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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.

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.

"We call [Foley] 'Never Not,'" says Haysbert, fondly. "It's short for 'Never Not Funny.' He's our resident prankster."

When pressed on whether he's ever taken Foley up on one of his bets or fallen for one of his pranks, Haysbert briefly arches one eyebrow in amusement. "No. I have a sense of humor but I'm, you know, not the straight man. The jokes don't work on me because I never buy into them. The thing is, he will pay you [and] he offers up a lot of money, but I know it's a trick, know it's a sucker bet."

Most anything can be feigned on a television production set, but there's no sign of anything other than unadulterated affection when Haysbert's name comes up among the cast and crew. Oh, sure, he's the lead actor in a show that keeps hundreds of people employed, and speaking well of the man could be beneficial to one's job security, but people just can't seem to stop wanting to touch the guy.

Max Martini and Demore Barnes, both regulars on "The Unit," try to explain the mystique that seems to follow Haysbert.

"In some respects, what you see on the show—the bonding, the trust in Dennis, the strategizing to make sure that an operation goes smoothly—is what we're like in real life," says Martini, who plays Mack Gerhardt on the show. "During the first season we were all so 'first-season nervous' about the success of the show that we used to have potlucks at each other's homes every Tuesday night when the show aired. We'd all watch the show, cheer each other on when there were on-screen scenes and eat dinner as a group."

Barnes, who plays Hector Williams on "The Unit," puts it a little differently. "Dennis brings leadership, egoless leadership, to the cast, and he's got a kindness and accessibility that you don't see very often. You know, it's so hard from an actor's perspective; it's so hard to get a pilot made, and then if you're lucky you get a contract for 13 episodes. If you make it [through] a single season, it's a gift, and then to have a hit show, to get picked up for additional seasons…Dennis never seems to doubt or lose his cool about this stuff. He's just calm, stable…you just kind of think that things are going to work out right if he's right there, part of it and in charge."

Therein, perhaps, lies the dichotomy that is Dennis Haysbert. That the man is smart, scary smart, is undeniable, but that intelligence is subtly amplified by his very cool, very controlled demeanor.

That same gravitas, combined with an innate ability to draw his fellow actors close to him, and the way he is deliberately sought out for hugs and included in their lives, their potlucks and even their pranks, makes him a fascinating man, a fascinating actor and, some have suggested, even a potentially fascinating real-life political candidate.

Haysbert admits that the topic came up a few times while he was playing President Palmer on the hit Fox drama "24," but claims that he has no interest, at least for now. "It's come up, half-kiddingly," says Haysbert. "Or maybe not."

After working consistently for nearly three decades on stage and in television and film, Haysbert finally garnered the kind of viewer recognition and fan base that some actors only dream of with his portrayal of Senator David Palmer, later President David Palmer, on "24."

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."

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.

Even though the role was offered in such a way that would allow him to film during his summer hiatus from "The Unit," Haysbert admits that he briefly questioned his ability to take on the role. As he tries to explain it, he keeps his gaze trained on a small black-and-white photo of Nelson Mandela tucked into a mirror frame across the room.

"I just remember it being a very daunting situation," recalls Haysbert. "I was a little nervous about it and almost turned it down. I had a momentary loss of confidence and didn't think I was worthy. He's such a hero of mine."

Goodbye Bafana follows the true story of Mandela's imprisonment during apartheid and the unlikely, but powerful friendship that developed between the South African president and the white, Afrikaner warden of the prison in which Mandela was kept for more than a quarter of a century. (The warden is played by British actor Joseph Fiennes.)

To prepare for his role, Haysbert studied tapes of Mandela's speeches and learned to speak enough Xhosa, one of South Africa's many languages, to use it credibly in the film. He also, he says quietly, felt the need to make a trip to Robben Island.

Located seven and a half miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, Robben Island once served as an isolated prison for opponents of apartheid, and was Nelson Mandela's "home" for nearly 27 years. Today, Robben Island is a tourist attraction, albeit a grim one, with walking tours conducted by former prisoners.

