Where Are They Now: The “Teen” Actors from “Lean on Me”

November 30, 2012  |  
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Lean on Me is a classic in the black community.  In 1988, the world was introduced to the troubled Eastside High in Passaic County New Jersey.  The cameras went through the troubled halls of the high school that ran rampant with violence, drugs, and disrespectful teenagers.  Joe Clark/Crazy Joe/Bat Man stepped onto the scene, and though he initially came off as cantankerous, there was a method to his madness and he was able to help the students pass the minimum basic skills test.

Now, we all know that there are some powerhouses in this movie:  Morgan Freeman, Robert Guillaume, Regina Taylor, Beverly Todd and Michael Beach, but what about the teens that were the driving force in the movie?  Where are they now?  Well…

Jermaine “Huggy” Hopkins as Thomas Sams

The slovenly dressed Thomas Sams was an integral character of the movie.  We’re introduced to him as a crack addict, but when Mr. Clark kicks him out of the school and he begs to come back, Mr Clarks allows him.  The transformation that Thomas had is parallel to the school’s, the students’, and even Mr. Clark.

After the movie, Jermaine kept a steady acting career and went on to do Juice, another black classic, How to Be a Player, was a recurring character on “the Wayan’s Brother,” and recently the movie Zoo.   He did have a set back by being arrested in 2011 for attempting to buy 200 pounds of marijuana in Arizona, but after he spent 30 days in prison he was back on his acting grind.

Karen Malina White as Kaneesha Carter

Kaneesha was the sweet girl who was confronted with many tumultuous turns in her life, but kept on a positive path.  From her mother telling her that she didn’t want her, and her boyfriend telling her that the baby she was pregnant with wasn’t his, Kaneesha was strong and was a supporter of Mr. Clark.

After Lean on Me, Karen also has a very regular acting career.  She was a regular in “A Different World,” “Hanging with Mr. Cooper,” “Malcolm and Eddie,” and appeared on a few episodes of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “My So-Called Life,” and “Roc.”  She became a voice actress in 2001, playing the ever boisterous “Dijonay” on Disney Channel’s “The Proud Family” for four years, while still holding steady acting gigs.  She just completed a movie, Cut Flowers that is scheduled to be released in 2013.


Tyrone Jackson  as Clarence

Clarence was the student who had a smart mouth and overly active hormones.  He could do an on-point imitation of “Mr. Clark,” and also insult “the loud mouthed wench.”

Tyrone Jackson had been acting since 1977, appearing in films like The African Queen, Ashanti and Enemy Territory.” After Lean on Me he continued to act and have parts in “New York Cop,” and “A Shock to the System,” and he also provided his voice for the video game “Def Jam Fight for NY” in 2004.  After that,  he decided to go behind the scenes and work as a “grip” for movie productions.

*No current photo found.

Karina Arroyave as Maria

Maria was smart and outspoken and the Colombian actress gave her her fire especially during that scene where the students rallied to get Mr. Clark released “See, you talking about the law, but you’re twisting the law…”  Ah…Memories.

Before Lean on Me she was a regular on “As the World Turns.”  Karina Arroyave found a little bit of a niche playing a wayward teen to a “dedicated teacher” films.  She was also in “1-8-7” and Dangerous Minds. She kept a regular acting career by appearing in shows like “New York Undercover,” “Judging Amy” and  “Touched by An Angel,” but she’s popular for her portrayal of Jamey Farrell in “24,” and Elizabeth in “Crashed.”  She continues to act and just finished the movie Family on Board.

Alex Romaguera as Kid Ray

From the beginning of the movie, you could see that Kid Ray had ambitions of just attaining material possessions for bragging rights, poor lost soul.  When he decided to drop out, Mr. Clark warned him, “if you leave, you’ll be dead in a year.”  Kid Ray turned around and walked away, and that was the end of his role in the movie.

Alex Romaguera had a background in performance arts, going to an elite performance arts school in North Bergen, New Jersey.  He had a recurring role on “As the World Turns.”  But his last recorded acting role that I could find was Lean on Me.

I found 3 different pictures of a Alex Romaguera, but because I’m not certain if one of them is the correct Alex Romaguera, I’m going to suggest you use your imagination and age him 24 years.  You got the mental image?  That’s good, there you go.  On to the next one…

Michael Best, Stephen Capers Jr., Dwayne Jones, Kenneth Kelly and Anthony Fuller as The Eastside “Song Birds”

While goofing off in the cafeteria, Mr Clark pulls up a few boys and demands that they sing the school song to the entire cafeteria.  After they embarrass themselves by not knowing the words, Mr Clark warns them that if he runs into them again and they don’t know the words then it’ll be trouble.  Fast forward to them goofing off in the bathroom, Mr. Clark again demands to hear the song, and that’s when they blew him away with a five part harmony.

In real life, these “Song Birds” were an actual singing group named “Riff.”  Once the movie was out, their group became hot.  The group signed with SBK records and released their debut album “Riff.”  They performed live on the Arsenio Hall show and toured with LL Cool J and Vanilla Ice.  The released a second album, “To Whom it May Concern,”   the released multiple singles and are planning a comeback.

Michael Imperioli as George

Though he was only in the movie in the first 11 minutes, George was a troublemaker and promptly kicked out of the school with a stage of other troubled children.

Michael Imperioli  is definitely one of my favorite actors.  Appearing in not just some of my favorite movies but critically acclaimed ones as well (Goodfellas, Clockers, Malcolm X, Dead Presidents, Lovely Bones, Bad Boys, Jungle Fever).  For six seasons he played Christopher Moltisanti, cousin to mob boss Tony Soprano…. just let that sink IN readers (sorry, Sopranos fan)!!  He also wrote a few of the episodes for “The Sopranos,” and in 2010 he was the lead in the series “Detroit 1-8-7.”

Along with having a very active acting career he directed The Hungry Ghost, he is a singer and lead guitarist in his band “La Dolce Vita,” he and his wife created Studio Dante where he is the artistic director, and he’s apparently a spokesperson for 1800 Tequila (which commercials don’t air in the Midwest, so I just learned something new!)


Delilah Cotto as Chita

Chita’s part was small (so small that I couldn’t find an online picture of her in the movie to include as her “before” shot), but she was in that one scene.  You know!  That one scene.  Well, after doing Lean on Me, she took a small hiatus, but Delilah Cotto was able to cultivate an active acting career.   She made her acting comeback with Spike Lee’s Girl 6, and appeared in shows like “Oz,” “CSI Miami,” and “Cuts.”   The movie Illegal Tender allowed her more movie breathing room, and she just recently starred in the movie Kidnapped Souls.

Lynne Thigpen as Ms. Barrett

Though this post was originally dedicated to the “teens,” I couldn’t leave out Ms. Barrett, one of Mr. Clark’s foils and antagonists.  After her son was thrown out at the beginning of the movie, she decided to ban together with the mayor and the fire marshal to get Mr. Clark thrown out.

Lynne Thigpen was an amazingly talented actress who appeared in a number of productions before Lean on Me.  After, she continued to act. She had a recurring role in “Thirtysomething,” “FM” and many kids’ favorite show:  “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” and had pieces in big named movies Anger Management and Bicentennial Man.  While she gained acclaim in her role as Ella Farmer in “The District,” she sadly passed away due to cerebral hemmoraging in 2003.  After her death she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for the voice acting she did in “Bear in the Big Blue House.”


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