Back in the mid-’90s, Mekhi Phifer was one of the hottest things in Hollywood. After shooting to fame virtually overnight in Spike Lee’s Clockers, he appeared in hit ensemble comedy Soul Food, graced the era’s second-biggest slasher franchise in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and was famously fought over by Brandy and Monica in the iconic video for "The Boy Is Mine."
The New Yorker managed to continue his golden streak well into the new century, landing key roles in box office hits 8 Mile, Honey and Dawn of the Dead. He also took center stage in MTV-friendly adaptations of Othello and Carmen and enjoyed a six-season spell in ER as the ill-fated Dr. Gregory Pratt (we’re still not over his tragic death).
But while Phifer has never been short of work, his resume over the last five years has been relatively low-profile compared to his heyday. Here’s a look at why you might struggle to remember when you last saw the once-ubiquitous star on your screen.
Mekhi Phifer prefers to stay out of the press
Although he married and divorced his High School High co-star Malinda Williams, had a child with one-time fiancée Oni Southara and got married a second time to NBC creative director Reshelet Barnes, Mekhi Phifer has largely managed to keep his eventful private life out of the press.
And that’s because the Clockers lead has made a conscious effort to avoid playing the media game. "You aren’t going to find me out at the club, at the 40/40 or something like that," Phifer told theGrio in a 2020 interview while addressing his lack of tabloid attention. The outlet noted that the New Yorker does have some showbiz pals, namely Morris Chestnut and Omar Epps. And he even once had dinner at music producer Quincy Jones’ house with none other than Sidney Poitier.
But Phifer revealed that he’s always been keen to adhere to the advice the Oscar winner gave him: "He said to me, ‘They won’t pay to see your movies on Saturday if they see you at the club on Friday.’" It’s a rule which has steered the actor away not only from controversy but also the spotlight whenever he’s not in work.
Mekhi Phifer is serious about paying it forward
Mekhi Phifer was raised in Harlem by his mother, Rhoda Phifer, a teacher who worked in education for over two decades. Rhoda died in 2019, and the following year, the ER star decided to honor his mom’s legacy by teaming up with breakfast bar brand Nutri-Grain. As Kellogg’s shared in a press release, the "Got Your Back" initiative aims to provide teachers with snacks for the classroom to "support their students wherever they are this school year."
The campaign saw K-12 teachers across America receive one million bars of Nutri-Grain’s finest in a bid to ensure that students always had the most important meal of the day. Mekhi explained to HollywoodLife, "You need energy to learn, and you can’t learn when you’re hungry. This whole COVID thing has really affected a lot of low income, middle-class families people who depended upon the school being open to give the kids breakfasts and give the kids lunch as the parents went to work."
Mekhi also discussed how his late mom embodied the slogan by going above and beyond during her teaching career: "She choreographed all the school plays and taught kids for free very selflessly in the community how to dance and things like that, get them off the streets, and not have bad situations … She had those kids’ backs."
You may spot Mekhi Phifer playing a dad nowadays
Mekhi Phifer was in his 20s during his mid-’90s breakthrough, which means he could just about get away with playing roles such as teenage drug dealer and high school student. Nowadays, the established silver screen star plays father figures.
For example, in 2020, Phifer was cast as the dad of Mia, the youngster who has a complicated relationship with closeted teen Victor, in the TV adaptation of Love, Simon. Luckily, the actor doesn’t appear to have any hang-ups about playing "grown-up" supporting roles. In fact, Love, Victor seems to have been one of his most enjoyable experiences.
Referring to the break in filming caused by the worldwide pandemic, Phifer told Distractify, "I’m hoping that we can truly work this [production] out because I would love to go explore that end of the equation. I had a great time doing that show, and I’m just praying that my character, the cool dad, can come back and do it again. It looks like we will. There’s no way they can do season two without the dad." Phifer was no doubt referring to the fact that the season one finale saw his character Harold discover he’s about to become a father for a second time.
