From Mouse to Rat Pack

Ed Leibowitz is a writer based in Los Angeles

Starvation, sleeplessness, a mouthful of cotton balls and a bellyful of gin: Method actors have employed all of these well-worn tricks to goad themselves into character. Nevertheless, as a gang kingpin with a lousy conscience and a chronically upset stomach in Warren Beatty's political satire "Bulworth," Don Cheadle may lay claim as the only performer ever to ingest mass quantities of antacids.

"The first few days, I was shooting real Rolaids," Cheadle admits. "After we knew it was a character trait, they got some vitamins. But that first day, it was chalky mouth."

The Rolaids character conceit was Cheadle's sudden inspiration. Despite the CIA-level secrecy that surrounded "Bulworth," someone managed to smuggle in a bottle or two. Beatty had sketched out the part of L.D., the South Central gang leader who delivers a scathing sociopolitical lecture to an unhinged U.S. senator, but after Cheadle came aboard, he and Beatty rewrote the role together.

Perhaps Cheadle's recent bout of gangster indigestion was not completely feigned. Since westerns have been on the wane, few outlaws have murdered with more grace, good humor and sheer frequency. In 1987's "Colors," LAPD patrolmen Sean Penn and Robert Duvall spend the better part of the movie solving the shotgun drive-by that Cheadle's character, Rocket the Crip, commits during the first few minutes.

Cheadle was so endearing as Denzel Washington's psychopathic colleague, Mouse, in 1995's "Devil in a Blue Dress" that he won the National Board of Review and Los Angeles Film Critics awards for best supporting actor. This summer, in "Out of Sight," he debuts as Snoopy, a surly drug dealer, who vies with ex-con George Clooney for a horde of diamonds hidden in the home of a Milken-era robber baron.

"I've been really fortunate to visit a lot of different people," Cheadle, 33, explains over a lunch of sliced turkey and mashed potatoes at Maxwell's in Culver City. "It's just that the gangsters make the most noise."

It is in less trigger-happy roles that Cheadle has demonstrated his ability to transform himself into any character, no matter how esoteric or overly familiar. In "Boogie Nights," Cheadle breathed life into his part as an African American porn star, sullen and self-conscious in his country-western attire, whose life's dream is to launch "Buck's Super Cool Stereo World." For John Singleton's "Rosewood," he played a distraught piano teacher in 1920s Florida who defends his family against a horde of racists.

As Sammy Davis Jr. in HBO's "The Rat Pack" (airing Aug. 29), Cheadle dances, sings, plays the trumpet and drums, and locks his face into Davis' immortal smile.

"What was difficult was playing somebody who was so affected, who was such an affectation," Cheadle says. "I feel, 'Am I going over the top?' But his whole persona was so 'on' all the time."

In its way, the descent into pure entertainment caricature seems as unnerving as any gangster role. The father of two young girls and companion to their mother, actress Bridget Coulter, Cheadle says he is troubled by the disintegration of Davis' personal life beneath the weight of the grand public facade.

"He created this gilded cage that he couldn't get out of," Cheadle says of Davis. "He was trying to be a dad and be home and do the right things, but he realized that it was cutting into his 'Sammy' time. And he realized that his whole life up to that point had been about creating this character, this fabulous thing. And he realized he couldn't drop it even for his family."

Before Mouse and Snoopy, Rocket and L.D., there was Cheadle's character role debut. In a fifth grade production of "Charlotte's Web," he portrayed Templeton, E.B. White's bitter, scheming, greedy rat. Asked whether he tried out for the lead role of Wilbur the Pig, Cheadle's brow collapses in mock shame. "Yes," he murmurs, "they passed me over," before detonating the lie with a laugh.

Born in Kansas City, Mo., Cheadle was raised mostly in Denver, where his father, a psychologist, treated children and teenagers. Although his father's offices were just down the street from the high school, Cheadle learned to steer clear of them, just as he learned to avoid any discussion of his father's work.

"It was a 'don't ask, don't tell' kind of thing," he says, "but I know it was a strain." Despite the silence, Cheadle credits his father with steering him toward acting. "Getting into different characters and playing so many people and figuring out their psychology and their motivation," he says, "I probably got a lot of that just by osmosis."

By the time he graduated high school, Cheadle was weighing whether to study jazz vocals at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, or the University of North Carolina, or pursue theater at Carnegie Mellon or CalArts. The choice was less than scientific.

"I picked CalArts because it was warmer," Cheadle says. "I was sick of those Colorado-type winters." When he is preparing for a role, Cheadle says, he still remains focused on "hitting the right beats," stretching the character's dimensions the way a jazz vocalist might stretch a melody.

At CalArts, Cheadle studied classical theater--Shakespeare, Fugard, Moliere. While still in school, he landed his first film role, as one of a handful of U.S. soldiers who survives the climb to the top of the North Vietnamese stronghold called "Hamburger Hill." Nevertheless, when offered parts at New York's Public Theater or the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Cheadle wasn't about to turn them down for opportunities that might or might not materialize.

"It gave my agents fits," he says. "I'd leave during pilot season, when something was just kicking up. If I didn't have a job, it didn't make any sense for me not to do Shakespeare at the Public, because I was waiting around trying to get 'Doogie Howser II.' It was like, 'Who cares? I'm going to leave.' " Even when he stuck around, Cheadle charted a path that wouldn't necessarily endear him to agents. He played Horatio in a production of "Hamlet" staged on a skid row parking lot.