It seemed appropriate, Haysbert recounts, that it was a particularly gray, rainy day when he took the boat over to Robben Island. "It's an oppressive rock in the middle of the sea that looks out and back at the splendor that is Cape Town. That alone had to have been a hardship, to look out [from prison] and see big, beautiful Table Mountain.

"You can't go into President Mandela's actual cell, but the energy coming from it, sad energy, is palpable. It's a cruel-looking place, and even though there were some murals that had been painted on the walls there [for the tourists]—I guess it's the purist in me—[but] if you're going to show something that was really harsh and ugly, both spiritually and physically, I figure you should leave it that way."

What came as a pleasant surprise to Haysbert while filming in South Africa was how often he was recognized and greeted on the street as "President Palmer," and how easily the locals accepted him, an American actor, taking on the iconic role of President Mandela.

"'24' is big, very big there," says Haysbert, "and everyone seemed to know who I was. They're very protective of President Mandela, of his story, their story, and I assured them that I would be playing him with all the dignity and integrity that I could muster. They were all pleased [with the casting] I think, because of what I had done [before]. I had played a president, a very popular President Palmer, so it was helpful."

Between his starring in "The Unit," filming movies and regularly making Discovery Channel documentaries, it's hard to imagine that Haysbert ever takes a moment to just relax but, he swears, he does. In particular, he makes as much time for his two children, Charles and Katherine, as he can. A divorced dad (Charles and Katherine are Haysbert's children from his second marriage, to actress Lynn Griffith), Haysbert's face lights up when he talks about his daughter's athletic prowess and his son's interest in world news, politics, history and filmmaking. He also sees discipline as a key component of his role as a parent.

He is, he hopes, a good dad. "I get them every other weekend and any other time that I can muster. I love them freely and unconditionally, [but] I can also be firm. If something's not done [or] done right, or they're being lackadaisical in some really pertinent way, it's incumbent upon me to tell them and let them know that.

"See, I have a theory about parenting. There's an old saying: 'If you watch your pennies, you don't have to worry about your dollars.' Well, if you watch your kids when they're younger, you have less to worry about when they're teenagers. You just give them the attention that they need and deserve, and love them.

"I think it's all about love. When you say to them, 'Look, I'm saying this and I'm doing this because I love you and I want to see you survive your teenage years, I want to see you live fully,'" says Haysbert, "it's from love. I have friends say to me, 'I don't know how you do it,' but I have two of the most bright, polite, good-natured kids you'll ever find."

The discipline that he offers them, Haysbert admits, also has to apply to himself. When teased about eating some fried chicken being offered by craft services during a lunch break, even after having espoused the importance of eating healthy earlier in the day, he doesn't bat an eye. "You have to understand that I rarely, rarely eat something like this, but if I want a little of something I'll have it. A little. That's it. I don't 'jones' for things I know I shouldn't have…I just don't have them."

What Haysbert does have from time to time is a cigar, usually, he says, after a great meal ("a big, fat steak maybe, with some great wine") or when hanging out with close friends. He prefers Cohibas and the Fuente Fuente OpusX line, dark cigars with strong flavors that go well with two fingers of The Macallan single malt at the end of an evening. Haysbert also admits that perhaps part of the camaraderie on "24" came from many of the cast and crew hanging out in the "cigar room" on the set where, says Haysbert, a little male bonding would occasionally happen over a cigar, a hand of cards and a Scotch. But even that, he implies, comes with responsibility, moderation and discipline.

"When I knew that my son, when he was little, would smile like me, would posture himself like me, hang on to my every word…from that moment on I learned that that's a great deal of responsibility. Everything I do, these kids are going to look at and emulate, just like a son emulates his dad shaving. And now for my daughter, it's the women I date…"

Ah, dating. Haysbert is discreet when talking about his romantic life but, after pointing out that his parents were married for 51 years before his father's death, he admits that, after two divorces, he wants the complete package in his next serious relationship.

"I've seen a lot of women and men get married for some interesting reasons, and not all of it," Haysbert pauses for a second, "or I would say, very little of it, really, has to do with love. It has to do with what one can gain, whether it's financial security or they've got someone on their arm that is beautiful.

