Steve Harvey is a restless sort. During his four-hour morning show at a spacious Buckhead studio, he’ll leave periodically for fresh air, a bathroom break, to talk to staff.
But sometimes, he just wants to dance. When production engineer Lance Crayton spun Beyonce’s buoyant pop song “Love on Top” one recent morning, Crayton purposely raised the volume to almost club-level decibels. Why? It’s Harvey’s favorite new song, and it never hurts to make the boss happy.
Harvey shimmied in his seat, then stood up and moved his hips, singing along while the live mikes were off.
Once the song wrapped, he returned live, still pumped. “That’s the jam of the year!” he exclaimed to his audience of about 6 million listeners in more than 60 markets, including Atlanta’s Majic 107.5/97.5. “She is singing her tail off! When she’s modulating, that’s church modulating!”
The Atlanta comedian, at age 55, has reached similar decibel levels in his career. Besides his radio show, he’s a best-selling author, host of “Family Feud,” an active philanthropist for kids, and starting this fall, the host of his own day-time syndicated talk show called “Steve Harvey. This coming Friday, Harvey will see his book-turned-film “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” make its way to theaters nationwide.
A rise like this couldn’t have happened without a big trough. In 2005, Harvey’s WB variety show was axed, leaving him off TV for the first time in 12 years. His successful Kings of Comedy tours were over. And he was going through an ugly divorce from his second wife, Mary.
“People thought he was done,” his longtime manager Rushion McDonald said. “They thought he was a dinosaur.”
Skeptics even scoffed when Harvey launched a nationally syndicated radio show. TV people, McDonald said, tend to look down on radio. But this very personal medium, he said, resurrected Harvey.
At that time, Harvey reunited with Marjorie Bridges, whom he first met in 1986 and dated briefly. She helped ground him personally as he built his radio show, market by market. Inside, he was becoming a better man, he said.
Externally, he cut back on his signature, bright-colored zoot suits. And on Christmas Eve 2006, while his family was out, he drove to Sally’s Beauty Supply to buy balding clippers. He came home, took off his shirt and buzzed a 3-inch path through his finely clipped hair. “There was,” he said, “no turning back.”
For two hours, he stared at himself, fretting about his new look. Marjorie came home and screamed. But family members thought he looked 10 years younger. He breathed a sigh of relief.
The next year, Harvey married Marjorie, and left New York for a spacious, five-story mansion in metro Atlanta overlooking the Chattahoochee River. “In his heart, he’s a country boy,” said Crayton, his engineer. “New York City didn’t have the trees and grass.”
As Harvey’s radio show heated up, one daily feature called the Strawberry Letter caught fire. Co-host Shirley Strawberry would read a letter from a woman seeking relationship advice. She and Harvey would then offer their thoughts. He said he never pretended to be an expert like Dr. Phil. Rather, he used his experience from numerous failed relationships and decades of mistakes to inform with his blunt but amusing commentary.
A publisher soon pitched him to do a relationships book. He was skeptical at first. Relationships books are a dime a dozen. But “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” was a revelation. It laid out clear-cut advice, giving women insight into a man’s mind.
“When I first wrote this book, people laughed,” Harvey said. ” ‘What does he know? He’s a comedian!’ ”
With his radio show as a promotional tool, he was able to sell plenty of copies. Then word of mouth fueled more sales. Oprah Winfrey heard about the book and gave him her sizable platform — twice. By the end of 2009, he had sold more than 2 million copies, and people’s perceptions shifted. He wasn’t just a comic anymore. He was now a relationships adviser.
“I didn’t know my failures were going to turn into such a huge success,” he said. Now he has fans come up and tell him, “Your book saved my marriage!” Women have chased him in high heels and yell to him, “I got the ring!”
“Man,” Harvey said, with his characteristic sigh. “I didn’t know people would chase me down. I knew what I was saying was true. Who knew it’d get like this!”
Despite the fact it had no narrative, the book became a hot commodity among movie producers, figuring they could replicate the success of the 2009 romantic film “He’s Just Not That Into You,” based on a relationships book by comedian Greg Berendt.
Will Packer, who runs Atlanta-based Rainforest Films (”Stomp the Yard,” “Takers”), was one of the first to approach Harvey. Packer brought Screen Gems/Sony in as partners.
“I”m buying into your vision,” Harvey told Packer. “Do justice to the book.”
Packer commissioned David Newman and Keith Merryman (”Friends With Benefits”) to write a script that takes archetypes from the book (e.g. mama’s boy, the player, the man-child) and weaves their relationships into a coherent whole.
The film, which comes out Friday, April 20 in nationwide release, turns the book into a character as well. Women in the film read the book and try to work it to their advantage. When the men find out, they try to turn the tables on the women. Harvey is a bit player, appearing on TV screens dispensing advice as an expert.
“I’m not the star of the movie, and that’s fine with me,” Harvey said.
At the time the movie was percolating along, aging game show “Family Feud” was seeking a reboot. Producers met with Harvey. He had one condition:
“He didn’t want to be a traffic cop,” said executive producer Gaby Johnston. “I told him to just be himself and we’ll record it. No one could have guessed how well it ended up working out. He’s made the show hip again.”
Harvey’s ability to riff and react worked wonders for “Feud,” giving it an energy it had lacked since the days of original 1970s host Richard Dawson. Ratings have jumped 70 percent since he started in 2010, drawing about 4.7 million viewers a day. The show has been renewed through 2015.
“Family Feud made him a general market star,” his manager McDonald said. Up to that point, his primary audience had been African American, going back to his days as host of “Showtime at the Apollo” and star of the WB sitcom ‘The Steve Harvey Show.”
