Once the man ...

March 27 2003
By Tom Ryan

Even playing a president, Dennis Haysbert feels his character has an uncertain future.

It's been a fast track to the top for Dennis Haysbert. He's gone from being a secret service agent in Absolute Power (1997) to a political minder in What's Cooking? (2000), to a presidential candidate in the first series of 24, to the President himself in the second.

There have been odd jobs along the way, most notably as a baseball player in Major League III (1998), a detective in Random Hearts and Thirteenth Floor (both 1999), and Julianne Moore's gardener in Far From Heaven (2002). So he's been around, but he's now the first black man to make it to the White House since James Earl Jones took over occupancy in The Man (1972), Joseph Sargent's adaptation of Irving Wallace's 1964 novel. And Haysbert is still only 48.

He began his career with a small part in an episode of the second series of The Lou Grant Show (1979) entitled "Schools" and featuring an award ceremony speech delivered by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the famed civil rights leader who sought the Democratic presidential nominations in 1984 and 1988. Unsuccessfully.

The experience wasn't especially memorable, Haysbert recalls, and although it served as his introduction to the world of television, he looks at every new role in the same way: "I think any job is a door opening, simply from the experience you gain from doing it. Maybe because Jesse Jackson was in it, the likelihood of more people seeing it grew. But other than that, I don't know if it meant any more or less than anything else I've ever done."

Haysbert is talking to me via a very unsteady cell phone connection on his way to the set as production on this season's 24 moves towards a close. And his mind is clearly on the day ahead. Still, even though he's fading in and out, both literally and metaphorically, the rich baritone voice is unmistakable and the manner remains courteous throughout.

Part of the deal when you're working on a high-profile show like 24 is promoting it, which is what interviews like this are designed to do. And Haysbert is trying to do the right thing. To ensure things go as they're supposed to, a member of Fox's marketing team is listening in on the line. He even interrupts at one point offering to try to get us a better connection, which he eventually does.

Haysbert says he accepted the role of presidential aspirant David Palmer for a variety of reasons. "Not the least of these was that the character was running for President and I hadn't played a role like that. So I thought it was interesting and that the general concept for the show was great, and so I was just all for it."

When he signed on, though, he didn't know whether or not Palmer was even going to survive the threatened assassin's bullet. "We shoot two scripts at a time," he explains. "And we don't usually get the next two scripts until we finish shooting the two scripts prior. So that's the extent of our knowledge about what's going to happen. I really had no idea until the following season whether I was going to become President or not. In my secret thoughts, I always believed I would, but this is television. So nobody knows."

In previous interviews, the actor has expressed strong views about the kind of roles he's prepared to accept, exhibiting an almost missionary zeal in his desire to play positive African-American role models. Here, however, he appears to take a far more relaxed approach. "It pretty much depends on if I'm available and whether I like it or not," he says matter-of-factly. "I always try to play characters who have integrity and honesty and love of life. But I've also played men who've cheated on their wives.

"With 24, I pretty much put myself into the hands of the writers and producers and trusted that they were going to write Palmer with dignity and integrity. That was the way I wanted it to go. But they could have written it any number of ways."

He remembers The Man as very much a product of its time, the 1960s and the emergent civil rights movement: "It was written during an era when it was more a question of the character's blackness than the content of what he had to do and his ability to be President." However, Haysbert regards Palmer as an African-American who has become President because he's the best man for the job.

He's hard put to find flaws in his character. "Maybe he's a little too trusting," he observes. "And maybe he's too idealistic. Aahm, actually I don't see that as a flaw. But it can manifest itself that way in a world that isn't perfect."

In a recent episode, Palmer agreed to give the treacherous Nina (Sarah Clarke) advance immunity from prosecution for murdering the series' hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), as long as she revealed the whereabouts of the nuclear bomb set to devastate Los Angeles. But what if, like The West Wing's Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), he were asked to authorise a secret hit on a foreign leader because it was deemed to be in America's best interests? Would he do it? "Yeah," Haysbert says with little hesitation. "If it worked for the greater good, you know. If it worked in defending this country. If it meant saving lives to take one, then, yes, I think Palmer would do that."

Would Dennis Haysbert, US citizen, prefer to be living under a Palmer presidency or a Bartlet one. A booming laugh. A moment's reflection. "Well, I'll tell you. I'd love to think that we're both great Presidents in alternate universes. But I do like what David Palmer represents, so I guess I would have to say that I would prefer to live under his presidency." OK. Under Palmer or George W. Bush? Without missing a beat: "Palmer."

24 has just been picked up for a third season, but Haysbert is unsure whether or not his man is even going to see it through to the end of the second. "I have no idea. I have no idea what the story's going to be, none whatsoever. I don't even know if they're gonna invite me back. This season's not over with here yet and so anything can happen."