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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 5)

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."


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