Charles S. Dutton Interview: Storied Actor on His Gritty, Early Life and Latest Role in "Comeback Dad"
Image attributed to Charles S Dutton
Born on January 30, 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, actor/producer Charles S. Dutton is best known for his roles as Fortune in the film Rudy, Dillon in Alien 3 and the title role in the Fox sitcom Roc. Additional film roles include Crocodile Dundee II, Mississippi Masala, Surviving the Game, A Time to Kill, Gothika, Aftershock: Earthquake in New York, D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear, Honeydripper, Least Among Saints, The Monkey’s Paw and Android Cop.
Television appearances are The Piano Lesson (TV movie), Blind Faith (TV movie), Miami Vice, Cagney & Lacey, Homicide: Life on the Street, Ed, The Sopranos, The Practice (Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series), Without a Trace (Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series), The L Word, House, My Name Is Earl, CSI: NY, The Good Wife, Longmire and Zero Hour.
“I wasn’t playing the blame game. I thought to myself, ‘You should’ve stayed in school. Everybody said you had potential.’ But then when it was all said and done, I just figured that maybe I had to go through what I went through to get where I am because in a way, Melissa, had I not gone to prison (and I did almost eight years the last time), we wouldn’t be talking. I’d have been either dead, had life in prison or strung out on heroin or alcohol. I went in prison in 1969 and didn’t return until 1976 the last time, and everyone my age, by the time I got out, were all either dead, doing life in prison or strung out on alcohol or drugs.”
At 17, Dutton was found guilty of manslaughter and spent seven years in prison, and after he was released was sentenced again for possession of a deadly weapon. While in prison, he petitioned the warden to start a drama group for the Christmas talent show and upon his release, Dutton enrolled as a drama major at Towson State University in Maryland, and then went on to earn a master’s degree in acting from the Yale School of Drama.
Dutton currently can be seen in UP TV’s original movie Comeback Dad with Tatyana Ali, Brad James and Loretta Devine, which premieres Saturday, July 12, 2014. Comeback Dad marks the fourth film to be produced and aired on UP as a direct result of the network’s highly successful “UP Faith & Family Screenplay Competition” at the American Black Film Festival.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Charles, I’ve been a fan of your work for many years, so it is an honor to speak with you today.
Charles S. Dutton: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you become involved in Comeback Dad?
Charles S. Dutton: A friend of mine who had worked with the production company (Swirl Films) called me and said, “Hey man, I know these guys down in Atlanta, and they’d really like to get a script to you. Do they need to go through an agent?” I asked if it was an independent film, and he said, “Yeah.” I told him to send it straight to me because my agents would bury it figuring there’s no money in it (laughs). When I read the script, there were some flaws, but it was really a terrific story.
You get to a point in your career where you just want to find good stories and good characters. I had just finished working with Loretta Devine and Tatyana Ali on a BET project, so when I heard they were doing Comeback Dad, the three of us had so much fun together, I said, “It would be nice to reunite.” I went down and did a quick, intense shoot. We shot the thing in ten days, and I was pretty pleased with it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The film is very well done. Is that a big honor to be chosen by the American Black Film Festival?
Charles S. Dutton: I think UP has a relationship with the festival. The screenplay was a runner-up in the screenplay competition last year, so it was ready to be shot. The first place from last year is shooting now. It fit all the requirements of story, budget and everything else, so they shot Comeback Dad first. The young, black writer, Kimberly Walker, has so much potential. I’m really proud of her.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the film, the siblings are together with mom, and that can only be described as the family reunion from hell (laughs).
Charles S. Dutton: That’s a good way to put it (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe my favorite scene was between your character (Othell Babineaux) and Loretta Devine who plays Othell’s sister Malinda.
Charles S. Dutton: In the hallway, yeah. Loretta and I did a mini-series together in 1987 called The Murder of Mary Phagan with Jack Lemmon. I also know Loretta from my theatre days in New York, and she’s a real doll. It’s interesting that you should say that because that was one of my favorite scenes, too. She really let my character have it (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Othell does seem to have his share of problems.
Charles S. Dutton: It was nice to play a guy with the problems he had. I tried to play him with more than just his alcoholism. I thought there were other issues going on like manic depression and probably a history of not feeling good enough in the eyes of his father when everybody else in the family chose professional careers and he was the renegade artist. He could never pay his rent, never had a stable job, but could play the piano in honky-tonks. Jazz musicians don’t make money anyway (laughs). That probably led to all kinds of feelings of failure and couple that with relationship issues with the ex-wife and the daughter, the character was good to play.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have siblings, Charles, or did you draw from your real-life relationships or life experiences for the part?
