A quote in an April 12th profile of actor-director Charles Dutton misstated his prison sentence for manslaughter. Dutton got five years. (Published 04/13/2000)

Spring rolls off the green-breasted acres of Charles S. Dutton's farm. Out back, in a paddock, horses canter. We're 17 miles from Baltimore, out in the John Deere-franchise exurbs, 17 miles from where Dutton grew up, mean and felonious. He's been gone 20 years. He doesn't like going back.

Baltimore is where Dutton's brother, a heroin addict for 25 of his 44 years, died of complications from AIDS in 1993. It's where his sister, a onetime petty thief and recovering cocaine addict, still lives. It's where the young "Roc" Dutton--before he went from jail to Yale, before he became a Broadway and Hollywood actor--stabbed a man to death.

He goes back to the old neighborhood reluctantly to visit his mother and sister. "It's changed so much," he says. "All my buddies are dead, in the pen or strung out." Dead, in the pen or strung out. He says this matter-of-factly, as if he's said it many times before. In the course of an afternoon, he'll say it several times more.

He agreed to go home last August, but it was a job. For three months he commuted from his little farm to the city to direct "The Corner," a six-part miniseries (beginning Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO) based on David Simon and Edward Burns's 1997 nonfiction account of a year in the life of a drug-blasted Baltimore neighborhood.

It's a grave piece of work, on which HBO lavished a $15 million budget and has provided a prestige time slot (following "The Sopranos" for six consecutive weeks). "The Corner" tracks 15-year-old DeAndre McCullough (Sean Nelson) and his addict parents, Fran Boyd (Khandi Alexander) and Gary McCullough (T.K. Carter), as their lives become a slow-motion landslide. Dutton unsentimentally captures the book's undulating waves of bleakness, delusion and degradation from a script by Simon (a former Baltimore Sun reporter) and David Mills (a former Washington Post writer).

Filmed amid the treeless row-house moonscape of East Baltimore (the actual corner, Monroe and West Fayette, is on the west side of town), "The Corner" is familiar territory to Dutton, both geographically and psychologically. Most of the series was shot about a mile from the housing project, hard by the Maryland State Penitentiary, where he grew up.

The old locals, 20 years on, still remember him, not as a face from movies ("Menace II Society," "A Time to Kill") and his self-titled TV series, "Roc," but as one of their own.

"How ya doin', Roc?" called one aging man to Dutton's broad back one day last October, as filming wound down on Cokesbury Avenue.

Dutton turned, a smile of recognition lighting up his face. "How you doin'?" he shot back warmly.

The making of "The Corner" was art imitating life, and life imperiling art. The filming bumped the dealers off their usual corners, causing a potentially lethal competition among rivals that Dutton and Simon had to smooth over (at one point, Simon apologized to the dealers for the disruption).

Meanwhile, ghosts kept appearing out of Dutton's past. A woman whom he had mentored when she was a child in a literacy program he started came by the set; she'd become a crack-addicted prostitute. Two of the 12 men who'd been with Dutton in a prison drama company 25 years earlier wandered over (the rest: dead, in the pen or strung out). A young local guy, whom Dutton cast to play a drug dealer who stabs a customer, was himself stabbed to death on the streets a month after filming was completed.

"This became personal for me," Dutton says. "Because of my life and my past, I was always equated with some kind of expert on this subject. Which I very well might be."

He chuckles. He's 49, built like a vintage Volkswagen, with a double-wide neck and a bullet head. He's on the short side, but his powerful body and deep voice make him seem bigger, more formidable, even as he sinks into his living room couch wearing gold corduroy slippers.

A Modern Morality Tale

Like the principal subjects of "The Corner," Roc Dutton was a drug-taker. He remembers exactly what he put in his body--cocaine, LSD, marijuana, opium, hashish, heroin. But never, he says, was he a drug addict. Dutton had a bigger appetite--for violence. His nickname comes from childhood rock fights, and stuck when he became an amateur boxer.

Later, he graduated to bare knuckles, knives, handguns. "I enjoyed knocking the [expletive] out of people," he says merrily. "I wasn't a bully. I would have been dead if I had been. But I enjoyed violence."

Dutton's parents divorced when he was 4. He was raised by his mother, who cleaned houses and proudly refused to accept welfare to feed her three children. Her pride in that achievement may account for Dutton's conservative contempt for what he refers to now as "damn government programs."