“Everything comes down to race and culture,” Harvey said with an air of frustration. “It would be nice if people would get past that. …The fact I’m African American will show up on camera. Am I funny? Am I a good interviewer? Am I a good listener? Am I relatable to people? That’s what should matter.”
For years, Harvey added, “I’d be getting pigeonholed. We’ve been able to eradicate a lot of that.”
Juan Camilo Archila, a 32-year-old Atlanta architect, was only mildly familiar with Harvey when he took part in “Family Feud” last year for three episodes. Harvey won Archila over with his humor, his sincerity and work ethic. “He took the time to do a Q and A with the audience during every break and gave a lot of insight into his private life you wouldn’t have thought he’d share,” Archila said. Now he’s much more aware of Harvey’s expanding empire. “He’s like a media mogul now,” Archila mused.
Harvey’s multi-faceted empire has created a wide variety of fans who like him for different reasons. John Filmore, a 61-year-old Atlanta postal employee, sees him as a great role model for black men. “He’s sharp, he speaks well and he takes education seriously,” he said.
Ianta Burks, 44, of Morrow, loves his humor and has seen him several times live in concert. “He’s spontaneous. He just lights it up,” she said.
Leeann Simmons, a 49-year-old counselor from Fairburn, said as a separated woman, she enjoyed his insights in his book and appreciates his charitable efforts.
His Harvey’s expanding fan base — fueled by the book, the radio show and “Family Feud” — drew interest from Endemol, a production company known for reality shows such as “Wipeout,” “Fear Factor” and “Big Brother.” They persuaded Harvey to launch his own daytime syndicated talk show to help fill a void left by Winfrey.
It’s a competitive world packed with existing stars such as Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Mehmet Oz and newcomers such as Katie Couric.
Harvey hopes to create a show focused on the travails and triumphs of regular folks, not celebrities. He banks on his ability to connect with the Average Joe after spending much of his early adulthood as a non-celebrity, selling insurance, running a carpet-cleaning company and building cars on a Ford assembly line. He didn’t step onto a comedy club stage to crack jokes until he was 27 . And he was 35 when he finally got his big break hosting “Showtime at the Apollo” in 1993.
As a result of this major new obligation, Harvey has had to make a couple of concessions.
First, he’s going to transplant his family to Chicago for a good part of the year. Distributor NBCUniversal has studio space there. At the same time, he’s not giving up his Atlanta residence, replete with a movie theater, bowling alley and wine cellar.
“I love my house and more importantly, my wife loves it,” he said. He also plans to film “Family Feud” in Atlanta when he’s not working on his talk show.
The other sacrifice, Harvey said, is truly bittersweet. He’s giving up what got him to the table: stand-up comedy.
His final stand-up concert will be at the MGM Grand Garden Arena August 2, right before his talk show starts production. He said this is not a feint. “I want to go while I’m still selling out arenas and people are still clapping for me,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to comedy clubs now. I want to go out while I’m on top.”
He won’t stop doing radio, though. “No sir. Come too far,” he said. “Radio means too much for me.”
Indeed, he uses radio to push his philanthropic causes just as much as his jokes.
“I want to help young people direct their minds on a positive path,” Harvey said.
He co-sponsors Disney Dreamers Academy, an annual gathering of 100 youths at Walt Disney World. Just last month, 17 teens from the Atlanta area attended the weekend academy in Orlando. And every Father’s Day weekend, he brings 100 young sons of single moms to his ranch in Dallas to help teach them about being men.
“Real men go to work, go to church and honor God,” Harvey said. “Real men obey the law. Rapping and driving big cars with the video girls has nothing to do with manhood.”
Harvey said he wants to create a “life-changing event” for the boys. He remembers his own equivalent: a psychology teacher coming by his parents’ home in Cleveland when he was a teen and telling them Harvey was special – and not in a special needs sort of way. “He told them, ‘If he doesn’t stop hanging with the bad crowd, they’ll lead him the wrong way.’ ” That teacher’s visit spurred him to go a better direction.
Over the years, Harvey has crafted an image of himself as a smart businessman, a generous donor and a reformed family man. But his ex-wife Mary Harvey last year threw some darts at him in a very public way. In January 2011, she posted YouTube videos accusing Harvey of ripping her off in the divorce agreement and creating a wedge between her and their teenage son Wynton. She said she was appalled to see Harvey touted as a relationships guru.
Mary Harvey couldn’t be reached for comment. Harvey said he’s under court orders that prevent him from saying much.
“Even without a gag order, I won’t say anything because that marriage created a son,” Harvey said. “I have taught my son to always be respectful of his mother. If I show disrespect, what message do I send him? I’d rather eat all the crow and take the bad press and keep my mouth closed. At least my son will see his dad didn’t knock his mom down.”
Still, he admits it was tough on him, his current wife, and his four biological kids (three from his first marriage).
“It was honestly the toughest period ever in my entire life,” he said. In the end, he made one single statement on his radio show refuting many of his ex-wife’s claims and convinced a judge to release one document to refute many of Mary’s claims.
The situation, Harvey said, also highlighted his need to be a better Christian. He opens his radio show every day talking about his faith, not cracking jokes. He also hosts BET’s “Celebration of Gospel” every year.
At a recent Morehouse College event for General Mills Box Tops For Education event, Harvey told the audience how he had become a “new Christian.”
“It’s been quite a journey for me,” he said. “I’m struggling with that. Christianity has some heavy rules and I ain’t locked them all in yet!”
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk