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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

(continued from page 1)

To film the special, Haysbert dove 160 feet below the surface of the sea, wearing a specially constructed mask that required the actor to turn off his air in order to speak, and then remember to turn it back on again when he finished talking. He also had to use a special oxygen gas mixture to speed up the process of decompression.

With the exception of a brief gleam in his eye at the adventure of it all, Haysbert appears completely blasé about the potential danger involved or the coordination required to maintain an even, modulated narrator's voice while remembering not only to breathe, but to constantly turn on and off a valve that would enable that very basic need to occur. One might say that his demeanor is very, well, Jonas Blane-like.

In the highly successful CBS television drama "The Unit," Haysbert plays Sgt. Major Jonas Blane, the commander of a crack Special Forces team that confronts and defuses whatever threat might befall the United States before they return home to their families.

The show is produced by Pulitzer Prize— and Academy Award—winning playwright David Mamet, and based on the book Inside Delta Force, author Eric Haney's 2002 memoir about his experiences as a founding member of the elite counterterrorist unit known as Delta Force. "The Unit" specializes in guns, the latest high-tech, über-spy equipment (for which no one ever seems to need an instruction manual or training), skirmishes, exotic locales and, back at home, strong, beautiful women who can get the lawn mowed and the house painted on their own.

The role of Blane appears perfectly suited to Haysbert—industry rumor has it that no one else was considered for the part—and, short of the hugs that seem to occur frequently and spontaneously on the show's set ("I'm a hugger," Haysbert says, shrugging, "and we all honestly like each other here; we're a band of brothers…brothers and sisters."), an almost palpable sense of real-life action and adventure wafts through the plywood sets, props and movable walls.

Southern California's weather is certainly adding to the aura of a scene being shot, in which the actors are supposedly sweating and dripping their way through yet another life-or-death adventure in a hot locale; it's barely past noon and it's already 106 degrees. The overtaxed air conditioner in the enclosed stage hangar gives one last cough—more of a death rattle, really—before dying.

The scene introduces Blane's lucky hat—a khaki-colored safari hat that, although brand-new yesterday, has been meticulously aged overnight to look as if it's carrying the sweat and dirt stains of a decade—and, suddenly, the sweat stains on the hat and on each actor's fatigues aren't all glycerin and Hollywood magic.

Before the end of the afternoon it will hit 109 in the desert above Los Angeles, and while any normal man might be forgiven for getting a tad irritable or limiting his physical contact with others, Haysbert redefines "chilled out." He's cool and calm, doling out and receiving hugs and slaps on the back as though he were at a pool party, wearing Tommy Bahama and drinking an ice-cold beer.

Adding to the incongruity of the scene is costar Scott Foley, offering up a $1,000 bet that no one on the set can drink a gallon of milk and keep it down. Apparently, this is a running bet among cast and crew, one that's seen plenty of downed dairy, but no prize money paid out.

When word hits Haysbert that Foley's just offered the bet to a visiting camera crew from a popular news-magazine show, he just smiles a slow smile and shakes his head.

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