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Martin Lawrence is comedy’s original gangster

The man who once hosted the midnight blue Def Comedy Jam on HBO has damn near turned into Robert Young from “Father Knows Best.”

Back in the days when Martin Lawrence movies were edgier and raunchier, he was box office gold. Now, that he’s older and seemingly wiser, the man who once hosted the midnight blue Def Comedy Jam on HBO has damn near turned into Robert Young from “Father Knows Best.”

Well, he’s not quite that far gone, but he is in the early running for celluloid daddy of the year after having played G-rated papas in his current release  “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” and in “College Road Trip,” which hits theaters Friday. “Jenkins” is already a legitimate hit and if “Road Trip” does well, Lawrence will be as golden as ever.

Embracing fun family fare is not really a calculated career move to clean up Lawrence’s image, it’s just part of the natural evolution of a 43-year-old man with children. Lawrence, who has had his share of headline-making incidents throughout his career has come to a point where it’s all about God, family and a nice pay check.

Some things haven’t changed. The entourage is still with him and he can still break up the room with a carefully placed one-liner, but gone are the oversized football jerseys that used to drape his 5-foot-8 frame, the baggy jeans and sneakers, which were once his standard interview garb.

Marty Mart has been replaced by Mr. Lawrence, a guy who wears tailored suits and rimless eyewear when he meets the press. After 20 years in the business he’s an O.G. (original gangster) and he accepts it.

“If you want to call me an O.G. in the game I’ll take that,” Lawrence said at Sunday’s press junket to promote his new film. “I like to think I’m a veteran. I’ve had some experiences and been around. I’ve gotten to work with some of the best, so I’ll take it.”

Lawrence talked about his longevity, his choices and being a pioneer of sorts during an interview in which he was candidly guarded and charmingly amusing — especially when talking about child-rearing. He loves his kids but daddy don’t play.

“In some ways I’m a lot like my mother in the way that if you keep showing out I will pop you ass,” Lawrence said with a chuckle. “If I say leave it alone, leave it alone. I ain’t going to tell you no more! My mother warned me that I was going to get it back. She was never lying about that.”

Scoring points with his kidsThere might be a little bit of Mrs. Lawrence emerging  in “College Road Trip,” too. Lawrence plays James Porter, a by-the-book police chief who is having unwarranted trust issues with his college-bound daughter Melanie (Raven-Symone). Dad wants his baby girl to attend nearby Northwestern but Melanie has her heart set on Georgetown, a school that is 700 miles away from her father’s prying eyes. Lawrence, who has younger daughters of his own, claimed he was not nearly as over-protective as his character.

“I’m not as over-protective, but I’m very protective,” Lawrence said. “Those are mine, that’s me so I’m very protective. I’m always concerned and I always want the best for them.”

Lawrence did, however, score major points with his daughters when he signed on to do “Road Trip.” His kids are major fans of Raven-Symone’s popular Disney Channel show, “That’s So Raven.” The recently canceled series is on so much at Casa Lawrence that the man of the house was even able to belt out the first few bars of the show’s theme song before singing the praises of his young co-star.

“I was a fan of hers and she seemed to be a fan of mine,” he said. “There was respect from the top and we could talk about anything, so it was just cool. The way we come off on film is genuinely how we started feeling about each other off-camera.”

Raven-Symone concurred. The former “Cosby” kid was not only Lawrence’s co-star, but his boss as well.

“I didn’t really play that role with him,” Raven-Symone said. “I really didn’t have to. He’s been around. He’s a professional so there was no need for me to announce that I was his producer. I was just excited he wanted to be in the movie. I’m a big fan. ‘Runteldat’ (Lawrence’s 2002 live comedy film) was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”

Lawrence also enjoyed a very special moment with Donny Osmond, who was appearing in his first film in 30 years. Osmond played the high-energy, Broadway tune-belting father of Melanie’s roommate Wendy (Molly Ephraim).           

“Oh man, the kiss was nice,” Lawrence  said with a smile. “It was a nice Donny Osmond kiss and all of his fans are jealous. No, it was cool. Donny, he always sneaks a kiss on me. I don’t know what that is, but if it works for him, it’s all good.”

Paving the way for Tyler PerryWhat’s working for Lawrence now is pretty much the same thing that’s been working for him throughout his 20-year career. He has the ability to delve into a randomly written character and make it his own. And he has created a slew of memorable characters in drag in films such as “Big Momma’s House” and on his long-running Fox sitcom “Martin,” that have perhaps made it somewhat easier for filmmakers like Tyler Perry (Madea) to slip into prosthetic bras and pantyhose.

“Somebody paved the way for me,” Lawrence said. “Eddie (Murphy) and his ‘Nutty Professor’ characters paved the way for me to be able to do what I’ve done, so anything that I’ve done that has allowed anybody else — Tyler or anybody — to come after me and take it and make it work for them and run with it, do your thing. God bless you.”

Will we ever see Lawrence in drag again on screen?

“I never say never,” he said. “If it’s something meaningful, something I can enjoy and the pay check looks right, you never know!”

One thing Lawrence does know is that Hollywood hasn’t seen the best of him yet. Even though he makes more than $20 million a film and has appeared in such box office hits as “Bad Boys,” “Bad Boys II,” “Big Momma’s House” and “Life,” Lawrence feels that he’s not been really encouraged to break out of his box.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten everything because all of the work that you’ve seen that I’ve done — I feel like the best is yet to come,” he said. “I might have just started scratching the surface. I don’t believe you’ve seen everything that I’m capable of and I’m probably more surprised than anybody that they’ve hired me through all these movies and this is all they’ve been asking for from me. I’m surprised.”

Miki Turner is currently co-producing a film on girls and gangs with actor/director Bill Duke. She can be reached at