Haysbert dignifies action again on '24'

Monday, November 4, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Commanding yet guarded, President David Palmer addresses the press corps, assuring them that although the situation is grave, everything is under control.

It's a scene from an upcoming hour of Fox's real-time action series "24" (8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12), 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 own name when referring to his character. A mistake, obviously, but an understandable one: Haysbert displays the same decorous manner off-screen as on.

"I like to think of myself as having some dignity and integrity," he says between scenes. "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.

'So much presence'

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," says Haysbert.

Personally, 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 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 opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

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