He ran with an older crowd, got into minor scraps and then dropped out of seventh grade, which landed him in reform school for truancy. In 1967, at age 16, he got into a street fight with a man in his twenties. He stabbed the man repeatedly. The man bled to death, and Dutton was sentenced to five years at the state prison in Jessup for manslaughter.

Today he reflects: "I killed a guy who nearly killed me. I never did anything to anyone who wouldn't have done the same to me. At first I had no remorse. But then I used to wonder what the guy would look like if he was still living. Would he amount to something? Knowing what he was like then, I know now."

He knows the answer: He'd be dead, in the pen or strung out.

Dutton served 20 months, apparently learning very little in the process. Not long after being released, he was arrested again, on robbery and weapons charges. A conviction on the latter count earned him a three-year sentence in the Maryland State Pen, the institution that stood outside his old bedroom window.

One day a guard kept him from seeing a visitor. Enraged, Dutton challenged him to a fistfight. As Dutton describes it, they had "a wonderful, nice 10 minutes busting each other up" in a locked room. Dutton figured it was a fair fight. But the guard eventually pressed charges ("he was pressured to do so," Dutton claims). The conviction earned Dutton eight more years in prison.

He is bitterly amused by this: "I got three years for killing a black man and eight for punching a white man."

Later on, following another cellblock beef over which TV program the inmates would watch, a fellow con stabbed Dutton in the neck with an ice pick. The blade plunged into his lungs, collapsing one of them, but missing his arteries. Still, he nearly bled to death.

The injury only stoked his rage. He had become a fire-breathing radical, a Black Panther who read Mao, Marx and Malcolm X and "believed wholeheartedly in the armed overthrow of the U.S. government. I was prepared to die for it." But he believes now that this was his initial salvation. Without "absolute defiance," he says, he might have been a jail-house suicide.

Not long afterward, he refused to accept an assignment cleaning toilets, and was banished to isolation for three days. There, in a dim 5-by-7-foot cell, Dutton read a book of plays he'd found in the prison library. He was transfixed, transported and ultimately transformed.

One of the plays particularly fired his imagination and his politics: "Day of Absence," by Douglas Turner Ward, a satire in which the black residents of a Southern town refuse to work one day. When he emerged from confinement, Dutton got all his cellblock pals together and talked them into forming a drama troupe.

The power of the stage--the ability to make even convicted criminals laugh, applaud or sit rapt--changed him. He decided then, he said, "to rediscover my humanity."

When he was paroled in 1976, after serving 7 1/2 years, he renounced the streets. He had earned his high school equivalency certificate in prison as well as a two-year college associate's degree, and soon entered Towson State University. Sometimes, he says, he'd walk the seven miles to campus rather than risk bumming rides from friends who might lure him back to the street.

The rest of the story is the sort of redemptive morality tale that fuels sermons and movies (in fact, Dutton's life story was once optioned by a studio). He earned a degree and began landing roles with the Baltimore Theatre Company, among others. Then he applied to and--miraculously, it seemed to him--was accepted into Yale Drama School.

At Yale, he met the two most important people of his professional life, director Lloyd Richards and playwright August Wilson. Richards drafted him for roles in the Yale Repertory Theater; Wilson selected him for his Broadway debut, in Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a production that resulted in Dutton's first Tony Award nomination. Later, Dutton starred in Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Piano Lesson," which earned him a second Tony nomination.

Roc Dutton was on his way, up and out of Baltimore.

The Buzz of Madness

In some ways, Dutton was an unusual choice to direct "The Corner." He's an accomplished actor with dozens of movie credits. But, other than stage work, he has only one major directing credit--a forgettable 1997 drama, produced for HBO, called "First-Time Felon."

But HBO knew Dutton from that movie, as well as from "Roc," which HBO had produced for the Fox network. And Dutton had an important Baltimore connection in David Simon, the co-author and co-executive producer of "The Corner."

"I knew his history," said Simon, who also wrote the book on which the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street" was based. "I knew a lot of what we'd be explaining was going to be second nature for someone from East Baltimore who'd been through what he's been through. And I knew he could pull performances out of a young cast. This is an actor's actor."

