At 6-foot-6, with his shiny black hair pulled back into a ponytail, Erik Todd Dellums is a striking man. So when he walked through the dining room of Busboys and Poets in the U Street corridor recently, it was not clear whether some people did double-takes because of how he looks or because they remember him from the ’90s television show “Homicide: Life on the Street,” in which he played the elegantly evil drug kingpin Luther Mahoney.
During the two seasons that he appeared on the NBC drama about Baltimore homicide detectives, fans would spot Dellums and exclaim “Lu-ther!”
“I would walk into some hard neighborhoods in Baltimore and get such respect from the brothers and sisters. I loved it,” he says.
In the 14 years since Dellums’s character was written off the show, his acting career has sputtered. He makes some money using his voice, a baritone that can be formal enough to narrate history shows on the Discovery Channel and funky enough to be Three Dog, a radio DJ in the post-apocalyptic video game Fallout 3 . This weekend, he will serve as the announcer at the dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall.
But it is another voice that is attracting attention these days, one he has cultivated on his blog, Erik Todd Dellums Presents. It’s personal and political, at turns funny and ferocious, and it has landed him back on television, this time as a guest on Fox News to talk about his frustrations with President Obama — airing a message that resonates among some African Americans who feel underserved by the first black president but are reluctant to criticize him openly.
“I am embarrassed that my brothers and sisters are so transparent in their support of Obama. Given that Blacks have gotten NOTHING from this Administration, showing that kind of support brings up memories of Jonestown.”
Dellums launched that grenade on his blog Sept. 16 after an NBC News poll showed that 92 percent of African Americans support Obama. He tossed another one after the president told members of the Congressional Black Caucus at their annual dinner last month to “stop complaining . . . stop crying” and help him fight for his jobs bill.
Fans might be surprised to stumble upon Luther Mahoney pontificating about politics, but it’s a role for which Dellums has more preparation than that of a drug lord.
Dellums, 47, is the son of former representative Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), who stormed into Washington in 1970 on an anti-Vietnam War message and became a leading advocate for liberal causes during his 27 years in Congress.
Activism runs deep in Dellums’s family. His mother’s grandmother headed the anti-lynching campaign in California in the 1930s. His father’s uncle was a leader in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which worked with civil rights leaders to organize opposition to segregation.
“My parents would tell us what issues were important. I can remember going to school and writing something like ‘equal rights for women’ on my T-shirt and a teacher of mine saying, ‘I love you, Erik!’ ”
Dellums was 7 when his family moved to Washington. “We were one of 12 or 13 black congressional families at that time,” he recalled. His father and his mother, Leola “Roscoe” Dellums, quickly became political and social stars. The walls of his mother’s Chevy Chase home are covered with photographs, usually with his father in a tux and mother in a ball gown, posing with film, music, television and sports stars at fundraisers and benefits.
What would his father think of him on Fox criticizing the nation’s first black president? Ron Dellums, who finished a term as mayor of Oakland in January and is listed as vice chairman of Watts Partners, the D.C. lobbying firm of former Republican congressman J.C. Watts, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Erik Dellums said he thinks that his father would agree with his criticism that Obama needs to be a more forceful advocate for the issues important to his liberal base, although the two haven’t spoken in several years.
Dellums was working as a paralegal in a law firm in 1996 when he got a call from a friend, director Jace Alexander, to audition for “Homicide.”
He took the train to Baltimore to try out for a small part as a drunk.
“I read my little drunk line and I got up and put my overcoat on,” Dellums recalled. Alexander handed him another set of lines. “He said, ‘Take this, look it over and come back in the room in five minutes and do this character. His name is Luther Mahoney. He’s a drug lord.’
“And I said to myself, ‘no one in life is going to buy me as a drug lord, so this will be fun.’ ” Dellums said he went into a restroom stall — or, as he calls it, “the actor’s office” — to practice the lines.
“I did my thing, turned around and walked out of there and said, ‘let me just grab a cigarette and head on back on the train.’ ” By the time he got off the train in the District, he got a call that he’d landed the part.
“I shot the episode, had fun and just went back to my little life, and they just kept calling me. I was still working at the law firm and just kept doing the character. It was cool.”
Tom Fontana, one of the producers of the show along with David Simon, who wrote the book on which the series was based, explained why Dellums made such a good villain.
“There was something wonderfully sly and secretive and sardonic and sexy about Erik that made him the best (and only choice) for the part,” Fontana wrote in an e-mail.
After his character was killed off the show, Dellums landed a small role in Eddie Murphy’s movie “Dr. Dolittle” and then a few guest appearances on cop shows — “NYPD Blue,” “JAG,” “Walker Texas Ranger.” But very little since.
“It’s been a very frustrating career,” he said, sitting in the basement of the home where he grew up in the city’s Chevy Chase area.
It was his friend Clark Johnson, whom he met while working on “Homicide,” who gave what is so far his favorite role: playing Bayard Rustin in the movie “Boycott.”
“He nailed that role,” said Johnson, who directed the 2001 film for HBO.
“I think he’s a phenomenal actor,” Johnson said. “If he wasn’t so good, I’d say, ‘Man, why don’t you follow in your daddy’s footsteps?’ ”
Dellums says his role model for being an activist artist is Harry Belafonte, who was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and remains outspoken on humanitarian causes, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean.
Dellums doesn’t always blog about presidential politics. He has also aired his concerns that the NAACP is becoming irrelevant, about his “complex relationship” with his father and about why he refused to go see the summer hit film “The Help.”
He expected to be denounced by fellow African Americans because of his commentaries on Obama.
“I’m ready for you. Ready for your outrage. Ready for your demand that I toss in my Black Card,” he wrote in a post that criticized black voters’ overwhelming support for Obama despite what he sees as the president’s inadequate response to the high rates of unemployment and poverty in black communities.
He has gotten some push-back. His mother says some of her friends are not happy. “I think they want me to muzzle him,” she said.
Each time he appeared on Fox, Dellums made a point of noting that he supports the president and probably will vote for him next year.
“I don’t ever want it to seem that I’m beating up on this president,” Dellums said, adding that he initially turned down Fox’s invitations.
“But I started to get very, very frustrated. . . . I could see him losing because I don’t think anybody has any passion anymore. I want him to stay passionate.”
Dellums hopes he gets the chance to meet Obama at Sunday’s dedication of the King memorial.
“I’m going to be the voice of God,” he said, using the theatrical term for an anonymous announcer. “I get to announce all the good folks, including the Queen of Soul,” he said (Aretha Franklin is scheduled to perform). “I’m excited to do it because I love Martin Luther King Jr. And the president is a brother!”
What would be even better is if he were to get the acting role of his dreams: to play Obama in the biopic of the 44th president.
“There are certain roles you just know you’re born to play,” Dellums said.
“I have no desire to play the first black president,” he adds. “I want to play the greatest president that ever lived.”