Why You Don't Hear About Mekhi Phifer Anymore

Actor Mekhi Phifer had his big break at just 20 years old with Spike Lee's "Clockers" in 1995. He went on to continue to make a name for himself in projects like "8 Mile," "Honey," "O," "Soul Food," "Dawn of the Dead," and of course, "ER," as Gregory Pratt in Seasons 8 through 15. Once he left the award-winning show in 2008, fans were left wondering what had happened to the ex-"ER" actor.

In an October 2022 interview with Blackfilm.com, Phifer spoke about the challenges he experienced early in his career as a young Black actor. "It's difficult, but you have to put in the work. Nothing happens overnight. You have to really work hard. You have to make the best work possible and make the best choices possible and don't sit around complaining. Step up to the plate and do your thing. The work will pay off," he said.

Phifer's career has certainly ebbed and flowed over the years, and unless you're in the middle of an "ER" rewatch or a fan of his newer shows that are available on streaming services, there's a chance it's been a while since you've seen him on your screen. It may seem like you don't hear from Mekhi Phifer as much anymore, but that's not to say he hasn't been staying busy. From embracing fatherhood to dealing with his financial woes and taking on a handful of projects, here's what the actor has been up to in recent years and why you don't hear about him as much anymore. 

Mekhi Phifer has been focused on being a dad

Many celebrities have chosen family over fame, and when Mekhi Phifer's career started slowing down, it became clear he was putting the extra time into his kids. His first son, Omikaye, whom he shares with ex-wife Malinda Williams, arrived in 1999. He welcomed another son, Mekhi Thira, in 2007 with his then-partner Oni Souratha. Phifer then dated NBC creative director Reshelet Barnes for several years before they tied the knot in 2013.

In a 2007 interview with People, the "8 Mile" actor spoke about learning to juggle more responsibilities now that he has two kids. "It does make you a little bit more focused," he said. "Lets you know you're a little bit more mature, a little bit older and you got things that are important."

Phifer's only continued to embrace fatherhood. In 2015, he told Rolling Out that it's of the utmost importance that he's present in his sons' lives. "What I wanted to give my kids that I never had was a father. I never met my father. They have a father that they can identify with. ... I take them on trips, we go camping, I take them to Disney World and we take an RV across country and we explore and I explain things to them. I give them me. So that they know their dad and they can identify with their dad and they know that their dad is there and they know they're safe and protected," he said.

He's made some career pivots

After Mekhi Phifer made his debut in "Clockers," his star only continued to rise. In a 2014 chat with Ebony, he reflected on how that movie shaped his future and laid the foundation for the rest of his career. "When you come out the game with that sort of film ... it really sort of sets a tone on where you want to be with your career," he said. "When I did 'Clockers,' I didn't even think about having a career in acting, I just thought, 'Wow, this is cool. I get to do a little movie.' But it really does affect your selection, because you've already set a tone for what you expect of yourself and what people expect of you."

But over the years, Phifer has found himself exploring different types of projects, moving away from Hollywood blockbusters and medical dramas, and digging into shows like "House of Lies," the Netflix original series "Love, Victor," Apple TV+'s "Truth Be Told," and even stage productions. The actor made his Broadway debut in 2012 with "Stick Fly," taking on the role of a wealthy plastic surgeon.

In speaking with The San Diego Tribune in January 2012, Phifer noted how much he enjoyed acting on stage. "Just being there live in front of an audience has been a very exhilarating feeling," he said. "It's definitely a different machine but I'm having a lot of fun because there are new things I learn every night."

He declared bankruptcy in 2014

There were a number of unfortunate and tragic events that befell the cast of "ER," and for Mekhi Phifer, 2014 proved to be a low point. It was reported by TMZ that the actor had sunk into debt totaling about $1.3 million and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in April of that year. According to the court documents the publication acquired, Phifer had an income of around $7,500 per month, yet he'd been spending about $11,000 every month. The "8 Mile" actor's debts included lawyer fees, child support, and back taxes.

Phifer was only able to claim $67,000 in assets, including his bed, collection of guns, and a Segway scooter. However, despite this setback, it seems the actor has managed to get himself back in good standing. He was able to work on eight projects over the couple of years following his filing, so hopefully Phifer has put his financial woes to bed.

Many of his recent movies weren't in theaters

If it seems like it's been a while since Mekhi Phifer's last appeared on the big screen, there's a reason for that: Almost all of the actor's recent flicks premiered on a streaming service instead of at a theater. (The "Divergent" films are, of course, the notable exceptions.) Silver screen or not, he's enjoyed making the movies.

In a March 2016 interview with "Outline Radio Show" (via The Hype Magazine), Phifer chatted about making the VOD movie "Pandemic." The feature, which was filmed in a first-person POV style, was an exciting experience for him as an actor. "What's really kind of cool about it is that all of the actors kind of had to be our own directors in a sense that we make through our eyes what we see," he said. Though the film wasn't exactly a smash with critics, it did land with a majority of Rotten Tomatoes users who watched it at home. 

In February 2024, Phifer's direct-to-streaming feature "Lights Out" was released. The actioner, which also stars Frank Grillo and dives into the world of underground fight clubs, was another fun gig for Phifer. "It's an entertaining film. You don't have to think too hard. You go in there, you [have] your popcorn, your soda, your water... and you can just be entertained," he told The Knockturnal. Some of his other recent movies that went straight to streaming platforms include "Chocolate City: Vegas," "Canal Street," and "Obsession." All premiered between 2017 and 2019. 