Many of Mekhi Phifer’s recent films have been VOD
Although Mekhi Phifer’s career is now largely rooted in the world of television, he has still averaged a film a year since 2016. But if you’re wondering why you haven’t seen him on the big screen, well, it’s because each and every one has been a VOD affair.
Firstly, there was the eerily prescient Pandemic, a sci-fi thriller in which Phifer played a New York medic tasked with finding survivors in Los Angeles. Then the actor got to show off his muscles in the Magic Mike-knockoff Chocolate City: Vegas Strip. And then he really stretched himself by showing up as himself in the comedy A Talent for Trouble.
Phifer’s cinema-bypassing credits continued with the roles of prosecutor A.J. Canton in faith-based legal drama Canal Street and murderous farmhand Sonny in thriller Obsession. It’s not clear if we’ll have to venture into theaters for any of his next two releases, Saint Paul and 10-13, or whether we can watch them from the comfort of our own homes.
Money and Mekhi Phifer haven’t always gotten along
In 2014, Mekhi Phifer starred as one of Whoopi Goldberg’s four children in TV movie A Day Late and a Dollar Short. But the actor certainly needed more than a dollar to make up for a financial shortfall in real life. In fact, that same year Phifer was forced to declare bankruptcy after racking up debts of roughly $1.3 million!
TMZ obtained legal documents which reportedly stated that the Paid in Full star owed back taxes of $1.2 million, $50,000 in legal costs and nearly $5,000 in child support. So how did a man with several box office smashes and hit TV shows to his name manage to find himself in such trouble?
Well, according to those same papers, Phifer had a habit of spending nearly $12,000 per month when his income in the same period was only $7,500. As for what the New Yorker actually used the money for? According to TMZ, his list of assets featured "a LEATHER BED, a 12-year-old Segway (valued at $1,500), and a surprisingly large collection of firearms."
Making time for ‘daddy stuff’ means a lot to Mekhi Phifer
In addition to playing fathers on screen, Mekhi Phifer also has dad duties in real life. The 8 Mile star first became a parent in the late 1990s when first wife Malinda Williams gave birth to son Omikaye. Eight years later he became a pop again when he and fiancée Oni Souratha welcomed Mekhi Thira into the world.
The New Yorker has largely kept his two kids away from the spotlight, although he has shared the odd picture on social media. In 2016, he uploaded an Instagram snap of his younger namesake looking primed for a career in movie directing, while a year later he captioned another Insta photo of his first-born, "It’s crazy how time flies!! I remember changing my youngblood’s diapers, and now he’s off to the prom!"
As reported by People, during a 2008 interview on The Bonnie Hunt Show, Phifer credited his mother with teaching him how to be a great parent. He also described fatherhood as a "privilege" before listing all the things he enjoys about it, in particular: "I love kids, outings, camping, sports, Legoland, all the daddy stuff. I love it. I wish I could just do that, but I have to work, too."
Mekhi Phifer’s ambitious CW show got the chop
The CW has recently become renowned for giving shows a second chance, making the unprecedented move of renewing all 12 of its original series in 2019. Three years earlier, though, they were a little more ruthless, as Mekhi Phifer found out to his cost.
The NAACP Image Award nominee had been cast as Satch Reyna in the network’s adaptation of time-traveling cult classic Frequency, a man who over the course of 20 years goes from married detective to divorced lieutenant in the NYPD. In a 2016 chat with Showbiz Junkies, Phifer seemed optimistic about the show’s premise. "I think it’s a creative way to almost have never ending stories," he said. "I think you can go to so many different places with this sort of thing."
Unfortunately, Phifer and his co-stars never got the chance to explore more than 13 stories. Despite a positive critical response, Frequency struggled to get past the one million viewer-mark in its first season and was swiftly given the boot on the same day as another sci-fi thriller, the aptly-titled No Tomorrow.
