Dennis Haysbert: A Career In Good Hands
Throughout our 136 year history, the alumni of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts have been recognized by the world for their achievements in the performing arts, including many actors belonging to historically underrepresented groups. To commemorate these voices, The Academy will honor its alumni with a series dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of the diverse members of our community.
Dennis Haysbert was born in 1954, in the quiet town of San Mateo, California. The son of Louisiana transplants, Haysbert was the eighth child in a full house of 9 children. His father worked as a deputy sheriff and an airline security guard, while his mother managed their busy home and cleaned houses. Along with acting, playing sports was always a big part of Haysbert’s youth, and after graduating from San Mateo High in 1972, he was offered athletic scholarships to college. After suffering from various sports injuries and faced with limited options, he decided to pursue acting, which would provide him the opportunity to “play an athlete” on screen. He then began his acting education at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Los Angeles Campus, learning the art of fencing and strengthening his character study and acting talents.
After graduating from the Academy in 1977, Haysbert set out on his professional journey. His career officially began in 1978 where he appeared in an Emmy-winning episode of the Ed Asner led CBS series, Lou Grant as a high-achieving job applicant. Following that performance, he had a guest role in The White Shadow as a street basketball player. Many of his early roles utilized his athletic stature and prowess, making him the ideal casting choice for the young black athlete. Throughout the ‘80s, Haysbert continued to land roles on shows like Laverne & Shirley, The Incredible Hulk, The A-Team, Magnum P.I., Night Court, and dozens more. He starred in a few early films, but his big film debut role occurred in 1989 in the comedy, Major League. Haysbert played Pedro Cerrano, a Voodoo-practicing Cuban baseball player seeking religious asylum, and became the team’s token homerun hitter. His performance of the character’s comedic story arc had the industry taking notice of his timing, good looks, and talent. He went on to reprise the role in the following sequels.
As the ’90s moved on, Haysbert’s career progressed. He starred in films like Random Hearts, Heat, and Waiting To Exhale. It was his role as Paul Cater in Love Field in 1992, opposite Michelle Pfieffer that touched on the sensitive subject of race, racism, and conflict in the South during the 1960s. The film addresses the inequities in our ever-evolving country through the lens of an interracial relationship. In 2002 he co-starred in another period drama, Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore. He portrays Raymond, the son of an upper-class white family’s gardener in a 50’s era small Connecticut town. The matriarch of the family, Cathy, portrayed by Moore, is physically and emotionally neglected by her closeted white-collar husband played by Dennis Quaid. In her search for answers, she finds solace and appreciation in the presence of Raymond. He moves her with his intelligence and delicate nature. This relationship proves to be problematic for all, as the hidden racial tensions of the community start to surface. Eventually, Raymond is forced to move his daughter and himself out of the town due to the threatening displeasure of their perceived relationship by both the black and white communities. It was a role that won him a Satellite Award, Black Reel Award, and Washington DC Area Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film was a critical success and touches on several social and racial issues in the US. In 2007 he starred in Goodbye Bafana, where he portrayed legendary South African leader and activist, Nelson Mandela. He remarked in interviews it was a labor of love to learn to become the icon, and an honor to portray him through film.
Breaking barriers and tackling social issues has become second nature for Haysbert. His role as David Palmer, Senator-turned-President in the series 24, earned him a Golden Globe and Golden Satellite Award nomination. In the context of the series, President Palmer was the first black U.S. President during the second and third seasons of the show. He is also well known for his role as Dean Fairbanks in Justin Simien’s 2014 feature Dear White People and hit the theater stage in David Mamet’s racially charged drama, Race in 2010. Haysbert has found other ways beyond storytelling to bring awareness to the community. In 2008, he starred in a public service announcement that helped bring awareness to the increasingly problematic lending discrimination in the country for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The PSA was designed to educate consumers and homeowners on various home lending resources in hopes to expose the disparity in lending products offered to minorities. Along with his public service, Haysbert has also been an active USO entertainer since 2008. His roster of iconic government and military character roles like Sergeant Major Jonas Blane on The Unit has endeared him to many troops home and abroad.
Among the dozens of films and television shows he has starred in, Haysbert is also an accomplished voice actor and spokesman. He has been the face and voice of Allstate Insurance since 2003 and was the spokesperson for the Harlem Health Expo “Break the Silence” in the fight against AIDS as well as for the Western Center on Law & Poverty. He has lent a voice to animated series such as Boondocks, Godzilla: The Series, Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures and was the first actor to portray DC Comics Green Lantern Corps. Character, Kilowog in a medium other than comic books. He has also voiced characters in animated films such as Wreck-it Ralph, Kung-Fu Panda 2, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and several video games, one of which reprised his role as David Palmer in 24: The Game.
One thing is very certain, Haysbert’s contributions are a prime ingredient of a project’s success. He has not only been nominated for a Golden Globe, SAG Award, and three NAACP Awards, but he has also worked on films that have been nominated or won Academy Awards, Emmys, and other achievements. He can play a concerned dad, a high-level government operative, or a man facing racial discrimination in a divisive land. Even when he is playing a villainous role like that of the security head, Julian in Incorporated, the audience just can’t help but be in awe of him. Along with acting, he is also a producer.
With film and television credits that go on for days, Dennis Haysbert has set the bar for career success extremely high. His rich and resonating voice, handsome, timeless visage, and exceptional talent that has afforded him longevity in an often trend-driven industry. He has skillfully adapted and elevated his game, creating characters that are rich with drama, but relatable to anyone who watches them. The father of two currently lives and works in Los Angeles and has recently guest-starred as “God” in the 5th season of the series, Lucifer currently on Netflix.