Mekhi Phifer's role in the Divergent franchise ended

The "Divergent" movies, which star Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, feature Mekhi Phifer as Max, the former Dauntless leader. Phifer was part of the first installment, which premiered in 2014. He reprised his role in "Insurgent" and "Allegiant" in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

In a March 2014 interview with Blackfilm.com, Phifer expressed how thrilled he was to be in the franchise. "It's great. I've always wanted to be part of something like this throughout my career. It's a lot of fun and it's interesting because usually when you read a script, you know what your character arc is, from beginning to end, and you play it accordingly," he said. "But with this film, I'm part of the unknown. I don't know what to expect and where the character goes. It's definitely an interesting process."

The fourth and final installment, "Ascendent," was slated to come out in 2017. However, Lionsgate ultimately pulled the plug. Unfortunately, "Allegiant" did not bring in the box office numbers the company hoped for, and on top of that, the reviews weren't great. Initially, there was talk of turning the fourth installment into a TV movie, but that was ultimately scrapped, too.

He is selective about the roles he takes

Throughout his career, Mekhi Phifer has been open about how intentional he is when it comes to turning down a role, especially when it comes to roles that may hinge on racial stereotypes. "I don't care about the bills; I just say 'no,' and that's it. If I can't sit in the movie theater and chill and be proud, I don't need to be watching it let alone starring in it," he told the New York Daily News in 1999. What's more, Phifer enjoys the challenge that comes with taking on a role that isn't like any role he's played before. As he said to Scene Creek in March 2015, "I've been blessed being able to feed my family, travel, and meet great people, and delve into characters and the psych of characters that I wouldn't normally do." 

In recent years, Phifer has played a lawyer, a detective, a medic in a zombie apocalypse, a dad to a high schooler, and an ex-con with ties to an underground fight club. In 2022, he joined the cast of "The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat," Tina Mabry's film based on the novel of the same name. As of this writing, his character has not been announced.

While Phifer may like playing different characters, he doesn't like playing along with the politics of Hollywood. As he said during a March 2015 "Sway's Universe" appearance, "I just like to go to work, handle my business, and keep it moving. I'm not trying to play the whole game."

Mekhi Phifer's CW show was canceled in 2017

2016 was a strong year for Mekhi Phifer, as he starred in a handful of movies, made appearances on an episode of "Roots" and several episodes of "Secret City," and he landed a role in The CW's "Frequency." The fantasy drama series ran for just one season, with Phifer playing lieutenant Satch Reyna. In an August 2016 interview with TV Equals, he shared that he enjoyed shooting the show, which features a time travel element.

Phifer explained that it took him time to analyze the script and familiarize himself with the time period of the scene he would be shooting in. "That's what I love about acting and doing a multitude of different projects. There's always something new around the bend and I get to sort of explore and do things I haven't done before, so it does help to have that mindset because, yes, it's very intricate for me. ... It's really an effort between writers and us [actors] to make it authentic," he said.

Unfortunately, The CW pulled the plug on "Frequency," despite the series pulling in an impressive 86% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. After the final episode aired in January 2017, the network decided to release a brief epilogue in May to tie up as many loose ends as they could. Unfortunately, Phifer had to say goodbye to his character, but he managed to secure many more projects in the years following.

Mekhi Phifer has been involved in charitable efforts

Despite their fame and wealth, there are some Hollywood celebrities who are truly down to earth, and this includes Mekhi Phifer. The Hollywood veteran has demonstrated his giving nature many times throughout his career. The "Paid in Full" actor founded MPIC Events with fellow actor Inny Clemons, which hosts themed charity poker events. Mekhi also participated in the Charity Series of Poker in 2010, helping raise $30,000 for families dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

During the pandemic, Mekhi Phifer decided to give back to K-12 teachers. Raised by his mom Rhoda Phifer, a teacher in Harlem, Mekhi has a special place for educators in his heart. As he told TheGrio in October 2020, "My mother was a teacher and to this day people will stop me and say, 'Hey your mother, Ms. Phifer was one of my favorite teachers.'" Mekhi partnered with Nutri-Grain to donate breakfast bars to teachers, who often pay for their students' snacks out of their own pockets. "The company is giving away a million bars. That is incredible because teachers are the real superheroes" the actor added.

He keeps his life under the radar

Unlike many Hollywood superstars, Mekhi Phifer has been fairly private throughout most of his decades-spanning career. Marrying a non-actor may have helped keep the cameras off of him, and he seems to be much more concerned with being proud of his work and having a happy family than he is with fame.

In March 2014, Phifer shared with Ebony some of his hopes for the next 20 years of his life. "I want to see my family prosper, see my kids grow old," he said. "I would love to keep having a really solid, strong career and just being happy. My life isn't just this business, so there's so many other things that I like to do. I just want to be able to have the freedom to do all of the things that I want to do."

One of the reasons Phifer has managed to stay out of the spotlight for the most part (unless he's promoting a movie, of course) is that he keeps to himself. During an October 2020 interview with TheGrio, the "Honey" actor said, "You aren't going to find me out at the club, at the 40/40 or something like that." He explained that this is because of a valuable lesson actor and director Sidney Poitier once offered: "He said to me, 'They won't pay to see your movies on Saturday if they see you at the club on Friday.'"