- Bill Torpy The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The music cranked as party-goers boogied, drank, got high and caroused, loudly carrying on like they did most nights at Perry Homes.
The combustible mix gave folks in the sprawling public housing project many reasons to be on edge. A wrong word, slight or misperceived glance might be all it took to set something off.
One night, the normal din turned darker than usual. Someone ended an argument with a knife. A man held his guts as blood sputtered through his fingers.
Six-year-old Robbie Singleton, a veteran of such gatherings, was mesmerized. He didn’t cry. He didn’t run away. He inched closer and absorbed the frantic atmosphere that had become routine. Even so, the boy knew it wasn’t right. He didn’t belong there, not where adults acted like fools and parties ended in bloodshed.
Robbie’s well being was not a priority for his mom, Cat. She told Robbie not to call her “mama,” especially in public. She thought it cramped her style, made her seem old.
And she did little to lift him up. Most days she seemed bent on tearing him down.
“You’ll never be nothing, you block-headed little joker,” she’d tell her son. “Nothing!”
His mother was wrong. Today, he is somebody. Robbie has forged himself into Robert “IronE” Singleton, a muscular, gregarious and charismatic movie and TV actor with a recent run of good parts, a picturesque family and a career at a crossroads.
Singleton, now 38, recently spent three seasons as “T-Dog,” one of the few black regulars on the hit AMC zombie apocalypse series “The Walking Dead.” The likable but somewhat mysterious T-Dog was introduced to viewers getting beaten into semi-consciousness by a meth-fueled redneck and ultimately was eaten by zombies while he was protecting a friend.
Before that role, Singleton dipped into his reservoir of life in the projects to play a menacing ghetto hoodlum in the wildly popular movie “The Blind Side,” filmed in Atlanta. In that, Singleton went jaw-to-jaw with actress Sandra Bullock, who won an Academy Award for her role. During the awards show, producers played the scene they shared to demonstrate her dramatic chops — and, by reflection, his, too.
Recently, on a gray, blustery day, Singleton and his wife, Commaleta, traversed the northwest Atlanta acreage where Perry Homes once stood. Built in 1959, the sprawling complex of two-story brick buildings that once housed nearly 1,000 families was plopped between a railroad yard and a garbage dump. Former residents say the location spoke loudly about how society viewed them.
Perry Homes was torn down in the late 1990s and a large part of its footprint is now rolling hills covered with scrub pine and shrubs. “The gym was over there,” said the former athlete, pointing to a hollow. “There was a pool hall over there. And a liquor store. Nothing good came from there.”
Singleton and his wife, who met at the now-closed Samuel Howard Archer High School, walked down the hill toward 2163 Clarissa Drive, the three-bedroom unit where the Singletons, sometimes 11 of them, lived.
“Wow,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s all cleared out, all a memory now.” He recalled the hangouts where kids gathered after school to kill time, where they played ball or fought. There’s the cut-through path. There’s the stand of plum trees, an oasis in an otherwise forbidding place. He recalled the anger and negativity that hung like a fog, about how outsiders viewed Perry Homes and how residents saw the outside world.
“Sometimes buses refused to come through here because they’d get rocked,” he said. “I have friends who say, ‘Man, those were the days’ and I’m like ‘What?!’ It was a nightmare. We just made the best of a bad situation.”
Then a small deer loped across the green-scape.
“Whoa,” Singleton said, turning to his wife, laughing. “This is not Perry Homes any more.”
Singleton came to Perry Homes as a young boy when his mother moved him and his older brother, Tracy, in with her mother, Ethelrine Singleton, the matriarch of the family. Ethelrine, who Singleton called Momzie, increasingly became the boys’ de facto mom as Cat slipped away to drugs, men and the streets.
As a young woman, Cat got hooked up with cocaine and would disappear for days, returning home a haggard, volatile mess.
“She’d get violent; everyone was scared of her,” said Larry Singleton, her older brother, Singleton’s uncle. “She’d get a knife (and threaten family members). I’d say ‘Go ahead, cut me, because if you do, you’ll be dead.’ I’d tell her, ‘Leave those kids alone. Go back on the streets.’”
The pressure of life built on Singleton, who, as a young teen, would come home from school, close himself up in the bathroom and scream at the top of his lungs.
“That’s crazy Robert up there screaming again,” Larry remembers passersby saying. But Larry defended his nephew. “He’s not crazy, he just has to get it out of his system. He don’t belong here.”
