Actor's presidential portrayal reflects his offscreen persona
By Bridget Byrne
8 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox
It's a scene from an upcoming hour of Fox's real-time action series "24," being shot at a suburban community college that is doubling for a presidential retreat turned crisis bunker.
The call sheet for Scene 940 denotes the cast as "2a and atmos." "Atmos" for background atmosphere refers to the agitated media throng and ubiquitous Secret Service agents. "2a" is Dennis Haysbert, who plays the courtly Palmer and has the series' No. 2 billing.
The call sheet later drops the shorthand and uses Haysbert's name when referring to his character. A mistake, obviously, but an understandable one: Haysbert displays the same decorous manner offscreen as on.
"I like to think of myself as having some dignity and integrity," he says. "I like showing that off in my work, because there is so much being shown in the other direction.
I feel it is my duty to maintain a certain kind of decorum in the characters I perform."
In last year's Emmy-nominated premiere season of "24," Palmer, then a senator running for president, was the target of an assassination attempt. He was saved by Special Agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland.
This season's plot takes place more than a year later, with the series continuing its unique serial format in which each one-hour episode represents one hour in a one-day, 24-hour storyline. As the clock ticks down during this year's day in the life, Bauer tries to save Los Angeles from a nuclear attack by Middle Eastern terrorists.
Having created Palmer to be the country's first black president, the show's executive producer, Joel Surnow, says it was an easy choice to cast Haysbert. "He has so much presence. He projects such intelligence and composure."
"Palmer is totally secure in what he means to the country and what he means to himself," Haysbert says.
Haysbert has taken as a mantra the words Sidney Poitier's character spoke to his father in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," the 1967 movie about racial prejudice and interracial romance: "You think of yourself as a colored man. I see myself as a man."
Reciting that statement nearly to the word, Haysbert says, "What that meant to me was the fact that I'm black everybody sees that that's not who I am, that's what I am. Who I am is something inside and what I convey to people in my life. You can't live stereotypically."
Although he feels blessed with diverse roles, Haysbert criticizes a racial disparity in Hollywood, both in pay and in opportunities for leading roles for minority actors who have triumphed in supporting parts.
In 1992, he starred opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in "Love Field," about a couple drawn to each other in the troubled aftermath of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Now, he appears in another story of interracial love "Far From Heaven," set in 1957. Haysbert plays Raymond Deagan, a gardener who befriends Julianne Moore's Connecticut housewife. The film, which also stars Dennis Quaid, opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Born in San Mateo, Calif., Haysbert grew up a fan of classic movies in which "you had to be moved by the people on the screen, moved by their souls, their eyes, the way their bodies moved, and, largely, by the words they said."
After studying at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he broke into television on an episode of "Lou Grant" in the late '70s and later played "Stuff" Wade in the 1981 firefighter series "Code Red." In 1999, he co-starred as secret agent and government scientist Theodore Moss in the sci-fi series "Now & Again." A notable movie role was Pedro Cerrano, the voodoo fanatic outfielder in all three "Major League" comedies.
"I still remain very fond of that character ... it was probably the most fun I've had on set, ever," Haysbert said.
While expansive about most things, Haysbert is guarded about his family life. He has two children, ages 8 and 11, but says, "I don't like to mention their names. They're just kids being kids; I love them to death."
He's also tight-lipped about his age.
"I'm not telling," he teases when asked to confirm a birth date of June 2, 1954. Smiling, he says he'd prefer to read, "Whatever his age is he still looks as good as when he was ..."