"You say your lines and a homeless guy's mouthing them with you," he recalls. "We did the whole thing, five whole acts, and people were staying for the whole time. They'd come up to you afterward, and say, 'I did "Hamlet" in high school. I was Rosencranz.' "

Cheadle directed some plays and put on a drama he'd written called "Groomed," about four African American friends who travel to Nebraska for a wedding, only to be ensnared in "reverse L.A. riots."

After winning critics' awards for "Devil in a Blue Dress," Cheadle was very pointedly passed over for a best supporting Oscar nomination. "I got so much attention for not being nominated," he says, "that it kind of worked out."

He became a member of the motion picture academy last year, but the nomination process continues to puzzle him. "You just wonder how some of these decisions are made," Cheadle says. "Are their sensibilities so similar that they decide, 'You know what? Paul Newman should get it this year. We didn't give it to him for 'Cool Hand Luke.' " Cheadle imagines any such conspiracy as respectably upper-crust. "People have got to get together over tea or something to decide that. I can't see everyone just independently deciding that 'that's what we need to do.' It's like an electoral college."

Although the actor's own personality seems to evaporate when he takes on the dimensions of a gangster or cowboy porn-star or piano teacher, Cheadle can always detect some residue of himself. "It's still me doing it," he says. "I'm still borrowing from Don for 'Mouse.' If you ever totally forget, you are gone; you are not an actor anymore. You need to be checked into the hospital." If Cheadle sometimes creates elaborate unwritten histories for his characters distinct from his own, it is to prevent himself from becoming ensnared as much as to give them depth. "It's a self-defense mechanism against getting lost," he says. "I don't want to come home damaged and depressed and wanting to shoot heroin. I have two kids and a family that I care about. I've got to create strong characters so that I'm not taking too much of me."

He concedes that many roles don't require that kind of scrupulous research. The realization was brought home when Cheadle played Emmit Reese, the earnest computer geek in "Volcano." "Once I got on the set I realized, 'It ain't about you. The movie's called "Volcano," and it ain't called "look at Don discover beats." No, no, no. You're going to say what you're going to say, and then they're going to look at the lava.' "

The Hollywood blockbuster, Cheadle says, "is a weird beast." "It resembles acting enough to confuse you, but this business is about making money." He laughs. "You know, they'd put a shoe up there on screen for two hours if people would pay to see it."

Predictably, in the wake of Mouse, Cheadle has been offered more gangster parts than he knows what to do with. Some of the hoodlums he's turned down, Cheadle says, have been "one-note, myopic, narrowly drawn, no surprises. You know what this idiot's going to do on Page 40. You know what he's going to do on Page 50. You look at it and you think, 'What can I really do? Not only does this part suck, but what am I going to give to this piece, and what is this piece going to give to the greater good of anybody?' "

Cheadle sees no mystery behind the dearth of decent roles. "The majority of scripts out there I don't believe are written for me, or written for my type," he says. "Without there being black writers and producers en masse out there, people are going to write about their perspective, from their points of view. It would be as if I were writing about a bar mitzvah. I could educate myself, but I don't know the culture. So I could only write so much."

When white screenwriters develop black characters, Cheadle contends, some aren't that scrupulous. "They're not even investigating the culture," Cheadle says, "other than seeing a couple of videos, listening to rap music and going, 'I can write this guy now.' "

The actor doesn't blame screenwriters for focusing most of their energies on characters they can best understand. But he is disappointed by how narrow the spectrum of viewpoints is. "I don't claim racism, though it is racist," Cheadle says. "It's just a sort of an institutionalized overlooking."

Cheadle himself is writing the script for Warner Bros.' update of 1973's "Cleopatra Jones." He had been led to believe that Warners was considering him as the film's director, but when Cheadle called for clarification, he found they were really looking for a screenwriter. So he conjured up a spur-of-the-moment scenario. "On the phone," Cheadle says, "I just started riffing, and before I knew it, the little riff became a pitch, and the pitch became a job."

If he must break into screenwriting with the tale of a head-busting federal agent, he is grateful that that agent might avail herself of a feminine mystique. "It's easier to give her depth," Cheadle explains. "If the action hero is a woman, she'll take more time out to think. It's cool, because you can be yin and yang. Sometimes, yin is her best weapon." Having finished half a draft of "Cleopatra," Cheadle has found screenwriting to be a "tricky animal." "There's a whole bevy of factors that aren't about the muse," he says. "Trying to make the muse respond to those factors is another trip."

Despite the harsh climate for black actors and the artlessness of the blockbusters, Cheadle remains grateful for the comforts of character roles. While action stars must go through the typical emotions one experiences when one is falling for the girl, avenging a murder and/or speeding toward victory at Monte Carlo, the supporting actor is usually not so hemmed in.

"It's not all riding on your shoulders," Cheadle says. "Usually, the person who's a step down--who's an obstacle character or antagonist--they're always going to have more fun because they don't necessarily have to hit the same beats as the hero does. You just get to hit more curves."

Because he has transformed himself on-screen into so many different people, the actor also appreciates the luxury of being overlooked himself.

"I kind of enjoy the anonymity," Cheadle says. "I like to walk the dog and nobody knows who I am, and if they do, it's just a honk and they drive on. I don't have to worry about--'Is this guy going to follow me home and think I got $80 million under my couch?' So it's cool to walk through the raindrops like that."

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