Tar Heel of the Week

He entertains audiences and youthful dreams

Staff WriterApril 19, 2009 

  • Born: April 19, 1959, in Dillon, S.C.

    Family: wife, Dr. Tammi Stephens; son, Myles, 13, who lives with his mother in California; stepson Carter Gregory, 15.

    Education: Bachelor's degree, Seattle University, 1985.

    Career: After winning a $5,000 talent show in college, began a performance career that has lasted more than two decades. Started the James Stephens III Scholarship Foundation to help students from North and South Carolina attend college.

    Comedian who most inspired him: Bill Cosby.

  • What: James Stephens III Scholarship Foundation Gala. Scheduled guests include jazz saxophonist Mike Phillips and Geri Reischl, who starred as Jan in "The Brady Bunch Hour."

    When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

    Where: Fletcher Opera Theater at The Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Raleigh.

    Cost: $25-$50.

    More info: 919-834-4000, www.ticketmaster.com, www.dafunnyman.com.

James Stephens III grew up in rural South Carolina, where nearly everyone was poor and had his own set of problems.

So when his father was severely injured in a car accident, leaving his mother to raise seven kids on her own, it didn't dawn on James, then 8, that his family's troubles were different from anyone else's.

"It was really hard. I guess when you're a kid, and you're living in the country, you don't really think of it that way," says Stephens, who went on to become a stand-up comedian and star in several television shows.

But as he reflects on it today, 50 and living in the Triangle, Stephens knows what a difference a bit of encouragement can make to a child.

So every year he gathers his entertainment industry friends and raises money for college scholarships through the James Stephens III Scholarship Foundation. The foundation's annual fundraising gala will be held Saturday night in Raleigh, hosted by Ernest Thomas, the actor who played Raj on the sitcom "What's Happening!!"

After his father had the accident, a local couple who had no children took Stephens' interests to heart. They informally adopted him, encouraged him to learn about history and the arts, fed him when he needed it and showed him the world beyond sparsely populated Dillon County.

"They put me in situations that kids down there don't normally get the chance to do," Stephens says. "Myrtle Beach is 45 minutes away from where I grew up, and kids there don't see it."

Tops in talent

After high school and a stint in the Air Force, Stephens settled in Washington state. As a college student, Stephens, a gifted mimic, entered a talent competition with a $5,000 prize.

Recounting the moment recently at a coffee shop in Cary, Stephens slipped effortlessly into the voices from his act, which featured celebrities dealing with the ashes left behind by the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Jimmy Stewart and Ed Sullivan make appearances, as does the gravelly voiced Moms Mabley, the African-American comedienne who rose to prominence in the vaudeville era. The act ended with Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong singing "When the Saints Go Marching In."

After winning the talent show and gaining some notice on the Seattle comedy scene, Stephens moved to Los Angeles looking to build an entertainment career.

He won jobs on shows such as NBC's "Friday Night Videos." Later, he co-starred with Jennifer Aniston on a sketch comedy show called "The Edge" and with Dana Carvey on "The Dana Carvey Show."

In the 1990s, Stephens began working on cruise ships entertaining the passengers. On a trip to the Caribbean he met his future wife, Dr. Tammi Stephens, an OB-GYN who practices in Raleigh. That's when he packed up and moved to North Carolina.

More recently, Stephens has continued to take occasional cruise-ship gigs as he goes through a change in careers. Not long ago he began studying to become a minister.

Even though he made his name in comedy, Stephens is reluctant to call what he does "stand-up." As a skilled impersonator, actor and pianist, he really never fit the genre's standard definition.

"Even now," he says, "people say I'm more talented than funny."

Stephens' other role

But there are people who don't know about the guy who calls himself "Da Funny Man." Instead, they know James Stephens the philanthropist.

One of those is Ty'Sheoma Bethea, 14, who lives in Dillon. At this year's gala, Ty'Sheoma will receive the Super Kid Award, which includes a laptop computer and a $1,000 scholarship that will be held for her until she's old enough for college.

Ty'Sheoma wrote a letter to Congress about the economic stimulus bill. The letter eventually reached President Barack Obama. He was so moved by it that he asked Ty'Sheoma and her mother to sit with his wife, Michelle, when he delivered a speech to Congress.

Ty'Sheoma asked Congress to pass the economic stimulus bill, in the hope that her middle school, whose building is more than 100 years old, could get some much-needed renovation.

When Stephens found out she was from Dillon, he wanted to award her one of this year's scholarships. The program began in Dillon more than 20 years ago, when Stephens gave a $200 scholarship out of his own pocket. Over the years the amounts grew, and in 1999 Stephens registered his foundation as a nonprofit group and began raising money in earnest.

Ty'Sheoma, who has never been to Raleigh, will travel with her mother and other family members to accept. She's excited about the trip.

With the laptop, "I'm going to help other kids," she says on the phone. She wants to communicate with children all over the world, some of whom have already written to her after seeing her on television.

This year, Stephens hopes to raise enough money for 10 scholarships of $1,000 each, along with 10 laptop computers. The scholarships are intended for high school seniors in Wake and Durham counties, as well as Dillon County in South Carolina.

Thomas, the actor from "What's Happening!!," has attended the gala for a number of years. He first met Stephens through a daughter of Muhammad Ali, who attended in past years.

"He gives humanity a great love," Thomas says of Stephens, adding that he helps teach kids that there is nothing they can't do.

Ty'Sheoma seems to have figured this out, and has developed some big dreams.

If she could have her wish, she says, the folks in Washington will help her community build a new school.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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