"I also hear some guys say, 'You know, things are good,' but it's the exception, and I want that exception," he says. "I don't want things to change [in a romance] just because of marriage. I want someone that I can laugh with. Someone that I can have a discussion with, that even if you disagree with each other, that you are together, you have each other's back. That you love and respect one another. That you can enjoy each other's company, that when they're sick you react as though they were your child.

"You know," says Haysbert, smiling, "I've had my children's projectile vomit on me, but it never changed how much I love them. You just stroke their head, put a cold compress on them. That's what I want…that unconditional love."

If Dennis Haysbert, the actor, is able to lend dignity and integrity to a screen role as a political leader, Dennis Haysbert, the American voter, has strong views on what politicians need to do to ensure our future.

When asked what he thinks President Palmer, Haysbert's "24" character, would do about the environment, Haysbert doesn't skip a beat before responding. "David Palmer would bring all those heads of state into his office and all those corporate heads, and say, 'Look, what do you want? What is it that you want and that we can give you to make you change the infrastructure of your companies so that we don't spew out a quarter of the world's Co2 into the air, that we don't put a disproportionate amount of bullshit crap in our skies?' Because the thing is, I hear people say that it's killing the planet. It's not going to kill the planet, the planet will adjust. It's the planet that will kill us."

As a few names of potential candidates for the 2008 presidential election get bandied about, the subject of the conversation segues, slightly, into Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. The film, Haysbert says, made a difference to him, and woke him up enough to make him "…angry. Angry and tired. I'm angry at greed, I'm tired of putting ungodly amounts of Co2, metric tons of Co2, in the air. I'm getting tired of looking at glaciers near Kilimanjaro become pools of water. Tired of what I see, tired of what I smell."

That Haysbert has become passionate on the subject of the environment and global warming becomes obvious, and for nearly an hour he talks in an informed, intelligent manner about everything from the oil used in creating plastic grocery bags to the deliberate abandoning of electric-car and solar-power technology for traditional fossil fuels.

It's not that Haysbert doesn't appreciate the finer things in life himself, he says, but rather that he's willing to make compromises. Haysbert, a car buff, owns both a Range Rover and a Bentley ("which I'm looking at converting to diesel or bio-diesel") and has recently placed an order for an electric car that he plans to drive to and from his home in Malibu and the set of "The Unit."

Furthermore, says Haysbert, he's making his home "green," and hopes to have most of the modifications done by the end of the year. "I'm putting in solar panels, solar roof panels, and I'm using different kinds of light bulbs that reduce Co2 emissions. I'm putting in a saline pool for my exercise and I'm putting in two 8,000-gallon rain catchers with tanks under the ground. Rainwater collection makes sense," Haysbert says, "and you can collect an awful lot of water depending upon the surface of your rain catcher and filtration systems. Just three inches of water will give [me] 10,000 gallons [of water] based on my roof size."

If Haysbert waxes enthusiastic about the changes taking place in his home, it's the change that will be taking place in his driveway that puts a sparkle in his eye. Haysbert confesses he has always had a thing for cars, especially fast cars. "It was in my childhood that I started to love cars, all kinds of cars, especially Corvettes. [They] were sleek, powerful and American-made [at a time] when that still meant something."

Some things, it seems, don't change over time. Haysbert still craves fast, and still prefers American-designed automobiles. The trick, it seems, is finding those two features in a package that offers an environmental edge to it. Surprisingly, he's found it, he says, in his new electric car.

That new car, a Tesla, is a sleek, sexy roadster convertible that is slightly Porsche-like in design and travels 250 miles (a 135-mpg equivalent) per three-hour electric charge. Haysbert was one of the first 100 buyers to place an order for the Tesla, which has an estimated delivery date of spring 2007 and a price tag of $100,000.

"It has no emissions," enthuses Haysbert. "None. And it tops out at 130 miles per hour, and that's with a governor on it."

When asked whether he plans on testing that speed out, Haysbert grins for a moment before his inbred discipline kicks back in.

"No. The thing is that you know you can. Just knowing you can is sufficient."

Betsy Model is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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