Initially, Dutton resisted. Acting jobs beckoned, and he reckoned that the 60-day shoot would be exhausting (indeed, HBO envisioned having three directors instead of one). Then he read the script by Simon and Mills, which he felt bestowed some humanity on the struggles of drug addicts and asked "larger questions."

HBO "wanted to do something in an election year to ask the government what we're finally going to do" about the drug problem, Dutton said. "At that point, it ignited my politics."

Dutton says he told the actors to "play the person, not the drugs." The finished piece is almost journalistic in its depiction, capturing the sociology--friendships, betrayals, odd loyalties--of the desperately poor and sick. The air of verisimilitude is enhanced by "interviews" with the principal characters that Dutton, off camera, conducts at the beginning and end of each hour.

Dutton has also captured the low buzz of madness that is soaked through the book, the forbidding sense of looming disaster. In addition to copious, graphic scenes of dope shooting, there are beatings, a stabbing, a running gun battle (at one point, a horse pulling a fruit stand is beaten by an enraged customer as passersby blithely walk away).

It's not pretty--nor does it seem particularly commercial. "This is a story about people whom no one wants to think about anymore--petty criminals, drug addicts, the poorest of the poor," acknowledges David Mills. "Yet we think we made a show that people haven't seen before, from a perspective that you don't see on television."

The Politics of Race

Dutton's own view of the devastation wrought by drugs in his home town betrays another transformation in his life. Once a leftist revolutionary, he's now part racial ideologue and part conservative.

"In these communities, you almost have to give up and throw away the 16-year-olds and the 25-year-olds to save the 4-year-olds," he is saying. "The 25-year-old is serving life without parole. The 16-year-old is on his way to serving life. The 4-year-old is sitting on the steps, becoming immunized against the violence and accepting that as his lot in life. So you have to throw away two generations to save one."

He's warming up. "Newt Gingrich said we ought to put those kids in orphanages. I agree with that man wholeheartedly!"

The current condition of the inner city, he believes, is ultimately the legacy of slavery and racism, and that's not changing. "The word for it is simply genocide," he says. "Short of legalizing heroin and cocaine for documented addicts and taking the profit motive out of it, I don't see Americans doing anything about it.

"Look," he says, "if I once owned you, regardless of the centuries that have passed, if I once owned you, how could I ever feel in a million years that you are my equal? . . . The problems in this country are a direct residue of slavery. . . . It was the worst atrocity of modern mankind, and in that I include the Holocaust, which was an isolated six-year incident. The residue [of slave ownership] runs through the veins of a lot of Americans."

Don't African Americans bear some personal responsibility, too?

Dutton laughs. Of course they do. "If that two-thirds of blacks who are middle-class could get their act together, you'd never have to ask white people, the government, for a single goddamn dime. . . . I don't think it's the responsibility of white people to do anything. In my opinion, we don't get anywhere still expecting something from the government. If [African Americans] spend $300 billion a year, we have no excuse why we can't solve our own problems, financially and socially."

So wipe out programs to aid the poor? Yes: "We need the Republicans, the Senate, the Congress, the president, to say all this program [expletive] is over with. Maybe that's the shock black people need."

Dutton figures this kind of talk isn't going to get him elected to anything, but then, he's not running for office. "I'm an artist," he points out, "not a politician." He gives back what and when he can--speaking on college campuses, lending his name to a Maryland-wide school safety program, hosting the occasional theater fund-raiser.

In the meantime, he's creating some art. He's writing a screenplay. It's about the racial partitioning of America. With the onset of a racial cataclysm, the federal government reluctantly agrees to divide the country into gigantic racial zones. Whites gain the majority of the states, Latinos are granted three, Asian Americans two, and African Americans are deeded 13.

"The theme," he says, "is, given such a scenario, would [African Americans] do anything different to run their country than anyone else?"

The answer soon emerges. The main character, a black Army vet, fights back against the increasing lawlessness of the inner cities--by fencing them in. "He tries to put some morality back," says Roc. "He goes against the grain."

Eventually, however, he becomes a villain. His tactics grow increasingly ruthless. He decrees that anyone caught selling drugs gets an automatic six months in jail for a first offense.

And for the second offense? "There's no trial. You're just pushed up against the wall and shot."

A smile ignites Roc Dutton's broad features. His script is called "The Final Solution."