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TELEVISION : From Hard Time to Prime Time : Ex-con Charles Dutton, twice a Tony nominee on Broadway, accepts the challenge of a TV comedy series--but wonders if it’s the right thing to do

<i> Susan King is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times' TV Times. </i>

Charles S. Dutton’s dark sunglasses couldn’t mask the fact something was troubling him.

The afternoon after the first taping of his new Fox-TV comedy series “Roc,” Dutton, a former boxer who is built like a vintage Buick, was sitting at the table on “Roc’s” shabby kitchen set, shaking his shaved head. Most of the cast and crew had left for the day.

“To be totally honest with you,” Dutton said quickly in his soft-spoken manner, “last night and all of last week was one of those times, and I am sure I will have several more, when I wish I had never signed a television contract.”

The two-time Tony-nominated Dutton (for August Wilson’s award-winning dramas, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson”) plays Roc Emerson, a good-natured Baltimore garbage man trying to make a better life for himself and his family. Fox is sneaking “Roc” this evening at 7:30 p.m. before the Emmy Awards; it will premiere next Sunday at 8:30 p.m. preceding “In Living Color.”

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Dutton acknowledged he was suffering from a case of first-episode jitters. But he wondered whether he and the rest of the “Roc” cast would actually receive direction from the series’ directors. “I guess they are used to TV actors,” he said with a shrug. “Stage actors need advice. They (the directors) give you the jokes and the set-up. You are out there on your own.”

And he had misgivings about the script. “I think it was excellent,” Dutton explained. “But it didn’t have the consistency of the pilot.”

Dutton shook his head again. “I don’t know,” he lamented. “I am a serious actor who fancies himself an artist. To some degree, it is hard to do these little one-line jokes at the end of the scene. There are points where I want to disappear. And this week was one of those weeks. I did say to myself this morning, ‘Did I really do the right thing signing a TV contract?”’

Dutton has gone from serving hard time to starring in prime time. Dutton may be the first star of a TV series to have served prison sentences for manslaughter, illegal possession of a firearm and acting as the ringleader of a prison riot.

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In and out of reform school and prison since he was 12, Dutton received his parole on Aug. 20, 1976, and closed the door on his old life. In the ensuing years, he’s graduated from the prestigious Yale School of Drama and developed into an actor of staggering intensity and raw emotional power. After finishing “Piano Lesson’s” Broadway run last year, he made three films, one of them the big-budget “Alien 3" scheduled for release early next year. Dutton had many a sleepless night before he agreed to do “Roc,” but decided the series meant “the powerful Hollywood door was opening a crack” for him. “When it opens, you are supposed to step in.”

And Dutton didn’t seven years ago, when he had received the accolades of the critics and a Tony nomination for “Ma Rainey,” and Hollywood stood up and took notice. Dutton was flown out from New York to Los Angeles to audition for the villain role in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, “Commando.”

Dutton decided to stay with the play, and says the Hollywood door closed quickly. In fact, he recalled, “It kind of slammed shut, and it would throw me crumbs from underneath now and again.”

This time, however, Dutton hopes “Roc” will turn him into a major player in Hollywood. “I didn’t want to come out here and be a hired hand, making a nice salary on a TV sitcom and doing OK financially,” Dutton said. “I wanted to use this opportunity to parlay this into producing things for my own production company--creating my own projects for film and TV.”

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Dutton has gotten varying perspectives on his move into television. Stan Daniels (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Taxi”), who created and is consultant on “Roc,” warned Dutton about the pluses and minuses of doing a weekly series. “I said to him, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ It’s a very rough life,” Daniels recalled. “It can be a very difficult routine building up that excitement every week. I told him that up front.”

“I am not surprised he is doing a TV series,” said Lloyd Richards, the former dean of the Yale School of Drama and the former artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre, who directed Dutton in both Wilson plays.

“I don’t consider TV a comedown in either his talent or commitment. A lot of talented actors are doing TV.”

Sandy Grushow, executive vice president, Fox Entertainment Group, anticipates “Roc” will turn Dutton into a big TV star. “He is an enormous talent,” he said. “He can deliver the joke, but also play the moment with enormous pathos.”

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As he nursed an orange juice a few weeks earlier at the swank Ma Maison Sofitel restaurant, Dutton looked like he had already gone Hollywood, complete with those “star” sunglasses he never seems to remove and flashy gold jewelry.

