I have to warn you, I start to get choked up anytime I start to talk about this.
WHILE MOST COLLECTORS have some kind of emotional bond to the things they collect — often something that tethers them to childhood — few have a connection as deep and wonderfully obsessive as designer Mike Essl. His sprawling collection of beloved objects is made all the more fascinating given its subject matter — the actor, action star, professional wrestler, cultural icon, anti-drug crusader, and all-around force of personality known as Mr. T. Despite having spent years thinking and talking about Mr. T, it’s a subject that still manages to stir deep feelings. “I have to warn you, I start to get choked up anytime I start to talk about this,” laughs Essl, his voice already starting to crack. “I know this makes me sound like a total crackpot, but I can’t help it.”
Like so many kids in the ’80s, Essl became obsessed with Mr. T after seeing him in 1982’s “Rocky III” (a role that catapulted Mr. T to fame after being famously discovered by Sylvester Stallone while working as a bouncer) and later in his iconic role as B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus on the TV show “The A-Team.” However, Essl’s devotion to all things T went much deeper than simple childhood fandom. As a kid with a chaotic home life growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Mr. T became a kind of spirit guide, who Essl now credits with changing the course of his life. “I remember instantly loving him,” Essl recalls. “His character was so unbelievably tough. I just fell in love with the guy. With no irony whatsoever, I really loved him. Mr. T was the only adult in my life who told me not to do drugs and stay in school. I mean, I didn't even try pot until Obama was president. I didn't have a drink until I was in my late 20s. And I never left school. Hearing his advice and seeing how he helped kids was so important to me. I needed that. Hearing that message as a kid changed my life. I don't know where I would be if I hadn't heard that.”
Essl still has pieces dating all the way back to his own childhood and early teens, but his collection of Mr. T ephemera didn’t truly blossom until his college years, in tandem with his growing love of comic books. “There was a comic called ‘Mr. T and the T-Force,’ and reading that really brought it all back for me. I collected the comic, I collected the collector's card that came with the comic, then I collected the satin jacket that they made for the comic, which had the ‘Mr. T and the T-Force’ logo on the back. It renewed the Mr. T fascination for me and then something just clicked. I got the bug. And not long after that, eBay was launched. I went crazy, man.”
Essl can still identify the provenance of pretty much everything he has, though he’s no longer sure exactly how much Mr. T stuff he actually owns. “The last time I counted, it was at around 4,000 pieces.” The bulk of his collection, which has moved with him from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again, now resides at his office in New York City’s Cooper Union, where he serves as dean. The sprawling collection includes everything one might expect (assorted action figures, T-shirts, toy vehicles, pencil sharpeners, movie posters, trading cards) to things one might not (original painted artwork created for Mr. T comics, toothbrushes, whistles, watches, jewelry, breakfast cereal, musical instruments, house shoes, a Mr. T flashlight with glowing eyes). The items are evidence of the expansive cultural reach of Mr. T’s message and image — strength, righteousness, and lots of powerful gold jewelry. “I’m still amazed by how weird some of it is,” remarks Essl, who dips into his archives to pull out some of the most esoteric pieces. “I have some Mr. T soap that was made in Denmark, which I find to be pretty weird. That's not something that would naturally occur to me, to wash myself with Mr. T's face. I also have a molded Mr. T soap on a rope that I find to be really ridiculous. I own a complete bedroom set of Mr. T curtains and bedsheets, as well as a bolt of Mr. T fabric — enough to make a suit. I also have a thing called Mr. T Water War, which was for outdoors. You could hook up a garden hose to this thing and then throw wet sponges at Mr. T's face, which would spray you with water when you hit it. They really thought of everything.”
After considering the size, scope, and meaning behind Essl’s collection, the question most people immediately have is obvious: Has Essl actually met Mr. T? The answer is an emphatic yes. In fact, he looks back at his time spent collecting things as a kind of vision quest — a way to manifest meeting the person who had such a seismic impact on his life. Though he’s told the story a million times at this point, he still gets emotional when recounting the moment from back in his grad school days. “He pulled me in, put his arm around me, and said, ‘Hey, what's up big buddy?’ And I couldn't even talk,” recounts Essl. “I kind of gave him a hug and then I left. I went outside and just started crying. I couldn't believe it, that I had engineered it to finally meet him. I don't even know how to describe it. It felt like I finally did this thing I always needed to do. I just felt tremendous relief. I got to shake his hand and it was like touching God. For me, he was the light when I was a kid.”
Though his collecting has slowed somewhat in recent years, it isn’t due to a lack of passion. As Essl explains, it’s mostly just due to the fact that there are fewer and fewer pieces left out there that he has yet to find. Regardless, Mr. T remains a constant, benevolent presence in his life. “When I'm in my office, I see my collection every day, and everybody who comes into my office sees it,” he explains. “People almost always have the same reaction —happiness. I've never met anybody who was like, ‘Oh, I hate that guy.’ He's just a very, very lovable person.”
And as for the way it makes him feel now, to see his childhood obsession still looming large in his day-to-day life? “I don't think I was really aware of this until a few years ago, but when I see these things, I feel safe,” says Essl. “I feel comforted and at ease, still having him around me. When I see all of these things, I just think about him and what he did for kids. He hasn't really changed his message at all. He never became cynical. He still does charity work. He still goes out and helps people. My whole life now is about working with students and helping kids, so having all of this stuff around inspires me. It keeps me positive. It imbues me with love.”
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent. He is currently a senior editor at the New York Times creative studio, T Brand.
Daniel Arnold Photographer
Daniel Arnold is a photographer based in New York City.