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The Haysbert Principle

Vaulted into stardom by his role as President David Palmer on "24," Dennis Haysbert brings his trademark integrity to new role.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

All political correctness aside, size matters. Especially in Hollywood. And in politics.

Actor Dennis Haysbert—at a height of 6 feet 4 inches and with the depth and breadth of voice that brings to mind a cross between Barry White, Isaac Hayes and the meanest, most kick-ass cop or drill sergeant a bad dream can produce—can attest to the power that size brings to both worlds. Even after more than 25 years as an actor, with roles on television and in movies such as Far From Heaven, Jarhead and Absolute Power, it's his recent role as President David Palmer in the hit TV drama "24" that has people from Beverly Hills to Johannesburg calling out, "Mr. President!" when they spot him.

Let's face it: at that height, and with the shoulders and build of a trim, in-fighting-shape football player, Haysbert is just plain hard to miss.

On-screen and off.

• • •

Dennis Haysbert's birth certificate (dated June 2, 1954) lists Dexter as his middle name, but it might as well have been "discipline." As an actor, he projects the same quiet, determined fortitude that he brought to his role on "24," on which he plays an ethics-driven senator running for president of the United States—and who wins. This, it seems, is part and parcel of who Haysbert, the man, has always been.

Take, for example, the photo caption in his San Mateo, California, high school yearbook. In it, Haysbert cites having his face on the cover of Ebony and TV Guide as life goals. That both were achieved—in the case of TV Guide many, many times—shouldn't be terribly surprising, considering the apparent ease with which he's landed roles throughout his career. What is surprising is that the odds against Dennis Haysbert living beyond early childhood and making it to high school, much less achieving stardom, weren't all that good.

The eighth of nine children, Haysbert was born with a hole in his heart, a defect, he says, that caused the entire family to baby and protect him for many years. "I was never coddled," Haysbert muses, "but always protected. [My family has said] that when I'd come into the room as a child, it would go silent because people could actually hear my heart working."

The heart healed by itself and, looking at the fit 52-year-old actor, it's hard to imagine him as anything other than a natural athlete. With a 15 handicap, Haysbert plays golf whenever he can. "No one gets to play as much as they'd like unless you're a pro," he says. He also enjoys tennis and scuba diving. Haysbert holds the world record for a deep-sea dive wearing a movie mask, a feat he accomplished while filming the 2004 documentary special "Secrets of Pearl Harbor" for the Discovery Channel.

In the course of creating the documentary, the actor, who is a huge history buff, became the first civilian diver to investigate a midget submarine, one of five sent to Hawaii to sink American battleships. The midget sub, sunk by a single cannon shot, has a location that, prior to Haysbert and the Discovery Channel's underwater photographers, was known only to the U.S. Navy, the Department of State and the U.S. Park Service. In addition to the midget, Haysbert investigated the USS Arizona, the USS Saratoga and the Nagato, the ship from which Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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