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His unlikely and improbable journey to fame and fortune in Hollywood began in the ’hood where he candidly admits a lot of his friends were murdered in gang rivalry. Handsome model turned actor and singer Tyrese Gibson hit the big time in the 2001 film “Baby Boy,” a prequel to “Boyz in the Hood” for John Singleton. Tyrese landed the role after rapper Tupac Shakur died tragically in Las Vegas.
Tyrese returned to Las Vegas in a life has gone full circle story to mentor eight film students hoping to find similar success. Tyrese attended this year’s CinemaCon at Caesars Palace for the Sprite Films program where I met him. The students from Florida State University, UCLA, Savannah College and Elon University took part in workshops sponsored by Universal Pictures and had one-on-one time with Tyrese to go over their film projects and industry plans.
The filmmakers’ winning scripts read here in Las Vegas will now be produced into short films that will compete in an online contest in August at Sprite.com. The winning film will be determined by public voting and scores from a Green Ribbon panel and shown in theaters in November. Coca-Cola launched Sprite Films as an annual endeavor in 1998 to engage challenged youths with an opportunity to leverage their talents behind the camera and beyond.
Tyrese provided guidance and insight to ignite their creativity and assist them with filmmaking. He even went above and beyond and hosted a private dinner at Caesars working with them until the late hours.
He told me: “It has been an honor, man. This was a very special moment just being there with those young adults and students who are trying to create a future. Ideas, visions and dreams mean nothing if they stay in your head. Ideas and dreams and visions are physical because people can make them happen and physically experience them.
“A lot of my own mentoring with those directors and writers is really about what they are about to do. They are about to allow the world to experience their visions and their ideas. It is very important that they put their best foot forward.”
I asked if he saw a little of his own extraordinary life in the students. “I did. Absolutely, I did,” he said. “That is why I went all out for them, because I think at this point in my life, the things I do on behalf of others are things I either wish that somebody did for me or people actually did it for me, and I’m just returning the love. It’s a full circle.”
So how did this kid from East L.A. ever think that he would get out of the ghetto and teach youngsters how to get into the film business? I asked him how grim life was in East L.A. before he escaped it.
“It was South Central L.A. I was born and raised in Watts close to Compton. It was rough, man. Every aspect of my upbringing was rough -- alcohol and drug abuse in my family, just a lot of verbal, mental and spiritual abuse,” Tyrese admitted. “It happened every day, all day. A lot of gangs and Bloods and Crips -- a lot of killings, a lot of friends were murdered, just stuff, normal, but not normal. When people grow up in the ghetto, just your typical rough upbringing, and that was my story.”
Then the “Transformers” and “The Fast and the Furious” actor surprised me: “I watched you doing your job: Robin Leach on ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ traveling the world and hanging out with the big people. What you didn’t know was that there was a little kid in Watts, looking at television, and I never missed one episode.
“What ended up happening is I started having visions and ideas as to what I could be and what I could do one day, because I knew then from your show that there were amazing and beautiful things out there beyond what I was able to see. So your TV show became my escapism. I was able to escape. I left the ghetto; I left the streets of Watts whenever your show came on. I was in France, I was everywhere in the world, but I was no longer in Watts.
“When I watched your show, I was able to travel. I had never been on an airplane, I had never seen other parts of the world the way you showed other parts of the world, and then it became real for me. It became a possibility that I could have these things because you were having conversations with people, and they were talking just like me.
“When you are in the ghetto, when you are in the streets, you just believe that all these wealthy, rich people are just not human. They can’t be human with all that money. They can’t be real.
“It became reality for me, a different reality, through looking at your television show, and it gave me hope when I was hopeless. It gave me inspiration when I was uninspired, it gave me motivation when I was unmotivated. Now for real today, I drive a Maserati. I loved the way it looked, so I purchased it. It’s a real full circle. I got to execute all of my dreams. You inspired me to go into acting, and now I’m inspiring these young adults being their mentor.
“The great thing is that they know at this point they’ve got to make a really good movie. Even though it’s a short film, they know that the pressure is on. They have to do what they have to do to make it right and make it special. It’s a great platform. … It is beautiful, it is empowering that [Sprite] came up with the idea to create this platform for these students.
“I want them to constantly challenge themselves like I did to get out of the ghetto. It’s a game of chess. I have to know what you are thinking. I have to create the next move before the move happens. I said to them, ‘This is a blessing, but you are here now. What are you going to do with it? How are you going to take your career and life and lifestyle to another level?’
“I honestly think there’s a future [Martin] Scorsese or [Alfred] Hitchcock among them. I hope they call me. I’d like to work for a couple of them when they get recognized. Include me in some of those visions, please!”
Tyrese has just crossed 350,000 in sales with his new independent album “Open Invitation.” “I've just been on the road touring, getting behind this album. I had my first #1 single after five albums, and it was #1 for 11 weeks on Billboard. I start shooting ‘Fast and the Furious 6’ in July. I am a proud father, my daughter is 4. And I am taking Robin Leach to lunch when he gets to L.A.!”
“It has been a great journey. God is the greatest, man. I never take my success for granted. I can’t believe that I’m here, and I want to hold on to it as long as I can. I wrote a book about it, ‘How to Get Out of Your Own Way.’ I talk about you a few times in the book and what your show meant to me. Pure determination can make it happen for anybody.”
Tyrese’s story is a remarkable one, and I hadn’t known any of it previously. I am humbled and honored that my former TV show helped him find fame and fortune with albums and movies -- and that, most importantly, he’s now teaching others they, too, can win big.
And he’s one hell of a nice and kind guy, too. You can’t beat that! You can join his 2.7 million followers, including our hometown heroes Gladys Knight and Mike Tyson, for his continuing journey on Twitter @Tyrese.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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