From Philly comedian to Hollywood headliner

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First Posted: 1/21/2014

Kevin Hart still can’t believe that his self-financed concert film “Let Me Explain” scored so big at the box office. But Hollywood has no trouble believing in Hart. Before 2014 is over, the Philly native will have toplined four mainstream comedies.

“I still don’t know if I made it,” insists the actor. “I think the minute I think about it is the minute I’ll go crazy. I don’t like addressing it.

“This is all a dream to me. That’s why I don’t go to sleep. I’m afraid if I close my eyes, when I wake up, this [film career] will be over. So I just stay up all the time.”

Hart’s latest big-screen run began in December with “Grudge Match,” in which he played a fast-talking promoter opposite fellow Philadelphian Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro.

For a Philly boy like Hart, the job was particularly satisfying. “I got to cuss at Sly a couple of times and it felt good,” says Hart with a laugh. “I felt like I won a fight. I called my dad and said, ‘I said s—t to Sylvester Stallone!’”

On Feb. 14, Hart will pop up in “About Last Night,” a remake of the 1986 movie about two couples (Joy Bryant, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall) struggling with commitment issues. On June 20, he’ll star in “Think Like a Man Too,” which uses a Las Vegas wedding as the backdrop for a series of misadventures. Ealy, Gabrielle Union, and Taraji P. Henson co-star.

Also due this summer is “Finally Famous,” a Chris Rock-directed comedy about the world of reality TV. Union, Rosario Dawson, JB Smoove and Ben Vereen round out the cast.

First up, Hart struts his stuff in “Ride Along,” a comedy about a young man (Hart) who’ll do anything to impress his fiancée’s policeman brother (Ice Cube), including going along with him on a night patrol of Atlanta.

As far as Ice Cube is concerned, Hart is bound for the cinematic winner’s circle.

“I haven’t seen somebody come on the scene since Eddie Murphy [that’s as talented] as Kevin,” says the rapper-turned-actor. “Kevin can come in and basically hold you hostage until he wants to let you go.

“Everybody’s captivated. He’s just an amazing talent. It’s magical to see somebody go there and [be] able to capture all audiences with it. Not just the hood audiences, but everywhere else in the world, too. All hoods. Chinese hoods, African hoods, Israeli hoods. He can get everybody into it.”

In the tradition of buddy action comedies like “48 Hrs.” and “Rush Hour,” Hart cracks most of the jokes while Ice Cube serves as the straight man.

Hart insists the laughs come as much from Ice Cube’s reactions as from his own comic mayhem.

“It takes a true professional like Cube to allow somebody like myself to come in and have the opportunity to be funny and riff and do all those things,” says Hart, 34, who owns the Philadelphia Hitmen, the Professional Bowlers Association League team.

“Cube didn’t mind doing it. That’s a major thing because you’ve got so many people that would try to battle with the funny and go, ‘Kevin’s improving; I’m going to improve, too.’

“But Cube did a great job of playing in his lane and setting me up to win. I take my hat off to him for that. It’s a different level of respect I have for guys like that.”

In the movie, Hart generates plenty of laughs simply by playing the coward. It’s a ploy that worked equally well for comics stretching back to Bob Hope and Jack Benny.

Hart says he didn’t have to do any research to play a scaredy cat.

“My rule is save myself first,” he says with a laugh. “I remember there was one incident at a movie theater where my girl got mad at these three guys behind us for talking.

“I hadn’t looked back there and she was like, ‘Will you all just shut up?’ I turned around and saw them, and just moved three rows ahead… I said to her, ‘You just better come up here.’ I don’t play the fighting game. So that was a real-life experience that I was able to pull from for the movie.”

A native of North Philadelphia, Hart was raised by his single mother, Nancy, after his father Henry, then a cocaine addict, landed in jail. Hart has often spoken about how he used comedy to help survive the tough times he encountered during his childhood.

After graduating from George Washington High School, he attended the Community College of Philadelphia before finding work as a shoe salesman in Brockton, Mass.

While back home in Philly, Hart landed a stand-up gig at the Laff House. He got booed offstage a number of times, but he slowly began to refine his material and, after returning to Massachusetts, he started connecting with audiences in a big way.

He began his TV career on “Undeclared,” Judd Apatow’s follow-up to “Freaks and Geeks.” After that came roles in movies like “Soul Plane,” “Little Fockers,” and “The Five-Year Engagement.”

Hart proved he was a major box office draw with “Let Me Explain,” a document of his sold-out 2012 concert tour. The film cost about $2 million to make and went on to gross more than $32 million.

“I’ve got to tell you, my mom, who passed away six years ago, was definitely the most supportive person at the start of my career,” recalls Hart, the father of two children with his ex-wife, comedian Torrei Hart. “She let me do what I wanted to do.

“[But] my brother and my dad were like, ‘What the hell are you doing? This is stupid. The comedy thing, Kevin, is just stupid.’

“But once something real started to happen, my brother was like, ‘You’re alright!’ Everything changed after a while, once the checks started coming in.”