Robin Harris was born in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Earl, was a welder and his mother, Mattie, was a factory seamstress. In 1961, the family moved to Los Angeles where he attended Manual Arts High School. A track star, Harris received a scholarship and attended Ottawa University in Kansas. During this time, he began to hone his craft of comedy. He worked for Hughes Aircraft, a rental car company, and Security Pacific Bank to pay his bills. In 1980, he debuted at Los Angeles’ Comedy Store with little response.
1985 was his year; as the master of ceremonies at the Comedy Act Theater, his “old school” brand of humor began to gain him a mainstream following. A large-eyed stand-up churlish brand of humor and quick put-downs were his trademark. Harris made a promising feature debut playing a no-nonsense bartender in the feature film I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). Harris performed in director Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). As "Sweet Dick Willie," Harris served as part of the neighborhood "Greek chorus" that commented on the events of an increasingly tense day. Harris was Pop, the no-nonsense, quick-witted father of Kid in House Party (1990). He followed up later that year with a small turn as a jazz club MC in Mo' Better Blues. He also had a role in Eddie Murphy's Harlem Nights (1989).
Fellow comedian and actor Raymond "The RayVolution" Baxter credits Harris with him becoming a stand up, "I saw Mr. Harris at home in Chicago at a club my aunt worked for and he was nice enough to see me after a set and joke around with me. He said I was funny enough to get on the circuit at 11! So that day I went to work on my material..."
In Harris' "Bébé's Kids" routines, Harris' girlfriend Jamika would insist that he take her friend Bébé's three ill-behaved children with them on a date, as she continually agreed to babysit them. The children would regularly make a fool out of and/or annoy Harris. "We Bébé's kids," they would proclaim, "we don't die...we multiply."
The Hudlin Brothers had intended to make a feature film based upon the "Bébé's Kids" sketches, but Harris died while the film was in pre-production. Bébé's Kids instead became an animated feature—the first ever to feature an all-Black main cast—directed by Bruce W. Smith and featuring the voices of Faizon Love (as Harris), Vanessa Bell Calloway, Marques Houston, Nell Carter, and Tone Lōc.
In the early hours of March 18, 1990, Harris died in his sleep due to a heart attack in his Chicago hotel room after performing for a sold out crowd at the Regal Theater. Harris was transported back to California, and interred in Inglewood Park Cemetery, near Los Angeles. House Party 2 was dedicated to his memory.
At the time of Harris' death, his wife was pregnant with their son, Robin Harris, Jr .
In 2006, a posthumous DVD entitled We Don't Die, We Multiply: The Robin Harris Story (2006), was released. The film features never seen before performances by Harris and accolades from his contemporaries Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, Robert Townsend, and Joe Torry. The film also features a rap performed and dedicated to Harris by his son, Robin Harris, Jr.
1.^ Robin Harris; Tragedy of a Funny Man; At His Funeral in Los Angeles, Tribute to a `Down-Home' Comedian | Article from The Washington Post | HighBeam Research
2.^ James, Caryn (1992-08-01). "Bebe's Kids (1992)". The New York Times.
3.^ "In Living Color". ew.com. 1991-10-11.
4.^ Norwood, Robyn (1997-10-22). "A New Act to Catch". The Los Angeles Times.
5.^ Watson, Margeaux (2006-10-26). "We Don't Die, We Multiply: The Robin Harris Story DVD Review". ew.com.
6.^ Kennedy, John (2006-10-18). "Robin Harris' life and comic legacy depicted in new documentary". blackamericaweb.com.