lee hired Phifer to star in his film after a half dozen more callbacks. Lee later told reporters that that Phifer had a certain presence that Lee was looking for in the lead for his film. In Clockers, Phifer plays a young drug dealer, or "clocker," who is accused of murder. Phifer's character, called Strike, finds himself with his back to the wall, caught between the duel forces of a cop played by Harvey Keitel, and his surrogate father, who got him into drug dealing in the first place.
Following his work on Clockers, Phifer continued to work on his rap album. But between his acting and music careers, he lacked the time to attend college as he had originally planned. He had no regrets, however, expressing the sentiment that he had gotten an excellent education in film acting courtesy of Lee, and had gotten paid for it besides.
Phifer's first film role was by no means the last: Clockers launched a new career for him. Other film and television roles followed in rapid succession. His next role after Clockers was in the comedy High School High, followed by the horror film I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. He also appeared in 1997's Soul Food, in which he plays an ex–convict husband, 1998's Hell's Kitchen, NYC, 1999's An Invited Guest, and 2001's O, based on William Shakespeare's play Othello, in which he performed an update of the title character.
The "O" in O is an African–American basketball star at an otherwise all–white boarding school in the present day South. Phifer relished in this role the opportunity to portray a young African–American man in a positive, charismatic light—something, he told Celia McGee in the Daily News, that was uncommon in Hollywood. "People haven't seen a young black man in this kind of role before," he told McGee.
The film's release was delayed after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Miramax, the distributor, feared negative publicity surrounding the release of a film that featured high school violence. Finally, after two years in limbo, the film was released by Lions Gate. Phifer disagreed with the decision to delay the release of the film. His feeling was that, rather than encourage high school violence, the film would spark dialogue between parents and their children, and help to prevent violence: "Everything O does is motivated by love, not hate," he told McGee. "I hope that the R rating will bring parents and kids to the movie together and bridge some gaps. It should create mutual respect."
Phifer did not have to audition for the starring role in O; he landed the part after having dinner with director Tim Blake Nelson, who had become interested in Phifer after seeing him in Soul Food. As Nelson told Hugh Hart in the Boston Globe, "I liked very much Mekhi Phifer, the actor I saw in Soul Food, but I loved the person with whom I was sitting when we met. I knew before we parted company that day that he was going to play the role."
Other roles for Phifer at this time included 2000's Shaft, a remake of the 1970s detective film, and 2001's Carmen: A Hop–Hopera, a TV movie produced for MTV. Other television roles included parts in The Tuskegee Airman, Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground, Brian's Song, and A Lesson Before Dying, in which he starred with Don Cheadle. He also appeared in guest spots on the television series Homicide: Life on the Street in 1996 and 1998, and New York Undercover, in 1996.
Within five years of his screen debut, Phifer appeared in more than a dozen films, all the while managing to avoid the typecasting that sometimes limits African–American actors. "I never wanted to be one of these cats shuckin' and jivin'," he explained to Denene Millner in the Daily News. He further stated that he would never appear in a film that he could not be proud of watching, and that included films that perpetuated negative stereotypes of African Americans.
In 2002, Phifer was hired to play Dr. Gregory Pratt on the popular NBC hospital drama ER. Once again, Phifer welcomed the opportunity to demolish stereotypes about young African–American men, telling Eric Deggans in the St. Petersburg Times that it was a role he could get behind, unlike many he had turned down, including "all the stuff that perpetuates a fake stereotype." He also enjoyed the challenge of learning medical jargon and inhabiting a role that is far removed from his own personal experience.
Meanwhile, Phifer continued to appear in films, including Imposter, Paid in Full and 8 Mile, all in 2002. In 8 Mile, Phifer performed opposite rap star Eminem, who was making his acting debut. The film presents a fictionalized version of Eminem's upbringing in rough sections of Detroit. Phifer, then 27 years old, was selected as much for his street smarts as for his talents as an actor. As part of the rehearsal process, Phifer and Eminem and the rest of the cast spent a lot of time together off camera to build the spirit of camaraderie that was important to the film's performances. "We went to the malls, we went to the football games and spent time with each other and became friends," Phifer explained to the Los Angeles Times. Phifer followed up his role in 8 Mile with a part in Honey. Released in 2003, the film features Phifer as the love interest of a music video choreographer.
Phifer married his costar in An Invited Guest, Malinda Williams, but they divorced a short time later. They had met while working together on the film High School High in 1996. He described himself to the Daily News 's McGee as "very happily divorced."
In addition to his work as an actor, Phifer also pursues careers in producing and screenwriting. He does not take his success for granted; on his shoulder is a tattoo that says "R.I.S.E.," which stands for "Robbing Is So Easy." He explained to the Boston Globe 's Hart that it is a reminder of his humble roots, and how easy it would be return to them.
Perhaps to hedge his bets, he has invested in the Athlete's Foot chain of shoe stores, becoming the youngest owner of the chain's shops. Phifer also founded his own film production company, called Ki–Kel Entertainment, and sells merchandise on his website, Mekhi.net . His partners in these ventures include Kelly Hilaire, whom he met on a video shoot in 1996, and the cousin who took him to the Spike Lee audition that started his acting career, Sly Phifer. In 2003, he began filming the movies Dawn of the Dead and Slow Burn.
Phifer is modest about his successes, telling the Los Angeles Times, "I'm not here to save the world," and that coming from "a ghetto situation," he has learned that the secret to success is to "keep it real and go with what you know."
Boston Globe, August 26, 2001, p. L7.
Daily News (New York), May 21, 1999, p. 60; August 23, 2001, p. 40.
Jet, July 22, 2002, pp. 59–62.
Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2002, p. E14.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), September 20, 1995, p. 6E.
St. Petersburg Times, September 26, 2002, p. 1D.
Toronto Star, November 11, 2002, p. D2.
Toronto Sun, October 3, 1995, p. 39.
"The Facts—Mekhi Phifer," E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/Facts/People/Bio/0,128,34922,00.html (July 10, 2003).
— Michael Belfiore