“I don’t think you can buy into this Hollywood dream completely,” Dutton said, fidgeting with his glass. “I have known enough actors out here who leave New York and get a television series and basically become monsters. I already have had six actors and actresses come up to me and say, ‘You better watch the scripts. Read all the scripts. It’s your show and all the other actors will try to steal it.”’

Dutton feels had he come to Hollywood seven years ago, “I probably would have become one of those people I talked about.”

He had had a difficult time coping with his personal success in “Ma Rainey.” Dutton was the new kid on the block and the rest of the cast were seasoned veterans.

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“I lost sight with the fact that they were my elders,” he confessed. “It got ugly at times and we had blow-ups. But I apologized to the cast publicly during ‘The Piano Lesson.’ ”

Dutton, who has been married to actress Debbi Morgan (“All My Children”) for nearly two years, admits he is not easy to get along with during the run of a play. “I have no tolerance for people who are not working hard,” he said. “The stage to me is a sacred place. When you are at the theater it has to become the most important thing in your life. If you are there for other reasons you can definitely fall into the area of Charles Dutton’s wrath.”

Dutton, 40, is the first member of his family to have a criminal record. The middle of three children, Dutton’s parents separated when he was 5. “My old man (a truck driver) took care of his kids,” Dutton said softly. “He died at the same age I am now. He had a heart attack. That is my fear always to go like my old man.”

Ironically, Roc has been Dutton’s nickname ever since he got into neighborhood rock fights as a kid. “I always had a habit of trying to lead the charge and I would get my head busted twice a month, so my friends called me ‘Rockhead.’ Then when I started boxing as an amateur it was shortened to ‘Roc.”’

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A self-admitted “prison terrorist” and former member of the Black Panthers, Dutton’s interest in theater began nearly 20 years ago when a girlfriend gave him a book of short plays by black playwrights, which he read while in solitary. A racial satire by Douglas Turner Ward, “Day of Absence,” lit a spark within him.

His wrath and anger toward society turned into an obsessive passion for the stage. He started a prison theater company and spent all his time in his cell reading plays. When a fellow inmate plunged an ice pick through his neck in 1974, Dutton spent more than 60 days in the prison hospital. During his painful, difficult recovery, he realized he needed to put his life in order. And he did. Dutton obtained his high school equivalency and two-year college degrees. Upon his parole, he enrolled in the drama department at Towson State University, receiving his BA. In 1980, his drama professor suggested he apply to Yale. Much to his amazement, Dutton was accepted.

“I became part of the Yale mob,” Dutton recalled with a warm smile. “There were times at Yale, around 2 or 3 in the morning, I would sit in the old campus and just say, ‘I don’t believe this.’ ”

Dutton hasn’t turned his back on his prison days. This past spring, the Baltimore native gave the commencement address at Maryland State Penitentiary, where he served most of his time, for 31 inmates receiving their college degrees.

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“The theme of my speech was taking responsibility for the destruction one causes in their own community,” Dutton said. “You can’t blame it on the white man. You can’t blame it on society. If you sold drugs or committed the murder, you have to take responsibility for the destruction.

“Several people asked me, how did I make it? How did I change? The only formula I could think of had nothing to do with the rehabilitation. I could have learned 50,000 trades in prison and come right back out and robbed and stole and cheated. But really, the bottom line is discovering one’s humanity and realizing we are only on this planet for a couple of seconds in the large scheme of things.”

When critics like the New York Times’ Frank Rich call him a human cyclone, Dutton doesn’t know what Rich means. “I don’t feel this thing, this power people talk about,” he says.

But Richards, for one, does. “He’s impossible not to notice,” said Richards, who gave Dutton his first professional break when he cast him in the initial workshop production of “Ma Rainey.” “He has an explosive energy and the essence of an excellent actor. You don’t know what his next move is going to be. But he is a disciplined actor and he will do the same thing every night. He is easy to direct.”

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Longtime friend Alfre Woodard, with whom he appears in the upcoming film, “Pretty Hattie’s Baby,” makes it a point to catch Dutton’s stage performances. “He’s not afraid to fill up all the space on stage,” she said. “A lot of actors are afraid of being too loud or too big or too funny. He isn’t.”

“For years he was one of those actors I looked up to,” said Ella Joyce, who plays Roc’s wife, Eleanor, and first saw Dutton in “Ma Rainey.” “When I saw him I said to myself, ‘I would love to mix it on stage with him.”’

Without any false bravado, Dutton said he’s built up such a reputation in the theatrical community he can call any regional theater and say, “Accommodate me with a great classic play.”’

