Dennis Haysbert likes the idea of playing an African American president. In fact, he likes the concept of having an African American president.
"The idea is not far-fetched. I don't think it should be," says the actor, who plays the newly elected President David Palmer on the hit show "24," whose new season debuts tonight. "I don't think it should matter to the American people what color skin is on their president. What should matter is the content of their character."
What's this -- a little Martin Luther King in the middle of a high-flying television show? The lanky Haysbert, 48, is stretched out in his trailer on a brief lunch break from the shoot; he has lit a bit of incense and drinks carrot juice, an odd contrast with his pinstripe suit, dress shirt and striped tie.
But yes, the King quote is sincere, and the actor turns out to have lots of quaint ideas about equality, a colorblind society and the good old American melting pot.
He seeks roles, he says, that "revel in positivity" instead of the opposite. "Why not accentuate the positives, rather than the negatives?" he asks. He has a handsome, square face, the look of solidity inside and out. Haysbert prefers characters that allow him to be a role model, which is perhaps the role he takes most seriously of all.
That's certainly true of another character the actor portrays in "Far From Heaven," a film scheduled to open in mid-November. It stars Julianne Moore as a socially constricted housewife in 1950s Connecticut who discovers that her corporate-executive husband (Dennis Quaid) is homosexual.
Haysbert plays Raymond (or, in the stiff parlance of the film, "Mr. Deagan"), an educated, upwardly mobile gardener who starts to have feelings for Moore's character, and vice versa. Their interracial courtship, in 1958, is a recipe for conflict.
"He's a man before his time," says Haysbert, his voice a luscious, rolling baritone. "He's a just, good, strong, loving, caring man. . . . I knew who this guy was, and I loved what the character had to say." Raymond is a man who believes in the ideals of the civil rights movement, the kind of black movie character one saw more frequently in the 1960s -- dignified and striving, not angry and alienated -- than in the 1980s and 1990s.
Haysbert bristles at the comparison, and at the suggestion that some might interpret his character as a throwback.
"I take exception to that," he says. "I don't place color on that -- a love of art, a love of nature. It's the base of any human being. . . . This man is not trying to be white, he's trying to be a man."
But even Haysbert takes note of the fact that there aren't many roles like these for black men, even with the rise of numerous African American directors. For that he faults his contemporaries, rather than society or even Hollywood.
"A lot of people don't want to write characters like that. And black filmmakers want to make the films that can get made. . . . Why can't we as black filmmakers make something that promotes beauty, honesty, the fidelity of black men? That's an irony to me," he says.
Haysbert has also fashioned his "24" character with positivity in mind, though the show is a convoluted maze of intrigue and betrayal. This season, secret agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is called back to work by President Palmer -- who last season was a mere candidate -- after Los Angeles is threatened by a nuclear device that will detonate within 24 hours.
Amid the web of untrustworthy cads, both inside the government and out, Palmer is calm, moral, upstanding and honest, a mirror of the ideals of the actor who plays him. (Palmer's wife, however, played by the African American actress Penny Johnson Jerald, is a scheming wretch.)
Palmer is also the first African American president to grace prime-time television -- although as far back as 1972, James Earl Jones played a black chief executive in a film called "The Man."
"It's a unique opportunity to present a politician as we'd like to see him," Haysbert says of Palmer. "He's a president for all the people. Many people would call that fantasy. I call it a truth I'd like to see in my lifetime."
Sutherland says he's not surprised to hear Haysbert espouse these sentiments: "There is a period quality to Dennis; he's not very cynical. When people play kings for a long period of time, they start to become quite regal. Dennis has embraced that character and given it a kind of dignity. He takes the role on with huge level of awareness of responsibility of that character.
"I keep waiting for Dennis to walk in one day and have his own Secret Service. When he starts work, his voice drops a notch. He gets very deep."
Haysbert grew up as the eighth of nine children in San Mateo, a town in Northern California not known for much diversity. His father worked in security for United Airlines, but Haysbert didn't travel as a child. The option was available, it just didn't seem available. Traveling was something rich people did.
But Haysbert was a star athlete in high school who was pushed toward cultural pursuits by his mother. At 13 he walked in on the rehearsal of a high school play and decided, "I could do that."
He did, but "people didn't know what to make of me," he recalls. In high school he was a star in football and track, a hit in the theater troupe who sang and danced, and president of the student council.
At the time San Francisco was a hotbed of African American politics, with the Black Panthers organizing just across the San Mateo Bridge in the East Bay. But "I never wanted to venture over the bridge," says Haysbert; the Panthers had been painted as demons, and as a child he saw them as fearsome.
He chose a different path. Haysbert went on to the prestigious Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, and spent years afterward taking mostly small parts on TV shows until he won a co-starring role opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in "Love Field" (1992), then others in "Love and Basketball" and "Waiting to Exhale." He was a regular on the short-lived TV series "Now and Again." He married (though is now divorced) and had two children. He hopes to marry again. He's a straight-and-narrow kind of guy.
Instead of Huey Newton, Haysbert's heroes became Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Colin Powell -- "who I wish would run for president," he says.
Well, heck, why doesn't Haysbert just run for office himself? He laughs deeply, and the sound ripples out of the trailer. "I was meant to change the world in another way -- I'd rather do it with the work," he says. "Let me change people's views with the roles I choose, and the way I play them."