‘Being challenged’ by roles is important to Mekhi Phifer
Although Mekhi Phifer isn’t averse to the odd franchise movie and big TV show, he’s always kept one foot in lower-budget indie territory. Even in the height of his pin-up phase, he was appearing in weighty material, such as a modern take on Shakespeare’s Othello and a made-for-TV movie based on the novel A Lesson Before Dying.
Avoiding the predictable has been a conscious decision by Phifer. "The way I’ve designed my career, I pick and [choose] things that aren’t stereotypical, that aren’t typecasting," he explained to Scene Creek in 2015. "I choose characters that are interesting but different. I love being challenged."
And Phifer is certainly grateful for having the opportunity to spread his creative wings over the course of his career. "I love doing what I do," he told the outlet. "By doing so I’ve been blessed being able to feed my family, travel, and meet great people, and delve into characters and the psych of characters that I wouldn’t normally do."
Mekhi Phifer’s young adult franchise got derailed
Like everyone else in Hollywood, Mekhi Phifer was no doubt expecting Divergent to become the next young adult phenomenon à la Twilight and The Hunger Games. When asked about its bums-on-seats potential by ScreenRant in 2014, he answered, "I mean you know it’s nice because we all feel really good about the film and we feel really good about our work. It’s nice to know that the masses will see it."
But while the first adaptation of Veronica Roth’s dystopian novels did decent business, it didn’t exactly set the box office alight. Insurgent did a little better, but by the time the third chapter Allegiant hit cinemas in 2016, franchise fatigue had well and truly set in and the film took $100 million less than its predecessor. Studio Lionsgate was so disappointed with the $185 million tally that they announced the fourth installment would be a TV movie. But they appeared to have got cold feet altogether and the project has been in limbo ever since.
Of course, the seemingly abandoned Ascendant doesn’t really concern Phifer anymore. Spoiler alert: his character Max, the former leader of the Dauntless faction, was gunned down in cold blood after being captured and tried for his crimes.
Social media isn’t a huge priority for Mekhi Phifer
As you’d expect from someone who likes to keep his private life strictly private, Mekhi Phifer isn’t the most prolific of social media users. Unlike most who prefer to let the acting do the talking, the This Christmas star isn’t entirely averse to the world of likes and retweets.
Phifer does have an official Twitter account, for example, where he’s amassed more than 63,000 followers. But anyone looking for some outspoken opinions or some first-class memeing abilities will be out of luck. His feed typically consists of retweeted messages about his past work or links to his latest Instagram posts.
Yes, the New Yorker is also on Instagram, too, where he’s accrued a much more impressive 200,000 followers. That said, he isn’t exactly flooding the timeline with content: Since signing up to the photo-sharing platform in 2014, Phifer has posted less than 70 times. Still, he offers fans a little more insight into his daily life than on Twitter, occasionally sharing snaps of his family as well as various candid throwback and behind-the-scenes pics.
Mekhi Phifer sure knows how to keep busy
There’s another reason why Mekhi Phifer may not seem to be as visible these days. When he’s not working on stuff like Apple TV+ series Truth Be Told, he pursues a number of interests away from the screen. No, acting isn’t his only talent, that’s for sure. He’s a keen poker player, for one thing, having once won a tournament on Celebrity Poker Showdown Championship.
Phifer has also thrown his hat (or maybe we should say his shoe?) into the entrepreneurship ring. As he told AllHipHop, "I owned six [Athlete’s Foot] stores around the Los Angeles area, but I sold them." As People noted, he also founded Third Reel Films, a company designed to give emerging moviemakers the opportunity to showcase their work where it matters. What’s more, he’s worked with The Vine Group USA, a non-profit which aims to provide African universities with better resources.
And sometimes Phifer’s acting career takes him away from film and television. In 2011, he took to the Broadway stage where he played plastic surgeon flip in dramedy Stick Fly. The star also lent his voice to the 2021 second season of Bronzeville, an audio series set in a Black neighborhood in 1940s Chicago. If there’s one thing you can bet on, it’s that Phifer will stay busy.