Or a great new play like “Piano Lesson.” Wilson wrote the pivotal part of Boy Willie, the ambitious Southern dreamer, specifically for Dutton.

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“As an actor you have no input in August Wilson’s plays,” Dutton explained. “You know that the first draft is going to be 18 hours long, but you hate to lose anything, the stuff is so good.”

It was while Dutton was appearing in “Piano Lesson” here in early 1990 that he began to get offers to do TV series. “A lot of people in the industry said my performance reminded them of Jackie Gleason,” Dutton explained. “I always had been a big fan of Gleason’s. I thought he was as good a tragic actor as he was a comic.”

Daniels also noticed similarities between Dutton and the Great One. “What is similar is just a sense of frustration with life in general,” Daniels said. “With both, they can translate that into comedic terms. You sense there is something in them that is ready to explode.”

Making people laugh is nothing new for Dutton. During his lean years in New York, he and a partner, Reg E. Cathy, had a stand-up comedy act. And in 1985, ABC signed the duo to a development deal that never worked out. Dutton got some good notices as Paul Hogan’s jive-talking friend in “Crocodile Dundee II” and had a small but meaty role in Sidney Lumet’s “Q&A.;” He also did guest shots on “Miami Vice” and “Cagney & Lacey” and was featured in the miniseries, “The Murder of Mary Phagan.”

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But Dutton resisted the lure of series TV until he received a call from an old Yale friend, Sasha Emerson, senior vice president of HBO Independent Productions, a newly formed production arm of HBO that develops TV series for the commercial networks as well as low-budget features. “We made a deal with Roc and then we tried to figure out what kind of show we wanted,” said Chris Albrecht, president of HBO Independent. “We wanted to do an honest show about a black, blue collar family.”

“Roc insisted he would only do something honest and had meaning to it,” Emerson said.

Dutton’s three “Roc” co-stars are all theater actors: Carl Gordon, who plays Roc’s outspoken father, Andrew; Rocky Carroll, who portrays his free-spirited brother Joey, appeared with Dutton in “Piano Lesson,” and Joyce is another Wilson alum, who recently was featured at the Old Globe in Wilson’s newest drama, “Two Trains Running.”

“I specifically wanted fresh stage actors,” Dutton said. “I wanted them to have just left the stage and who haven’t been out here and haven’t been spoiled by the scene.”

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While “Roc” was in the development stages, Dutton made three films, including two independent productions: “Mississippi Masala,” directed by Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay!”), in which he plays Denzel Washington’s comic sidekick, and “Pretty Hattie’s Baby,” as Alfre Woodard’s sixtysomething husband who is dying of tuberculosis.

But Dutton’s biggest film role to date is in the much-anticipated 1992 blockbuster “Alien 3,” in which he plays the spiritual leader of a planet that once was a maximum security prison who becomes Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) protector and confidant. “We are 35 of the most wretched men in the universe,” Dutton said, smiling. “This is the planet Sigourney lands on and, needless to say, brings the little bugs.”

Dutton spent four months earlier this year in London filming “Alien 3.” The shoot, he said, was more grueling than doing eight performances a week of “Piano Lesson.”

“It was a big technical thing,” Dutton explained. Adding to his headaches were difficulties with first-time feature director David Fincher, who previously had directed music videos.

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“I thought early on David was missing an element of knowing actors’ lingo,” he said. “I thought it was somewhat of a communication problem. Everyone could understand his vision and concept, but translating that from director to actor you didn’t want a half-hour sermon (about your character), you just wanted some simple basic things. Over the weeks and months, David became clearer on how to do deal with actors.”

With all of his professional and personal successes, Dutton still regards the past 15 years as a struggle. “When I was in prison I thought I had pressure,” he explained. “But the most pressure I had was when I left prison until the time I got to Yale. I was still in the community and people were saying, ‘Hey, Roc. Hold this for me and I will give you five grand.”’

Dutton was so poor he couldn’t even scrape together lunch money. “I thought I could put one toe back in the street to get rent money and buy a car,” he admitted. “But then I thought if I put a toe back, the foot would go back and then both feet. And then I would go back on the street corner.”

A lot of his friends stayed on the street corner. Dutton only calls his old friends about once a month now because someone is always getting killed, dying or returning to prison. “If I call just once a month, I don’t have to hear, ‘Come to so-and-so’s funeral,”’ Dutton said softly. “By the time I call, the funeral is said and done.”

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