The Perry Homes of Singleton’s early teens — the late 1980s — was a scary place. Crack was rampant. News reports from the time document frequent shootings, knifings, drug sales and car theft rings. A terrified young mother at the time went to court to demand the housing authority move her from the project after a man toting a sub-machine gun invaded her apartment.
Uncle Larry lived off and on with the family and provided the adult male influence missing in the lives of many of the young boys who lived there. It was a mixed blessing. Larry — and, in fact, several in the Singleton clan — did not shy away from the underbelly of urban life.
“Uncle Larry was gangster,” Singleton recalled. “He taught me how to survive.”
Larry had been a drug dealer, a coke addict and a pimp. The Singletons were a tough bunch. “Momzie” tells a tale of Atlanta policeman Sidney Dorsey (now in prison for ordering the murder of DeKalb County sheriff-elect Derwin Brown) walking into the Singleton home to arrest a family member after a loud argument.
“No you’re not,” said an aunt, who punched the surprised cop. Several others, including an elderly woman with a handbag, beat the officer silly and took his gun before he escaped.
It was no surprise that 14-year-old Singleton started peddling small amounts of crack and carried a beat-up .38-caliber he bought for $40. Singleton was tired of wearing hand-me-downs and reaching into empty pockets. Crack was a volume game. “If I sold 10 rocks, I’d get $30,” he recalled. Crackheads knocked on his back door and he’d hand out the goods. Just about everyone at Perry Homes knew life was a hustle. And now he was part of it.
Lucky for Singleton, he learned to keep a low profile and was never arrested. His stocky frame and family’s reputation kept bullies from messing with him. But even those who mind their business get caught up in Perry Homes, so Singleton developed a sixth sense to avoid fights. “I was mindful not to agitate people,” he said. “I knew what to say, or not say.”
The thickly muscled teen grew into a hard-nosed middle-linebacker at Archer High School and was a teachers’ favorite. He performed well in the school oratorical contest and then at another before the Atlanta school board. His poem was an English Victorian poem called “Invictus,” Latin for “Unconquered.”
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
“I made it cool to be smart,” he said, laughing. “I guess I was different from my peers.”
Although he was dealing drugs, Singleton’s heart wasn’t into it. He had dreams to get out and knew peddling crack wasn’t the way. Uncle Larry, who still had a foot in the game, was disturbed to find out his nephew, the family “bookworm,” was dabbling on his turf. His career as a drug dealer came to an abrupt end when another uncle stole Singleton’s stash.
Within his community, Singleton was respected and respectful, but when he ventured out of Perry Homes, he felt self-conscious of the way he came across to others.
“You feel so naked when you leave the area,” he said. “You stand out.”
His first taste of feeling like an outsider came when he was 16 and worked at a Subway restaurant near Georgia Tech. He largely kept his mouth shut and watched the clientele that included Tech students, professors and business people. The experience was a turning point in his life.
“My exposure to this group broadened my horizons,” he recalled. “There were a lot of white people who came into Subway. They were articulate, they talked about business, about college, about stuff that mattered. All that stood out to me. I noticed they were not quick to yell or scream or argue.
“People would ask, ‘What are you doing after high school?’ They had expectations. High school was just a start.”
Greg Rosenblatt, the young manager of the sandwich shop, saw in Singleton a teen with a good personality, smarts and just enough initiative not to get fired. Rosenblatt realized he needed to get Singleton and his other young employees to buy into the idea of the job — “to help them want to help me.”
He straddled the line between being a friend and a pushy boss, chewing out Singleton when he called in sick with lame excuses. The barrel-chested Singleton laughed off the chidings and came out of his shell. He showed up, took pride in his work and engaged with customers.
Singleton started carrying a well-thumbed dictionary, absorbing its contents between making sandwiches or while waiting for the bus. He felt he had to catch up. People at work used words he didn’t know, so he tried to learn a page a day.
Rosenblatt attended Singleton’s high school graduation in 1993. It was a time to mark achievement but also a time of sadness. A month earlier, Singleton’s mother, Cat, died from complications of HIV, a victim of the streets.
Singleton received scholarship money and was headed to Kentucky State University, a great step toward breaking away from Perry Homes.
