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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

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He also garnered some positive attention from the critics. Haysbert received a Golden Globe nomination in 2002, won a Golden Satellite Award in 2003, was nominated in 2003, 2004 and 2006 for an NAACP Image Award and, together with the rest of the "24" cast, was nominated in both 2003 and 2005 for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series.

Centered on a government counterterrorist unit (CTU) that takes orders from and helps protect the president of the United States, the series became a cult phenomenon in spite of, or perhaps because of, the show's premise that colored outside of the box in terms of concept, casting and dialogue. Each episode was written with the script and action calling for one hour of television equal to one hour of real time.

With the lead actor of the series, Kiefer Sutherland, playing CTU agent Jack Bauer, the role of the stoic, ethical senator who becomes a leading contender for the presidency was a unique opportunity on many levels, says Haysbert. For one, it allowed him to base the inspiration for his role as a U.S. president on some names he personally respects—names such as Powell, Clinton, Eisenhower, Carter and Mandela.

When asked about how much of Palmer's persona came from the writers and how much came from Haysbert, he admits that it was a genuine mix. The role was well defined early on, says Haysbert, and "I auditioned like several other actors did, [but] I think a little 'Dennis Haysbert' did creep in. I wanted David [Palmer] to have a dignity, a love for the common man. Power was not what he wanted to exploit…he wanted to empower the people to control their own destiny."

Haysbert smiles when addressed as "Mr. President" and, while he agrees that the show itself, along with its design and premise, broke new ground for television, he hesitates to call the role of David Palmer his own, personal breakthrough.

"Yes, but there were others too. I've had a lot of breakthrough roles," Haysbert says carefully, "but that was one that was seen by the most people. You know, whenever I do a project I always hope for the best and ["24"] just turned out that way. I knew right away it was unique. I knew it was going to be shot differently than any show has been shot before, using the multiple angles and multiple screens…split screens, quadruple screens and things like that. Those were all inventive things for this show and for television in general."

According to Haysbert, after the third season of "24," the producers decided to write President Palmer out of the show. After one failed assassination attempt—a near-lethal poison delivered by handshake—the character was finally killed off, but not until after Haysbert had been voted "Best President of the United States" in a USA Today poll that pitted him against not only television counterparts Martin Sheen and Jimmy Smits of NBC's "The West Wing," but against real-life president George W. Bush.

The irony that he's flip-flopped his character roles—in "The Unit," he plays the role of a covert agent protecting the president—isn't lost on Haysbert, nor is the fact that he segued almost seamlessly into not just that role but into two others, in movies scheduled for release in early 2007: Breach and Goodbye Bafana.

It wasn't, he insists, just luck. "I wanted it. I'm very disciplined and I wanted it. I had been visualizing this role [of Jonas Blane] since the third year of "24." He's a man of action and, I get to roll around in the dirt, shoot guns, be a boy, be a man! I'm like a kid in a candy store with a pocketful of quarters, a trapped rat in a cheese factory."

That Haysbert is thoroughly enjoying a role that involves physical action, guns and hand grenades is readily apparent. According to Haysbert, what he really, really wants to do one of these days is to go a step or two further and trade in the camouflage fatigues for some Lycra. "I think I'd make a great superhero," says Haysbert, grinning. "I'm serious. I want to play a superhero and I've already got one in mind. I think I've still got the body for the costume and it's something I really want to do."

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