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Tracy Morgan: A look at his past as he makes a triumphant 'SNL' return

Tracy Morgan attends the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards

Tracy Morgan attends the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Credit: AP / Alex Berliner

Tracy Morgan is, in one eerily real sense, the Man Who Wasn't Supposed to Be Here.

And not just here at Studio 8H and "Saturday Night Live," where he was a cast member from 1996 to 2003, and returns Saturday as host for the first time since 2009.

 But here.

Early on the morning of June 7, 2014, Morgan was returning from a standup show in Delaware. The car in which he was a passenger was struck from behind by a Walmart tractor trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike. His friend and fellow comedian, James McNair, was killed.

Morgan -- who suffered multiple fractures and was in a coma for weeks -- was not expected to live.

But then, Morgan had not been expected to live before either. He said so himself in his chatty, funny, fatalistic 2009 account of his improbable life, "I Am the New Black":

"Given the facts of my life, those of you who like to spend time at the OTB would have put your money on finding me, at my age, curled up in a ball in a corner of the ghetto, ready to die."

You've probably heard much about that life if you've spent much time on TMZ or with the tabloids: The Brooklyn projects, drugs, alcoholism, diabetes, kidney replacement.

His father, Jimmy, was a helicopter door-gunner over several tours of duty in Vietnam. Jimmy died when he returned home, of AIDS contracted by a needle. He was a heroin addict.

Morgan was named after a kid Jimmy had met on the way to war. Jimmy survived -- but that kid, Tracy, died a few days after arrival in Vietnam, after stepping on a land mine.  Tragedy was part of the Tracy Morgan story even before he was born.

Despite a penchant for occasionally saying things he has to apologize for -- notably a homophobic remark during a Nashville standup gig four years ago -- Morgan is well-liked and well-regarded in the New York television community. After all, he lasted almost a decade at TV's most famous and famously brutal show -- one that can make glorious careers of those who work on it, or soul-crush others. By his own account, Morgan had a tenuous but productive relationship with "SNL." "I knew the score," he once wrote. "This was a white show and I was the token black guy."

Audiences esteemed him, and he made friends in the right places. "SNL" impresario Lorne Michaels grew to love him; Morgan returned the favor -- "Lorney Lorne, my Obi Wan," Morgan called him.

Tina Fey, arguably the most important figure to come out of "SNL" over the past 20 years, too, also became a friend. "I love Tina Fey so much, you people don't even know, man . . . I love her like she is my own blood. No, I love her even more than that."

Fey returned that favor: She essentially built "30 Rock" around his demented, lovable Tracy Jordan. Despite many memorable characters at "SNL" -- Brian Fellow, Astronaut Jones, Dominican Lou -- Morgan did his best work at "30 Rock."

So as you watch Morgan on "SNL" Saturday night, realize that he just didn't cheat death, but embraced life. Life, quite obviously, has embraced him back.


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