To describe the measure of talent that Thomas Mikal Ford displayed in his roles is almost as impossible as trying to figure out how he got his signature laugh. He was able to shift between roles like a manic henchman, from Mink in Kid N Play’s underrated Class Act to his unforgettable role as the conniving Tommy Smalls in Harlem Nights. He struck gold however, playing another Tommy—Tommy Strawn on Martin Lawrence’s hit television series Martin.
Playing the straight man to Cole Brown, Martin’s dimwitted other best friend, Tommy was a friend we truly recognized. Sure, he could be problematic—for example, look back on how Tommy labeled his opposite sex conquests as “GTD” ("Got the Draws")—but he had a good heart. He was that friend of yours who commented blank-faced on every ridiculous scheme your crew came up with; the friend who held you above himself; the friend who didn't have a job. For over five seasons, and in the years after Martin ended, we’ve all wondered exactly what the hell Tommy did for a living. The show attempted to reveal the mystery on the episode “Get a Job” (which ended up as a hilariously fruitless endeavor), and Tischa Campbell-Martin, who played Martin’s girlfriend Gina, recently revealed it in a podcast, but in all honesty, who cares? Tommy Strawn’s real job was being a true friend.
Tommy played the soothsayer to Martin’s madness—he coaxed him to relax when Gina was “trippin’,” and played preacher when a plumber “died” in Martin’s bathroom. He was the shoulder to cry on, with a shiny, bald head to crack jokes on when people didn’t want to hear his balanced commentary. To be frank, he was the angel on Martin’s angry shoulder—the person who always had his best interests in mind. Someone who helped his best friend eventually get the girl, even though he was wilding for letting her leave in the first place. A character like Tommy is few and far between in any medium, because understanding the peaks and valleys of friendships isn’t always easy to do.
With no disrespect to the greatness of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, that show routinely failed to portray realistic friendship as Martin did. The relationship between Will, Jazz, and Carlton wavered between a saccharine sweet after-school special to unrealistic sitcom slapstick antics. The trio felt like caricatures who were plucked from a page, no matter how beloved they were. It took equal parts great writing, which Martin had in spades, and the nuanced skill of Tommy Ford to bounce between what the show needed him to be without sacrificing his personality from episode to episode.
The character of Tommy seems real to us years later because he never fell down the trap of being too hokey, too clingy, or too unrealistic—which was the case with Cole, who they had to increasingly up the ante on in terms of his stupidity as the show progressed. When Tommy was given his own arc, falling in love with Gina’s best friend and Martin’s worst enemy, Pamela James, we could never forget Martin’s reaction. Because we’ve felt that emotion as well. We wanted to be happy for him, and why wouldn’t we? Tommy was a smooth, well-dressed, and respectful guy (without a job).
Tommy was the anti-Martin in a lot of ways, someone who showed him how it was done, and that highlighted to the audience what the Martin experience looked like from the other side. The intangibles behind his performance, which many times made moments like the infamous “CD Player” episode even more funny, added more to making Martin one of the most iconic and relatable Black television shows to this day. It wasn’t just comedic timing, or employment that truly MADE Tommy who he was—it was the love that he had for his friends. He was Martin’s homeboy. More than that, he was our homeboy.