Access Atlanta
by Lyle V. Harris

Haysbert brings enigmatic edge to 'Now and Again'

All actors have a cool quotient that determines their position in the pop-culture food chain.

Sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down. Right now, Dennis Haysbert's CQ is through the roof.

For starters, the 45-year-old actor is co-starring in the CBS Friday night hit "Now and Again," arguably one of the coolest, and easily the weirdest, show of the 1999-2000 TV season.

Haysbert's character, the icy Dr. Theodore Morris, is a twisted government scientist who creates a bionic crimefighter and breaks into a capella renditions of old standards like "Close to You" when the mood hits him.

As if that's not cool enough, Haysbert is a personal friend of Richard Roundtree's, whose portrayal of leather-jacketed private eye John Shaft in 1971 helped invent the CQ.

During a recent trip to Atlanta, Haysbert bumped into Roundtree at the Omni Hotel, and they greeted each other like only guys who are supremely secure in their CQ can: with a big hug.

"We've known each other for about five years now," Haysbert said after Roundtree headed toward the escalator. "We go to the same celebrity golf tournaments, which I love doing. He's got a lower handicap than mine. I've been so busy I haven't had much time to play."

As it turns out, "Now and Again" is in the "back nine" of its contract with CBS, but that has nothing to do with Haysbert's rusty golf game. The term refers to the network's decision to pick up nine additional episodes of the show, a good sign that it may be around for a while.

That's good news for Haysbert, who has also been around for a while, but hadn't landed a breakthrough role until "Now."

He certainly has leading man looks: He stands 6-foot-4 and has a knockout smile and a milk-chocolate complexion. Striding across the Omni ballroom, he has the confident gait of an athlete, and with good reason. In high school he was a football-basketball-track triple threat.

His voice, a rumbling bass, is reminiscent of a younger James Earl Jones, who was actually considered for "Now and Again" before Haysbert snared the part.

Although the role has been a personal coup for Haysbert, not everyone is applauding. When the fall lineup of shows debuted, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took little note of "Now and Again" and charged the major networks with failing to include blacks and other minority groups in front of and behind the camera.

After threatening a TV boycott, the civil rights organization has since forged agreements with ABC and NBC, a move that could lead to more diverse programs.

Haysbert said he was disappointed that NAACP President Kweisi Mfume failed to mention "Now and Again" as an example of a network show with a black co-star.

"I think Kweisi Mfume had his agenda, and I don't think our show fit that agenda," said Haysbert, who nevertheless chose not to confront Mfume while both men were attending the Trumpet Awards here. "I think our show has been grossly ignored. My character is not stereotypical. He's not going out there saying '(racial epithet) this' or 'cracker that.' He's a man doing what men do."

Contacted later, the NAACP said "Now and Again" didn't fit the bill, regardless of Haysbert's role.

"The bottom line is that the show doesn't center on him day in and day out," said Sheila Douglas, an NAACP spokeswoman. "It's not his show."

It is producer Glenn Gordon Caron's show, and he disagrees.

From the show's inception, Caron said, he envisoned Haysbert's character as a black man who would have a major role in an ensemble cast. Caron said he wasn't trying to make a point, or trying to score any with African-American viewers.

"On some level I was aware there might be some prejudices on the audience's part, and as a storyteller you try to startle," said Caron from his New York office where the show is shot on location.

Lost in the dispute between the networks and the NAACP, Caron said, is Haysbert's performance. "This guy is a very, very good actor.

"Dennis has a regal quality that makes it very difficult to take your eyes off him, and he has an extraordinary facility with language," Caron said. "It's like jazz. You either hear the music or you don't. Dennis hears it."

Haysbert's co-star, Eric Close, plays Michael Wiseman, a middle-aged insurance executive killed by a speeding train whom Dr. Morris transforms into a hunky superman. The show is an oddball mix of drama, romance, comedy and fantasy that doesn't dwell on the racial differences of its co-stars.

"I think the audiences are responding to the chemistry between us," Close said from Pasadena, Calif. "He's really a good actor who brings a lot of film qualities to the show. Sometimes he does this subtle thing with his eyes that you don't notice when you're shooting. But when you see it in close-up on TV, it's so cool."

That's right, cool.

Who knows if Haysbert's role will make him a cooler-than-thou-legend like John Shaft. For now, he's just enjoying the ride.

"I racked my brain trying to figure out if there has ever been a character like this, and I don't think there has been," Haysbert said. "He's very eclectic and eccentric, and he gets to sing. My singing is questionable, but I'm having a great time and nobody seems to care that I can't carry a tune very far."

Age: 45
Hometown: San Mateo, Calif.
Residences: Pasadena, Calif., and New York.
Family: Married for 12 years. Has a 5-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son.
TV credits: "Queen," "Lonesome Dove," "Lou Grant."
Filmography: "Love Field," "Suture," "The Thirteenth Floor," "Absolute Power," "Major League," "Navy SEALs," "Heat," "Waiting to Exhale," "Mr. Baseball," "Random Hearts"
Upcoming films: "Love and Basketball," "What's Cooking."

January 21, 2000