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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 4)

Spend enough time with Dennis Haysbert and you quickly realize that, behind anything he might say, even in a light tone and with a rare grin on his face, there lies a steely resolve. He's known among his peers for putting his heart and soul into a project—whether it's a character role in a film production or being the face and voice behind nonprofit projects involving education, human rights or HIV/AIDS awareness. And if that same heart once had a hole in it, there's little doubt that it's working just fine for him now.

As a child, Haysbert says, he was forbidden to play with the other kids or overexert himself; as he got older, and the improvement in his health became obvious, his mother finally allowed him to participate in sports, but with an unusual caveat: that he explore other areas, too.

"I wanted to play sports, but my mother, she gave me a proviso. She said, 'You can play sports if you pursue art.' She had a great deal of influence on me when I was growing up. Besides, I didn't need a lot of coercing, because there was something in me that wanted to do that, to pursue the arts. She gave me license to."

Haysbert was a defensive end on his high school's football team, ran track and, briefly, played some hoops, but "…I was starting to achieve my height, and I played a little basketball, but basketball interfered," Haysbert smiles, "with theater season. That's when we did our term plays and did nutshell versions of Shakespeare for English classes. And, believe me, I got a fair amount of looks from the guys on the team. 'You're in theater but you can play football?!' I got a lot of shit about it," he says, laughing.

Apparently that was nothing compared to the ribbing he took for participating in dance class. "I danced a little bit…I would help the dance department out with adagios because I could physically do lifts and things like that," he says. But he still admits that he floated without much direction for a couple of years following high school, until some specific words put him back on track again.

"From the time I was 10 I think I knew that I wanted to act, and then there was the caption under my high school picture, [so] it was obvious I had no doubts, I knew what I wanted to do. But I also had a catalyst, an older brother who died of cancer, and I just happened to be with him the [day] before he died. He asked me a simple question, 'What do you want to do?' And I said, 'Well, I want to be an actor.' He asked, 'Where do you want to do it? Can you do it from here?' and when I said 'No, not really' he said, 'Well, get the hell out of here then because tomorrow's not promised.' I'll always remember those words. 'Tomorrow's not promised.'"

The following day, Haysbert's brother, Charles, died at age 32. Two weeks later, Haysbert was in Los Angeles, working in a grocery store and taking classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When he wasn't in class or working at the store, Haysbert says, he consumed any self-help book he could get his hands on, including How to Visualize What You Want and The Power of Positive Thinking. Things began to click for Haysbert and, tall and handsome, he found work in television fairly quickly after graduation; first on "Lou Grant" and then later in series as diverse as "Laverne & Shirley," "The White Shadow," "Magnum PI," "Dallas" and "The A-Team."

By 1989 he'd landed his first movie role, as a voodoo-practicing baseball player in Major League, and during intervals between near-constant television roles and the occasional stage production, Haysbert has acted in big-screen titles including Love Field, Waiting to Exhale, Love & Basketball, Absolute Power, Far From Heaven and, most recently, in Sam Mendes' war drama, Jarhead.

Looking at Haysbert's filmography, it's hard to find any significant gap of time in the past 20 years in which the actor hasn't been busy with a project…or two or three. To hear him tell it, "it's an actor's dream…it's what an actor lives for, to be able to go from one character to the next to the next."

Those self-help books he read in his 20s seem to have worked; what Haysbert wants he usually gets. Post-"24" and concurrent with "The Unit," Haysbert took on a movie role playing one of his greatest personal heroes, South African president Nelson Mandela, in the big-screen drama Goodbye Bafana.


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