Rosenblatt kept a slot open for Singleton at the sandwich shop when he came home summers from college. Singleton later managed a Subway. “I knew I could trust him,” said Rosenblatt. “He had everyone trained, and I never had to worry if the store was open or not.”
Singleton considers Rosenblatt a mentor. The businessman shrugs in response. “I’m just happy to have been the right person at the right place at the right time,” he said.
As Singleton headed to Kentucky State University, he got a lecture from his grandmother, who had seen life destroy some of her own children. “Opportunities don’t knock but once,” she told him. “Grab it.”
It was a heady time of freedom and self-exploration in Kentucky. He played football, made a wide assortment of friends and dug in to improve his grades.
A year later, he transferred to the University of Georgia, where he earned a slot on the football team’s practice squad. He also dove into the theater program, finding it to be a great outlet for his high energy and desire to redefine himself.
The idea of acting had been brewing for a while. In high school, he had discovered public speaking and the art of working a crowd. Later, he competed at hip-hop dance-offs at other high schools and around town. Getting a crowd cheering was an adrenaline pump not unlike football. The idea of being paid to be someone else almost seemed to be too good to be true.
At UGA, he beefed up to 200 pounds to become a human battering ram as a practice-squad running back, facing the first-string defense each week as the team geared up for opponents. His hard-nosed play earned him the nickname “Hustle Man,” although it didn’t translate into playing time in games.
After three years on the UGA practice squad, and suiting up for many games, number 23 stood on the sidelines in the 1998 Outback Bowl for his last football game. He had not played a single down for the Bulldogs and the senior running back was resigned to finishing his career as cannon fodder. But as the game wore on — UGA was blowing out Wisconsin — teammates started a chant: “Hustle Man! Hustle Man!” Finally, the coach complied and put him in on a kickoff team, his one play as a Bulldog.
The scenario reads like the script of “Rudy,” the feel-good movie documenting the scrappy Notre Dame practice teamer who got in one play in his career. Singleton shook his head at the comparison. “I was a lot better player than Rudy,” he said with a flash of residual frustration. “I deserved to play.”
But, he said, negative energy always inspired him. That was just one more motivator.
Soon after graduating college, he married Commaleta Sims, a classmate who grew up near Perry Homes and attended Archer. In high school, she was drawn to Singleton, noticing how he treated teachers with respect, a rare quality in that environment, she said.
With a growing family, he threw himself into earning a living and working his craft. He performed in local theater, worked as the Atlanta Braves mascot “Homer,” tied balloons and painted kids’ faces at birthday parties and worked shifts at Subway.
By early 2002, he decided it was time to take his shot. He took on the name “IronE” (he pronounces it “irony”), a moniker that portrays an image of strength and makes him stand out. He left the family behind in Atlanta and drove to Los Angeles, where he shared a rooming house bedroom, waited tables and took his chances in Hollywood casting cattle calls. Night after night, a dispirited Singleton called Commaleta or Uncle Larry looking for affirmation. And the next day, he’d go out and do it again.
Three months of no auditions and rising credit card balances sent Singleton back home, where he tried another path — opening a costume store. He was not inhibited by the risk of entrepreneurship.
“There was no problem with failing, because coming from where we do, you don’t have far to fall,” he said.
The store eventually did fail, so he had another idea — become a lawyer. But UGA law school declined his application.
Undeterred, he kept at it. In 2006, he appeared in “Somebodies,” a low-budget film directed by a UGA friend, Hadjii Hand. The film fired him up and led him to roll the dice to get himself noticed. In 2008 he wrote a one-man show, rehearsed it in his garage, used his last few thousand dollars to rent out the 14th Street Playhouse and then put on “IronE ... The Resurrected.”
It was a gutsy move. Few people knew who IronE was nor would they care he was resurrected. He saw it as an opportunity to take matters into his own hands and jump-start his career. He played a litany of characters in the biographical rant, singing, dancing, rapping and displaying a linebacker’s physicality.
Commaleta helped produce and direct, also running the sound effects and music. Uncle Larry served as MC and usher. Crowds were enthusiastic but thin, and the show closed with barely a ripple on the theater scene.
As Singleton plotted his next move, his career showed a pulse. “Resurrected,” coupled with “Somebodies,” had put his unusual name out there. An agent contacted him. Sandra Bullock, a Hollywood A-lister was starring in the “The Blind Side” about a young man from the ghetto making it to the NFL. They needed a bad guy, a street hood. You interested?
