Jason Bernard might have had a chance at stardom more than 20 years ago, but he didn't want to take the road that led to it.
The co-star of the Lifetime movie "Sophie & the Moonhanger" this coming Monday has been acting since 1961, but the roles offered to most African Americans during the '70s did not appeal to him.
"It was the time of the blaxploitation picture and black actors were finally finding work," Bernard explains from his sprawling ranch in Santa Clarita. "Those films were negative and cheaply done."
So he moved to New Mexico, taught drama and speech and founded a theater group, which, to his disappointment, failed. But the actor says he has no regrets. He still chooses his roles selectively and isn't shy about offering his views of roles available to African Americans in TV series today.
"It's the same," he says. "Name a strong black character on TV. There's nothing of quality on. A show like James Earl Jones' 'Gabriel's Fire' gets canceled and 'Martin' stays on!"
Bernard commuted from New Mexico to Los Angeles for about 150 television guest appearances and varied feature spots over the years, but didn't return to L.A. until the 1991-93 Fox sitcom "Herman's Head."
While he was growing up, the Chicago native aspired to be a professional soldier. He got what he wanted. "I was airborne, Special Forces, a Ranger, but I was badly injured," he says. After three months in the hospital and rehabilitation, he "floundered around and fell into acting."
Bernard landed in New York in 1961, where he embarked on a theater career.
Acting was as much a challenge as the military, he says. "In acting school, I was very closed, very guarded. I had a very bad temper, so bad I was afraid of hurting someone. There I learned to control it."
He considers his role in Lifetime's "Sophie & the Moonhanger," which stars Patricia Richardson ("Home Improvement") and Lynn Whitfield, as the "role of a lifetime." In it he plays Holt, who in 1953 defies the local Ku Klux Klan and opens his own garage.
"He was the Holt I'd always imagined: tender and strong," says director David Jones, who adds that he admired the actor's commitment to the film. "He also challenged us every day on the set with his desire for the truth. His character is the glue of the story, and Jason makes it work because he's not afraid to be angry or vulnerable. He's real, and that's a gift."
Bernard said he believes "the arts have always been something to lift people up. You should never talk down to your audiences."
"I'd like a role that scares the pajamas off of me, one I have to work hard to get and harder while I'm doing it." He says he'd "walk on glass" to play his dream role: Othello.
Balance, the actor says, "is everything. You can talk about African Americans being servants, underdogs and slaves, but you must balance that out, talk about stuff that doesn't get talked about," like the Amstead Mutiny, in which slaves took over a ship, were put on trial and then returned to Africa. Bernard has penned a script about the incident.
"All I'm asking, and what any other conscientious African American should ask, is, 'If you do the "Martins," do a "Gabriel's Fire" or a "Sophie & the Moonhanger." ' Why can't the powers that be see that? It's always the same old stuff, the poor hopeless sorts or the exaggerations. Let stories show our beauty."
* "Sophie & the Moonhanger" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.