Singleton auditioned for the role of Alton, a thug from the Memphis projects who confronts Bullock in a key scene in the movie. He was pumped up going to the audition. “Wow, I know this guy,” he told himself. “This is my role.” A month later, he got the part. Singleton appeared in three scenes, including a couple shot in a now-closed Atlanta housing project. The movie became a juggernaut and reportedly grossed $300 million. Singleton, for his part, got $7,000 up front and maybe eight times more as the movie gained momentum.
In 2010, his agent pitched him a role in the upcoming series, “The Walking Dead,” an apocalyptic tale of zombies shot in Atlanta for AMC. He wasn’t that enthused but figured, why not?
Originally, he assumed the character, a man named T-Dog, might last a couple episodes.
In his first episode, T-Dog got beat up in a scene on a downtown Atlanta rooftop and then fled the city to a camp set up by survivors. The next episode’s plot had several characters heading back into zombie-infested Atlanta to save a man left behind.
Reading the script of that upcoming episode, Singleton recounted his reaction: “I’m like, ‘Please don’t let me go into the city because I’m going to die there.’ “Fortunately for both T-Dog and Singleton, he didn’t.
“The Walking Dead” became a huge hit, setting ratings records for a cable show. Its popularity stems from having a strong ensemble cast of characters who can — and often do — get horrifically dispatched at any moment by flesh-eating zombies.
Before each episode, Commaleta said the couple would rush to the mailbox to get the new script, tearing open the envelope and reading from back to front to make sure T-Dog made it through the episode alive. For 21 episodes he did.
But before last season’s fourth episode was shot, Singleton got a tap on the shoulder by a producer, who kindly told him this was it. It was like a coach calling a player into his office to cut him.
Actor Scott Wilson, who plays Hershel on the show (and starred as one of the killers in the classic 1967 movie “In Cold Blood”), befriended Singleton off set, enjoying his energy and personality and impressed by his life story.
Before Singleton left, the veteran Wilson told him, “Be true to yourself and follow your instincts. Believe in yourself and carry yourself with confidence.”
Then, Wilson, whose career has soared and stalled over the years, added, “Keep working.”
In the months since, Singleton has aimed to do that. His brief splash of fame was heartening but now he must find a part that will pay the bills and advance his career. Atlanta has increasingly become a hot center for making movies, but Singleton knows nothing is guaranteed so he hustles, always looking.
It’s a tale he has recounted in his recently released self-published autobiography, “Blindsided by the Walking Dead.”
For now, he’s enjoying time with his family, taking his kids to soccer games, track meets and school recitals. He jokes his new job is suburban soccer dad and chauffeur for his kids, daughters Heavven and Nevveah, 16 and 12 respectively, and son Ethereal, 9. His wife, a photographer, is a steady force in life who helps manage his career.
Singleton lives in an airy home in rural Paulding County on a small lake, the antithesis of Perry Homes.
His goal was always to make it in something — football, business, acting. Something. And to be there for his children, to provide for them. He always knew his children would not grow up like he did. They would have a loving father and mother. They wouldn’t want for anything.
He sees that as his most important role. And, in that, he has been a success.
As the person who assigns the book reviews for the AJC, I am tasked with sorting through the hundreds of books sent to us each week by publishers seeking press for their titles. The first thing I look for is whether the book has local connections. When a memoir by the actor who played T-Dog on “The Walking Dead” crossed my desk, my curiosity was piqued. As I leafed through the pages and learned about IronE’s childhood in Perry Homes, I knew I held a good story in my hands. The book didn’t sit on my desk long before reporter Bill Torpy, who had been researching some of Atlanta’s public housing projects, spotted it and agreed with me that it was a Personal Journey waiting to happen. It’s an inspiring story about how personal conviction and a desire for something better can change the course of a life.
Suzanne Van Atten, Features Enterprise Editor
Bill Torpy joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1990. He has covered former Mayor Bill Campbell’s corruption trial, the 2006 police shooting of Kathryn Johnston and many other stories involving state and city politics. Torpy is a native of Chicago, a graduate of Southern Illinois University and previously worked for the Daily Southtown in Chicago.
Johnny Crawford started with the AJC 27 years ago as an intern after graduating from Morehouse College. He is the beat photographer for Georgia Tech football and has also covered NASCAR events and the Olympics in Atlanta, Norway and China. He also teaches photography classes at the Smyrna Community Center.