Charles S. Dutton: I do have brothers and sisters. Well, only one sister. My brother passed away. When I was a young actor, I probably did some emotional recall and thought about past incidents and failures, my past life, what I came though. But after you’ve been doing this for a while and have been successful enough to work at it, I don’t know anybody my age or with my experience that relies on that anymore. If it’s not on the page, then you have to find it, but it’s nice when it’s already on the page and you can play it.
There are a thousand schools of thought about acting, but I adhere to just one sentence, and it has nothing to do with great acting teachers. It happens to have been said by James Cagney the actor. “Acting is looking the other person straight in the eye and telling the truth. That’s all acting is.” I read that many years ago and said to myself, “Man, that is so true.” As an actor, you look the other fellow in the eye and tell the truth even if you’re playing a liar. That’s all I do now.
I don’t bang my head against the wall, and I don’t ask a lot of questions that could be asked particularly under the auspices of this kind of production. You’re not doing it for ABC where you’ve got five weeks to do a movie. You have ten days to shoot a movie where you’re practically in every scene, so you have no time to ask what color the toilet seats were in 1855. You just have to do it. You just play what the passions are at the moment in the scene. Loretta and I discussed our scene and talked about where all the anger was coming from. I remember saying, “Yours is pretty clear.” You just do it, Melissa, and you do it as well as you can.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very wise words. I thought the music in the film was wonderful. Do you sing and dance or play musical instruments?
Charles S. Dutton: I play a little bit of trumpet. I had to learn to play the trumpet for my first role on Broadway in 1984, which was in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I just had to learn some basic blues stuff. I wasn’t Louis Armstrong (laughs). At that time, Frank Rich was the head theatre critic of the New York Times, and he wrote a glowing review of the play and my performance, but in the last paragraph, he said, “And Dutton’s trumpet playing, after only five weeks of learning the horn, is absolutely phenomenal.” Of course, that pissed off all the trumpet players … the real trumpet players.
Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard were all coming to the theatre and sitting on the third row in aisle seats so I could see them, and I just messed up every night when I’d hear a major trumpet player was coming (laughs). I’ve never sung in a musical, but I’ve had to sing in both plays that I did on Broadway. The first play was a drama with music, and the second play was a drama, but the character had to sing a song. I think I sound good in the shower, but I’ve never done a legitimate musical.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your first role was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and now you’ve joined the cast of Bessie (an HBO biopic starring Queen Latifah) portraying Pa Rainey.
Charles S. Dutton: Yeah. I play Ma’s husband. I’m very aware of the history of black musicians at that time of the blues. Although this film is about Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey is extremely prominent in it. I met the young film director, Dee Rees, at Sundance Film Festival. I was there teaching one summer and was kind of involved in her directing project there. I could see that she was going to be a terrific director, so when this came along, I said, “I want to work with you and help you out any way I can.” My part is pretty much a cameo, although a pivotal one, but I came on board.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s flashback to 1990. You’re about to star in your own television show (Roc). What was going through your mind at the time?
Charles S. Dutton: To be honest, Melissa, I actually said “no” at first and not out of being nervous or anything like that. I really wasn’t interested in doing a half hour comedy. I came from the theatre, graduated from Yale School of Drama and was on Broadway in a Pulitzer Prize winning play, a Tony nominated play. I was nominated. At the time, I wanted to do epic kinds of roles particularly in the theatre.
I didn’t have any illusions about being a matinee idol or leading man. I always knew I was a character actor, and I thought first and foremost I was a stage actor, so when I was approached, I thought, “Oh man, I don’t want to do a silly half hour comedy.” What was interesting about Roc was that HBO produced it although it was on the Fox network. One of the HBO execs had been a friend of mine at Yale, and she kept hounding me to consider it. I finally said that I would if we could do something different.
I didn’t want to do the Cosby Show because Bill had already captured the upper middle class black family. I didn’t want to do Family Matters or Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I didn’t want to do The Jeffersons or Good Times. If I had to pick, I wanted it to be a working class show with a working class family. I wanted to do something that bordered on comedy and drama. I told her that if she could assure me that would be our style, then I would consider it. Writers needed to be hired that weren’t necessarily trained in the sitcom format where the jokes got to be funny because there’s a laugh track. I wasn’t interested in that.
I wasn’t completely opposed to half hour television. I just wanted to be challenged, and half-hour TV is very unchallenging for me. I didn’t want to get trapped. She agreed, but I told her that I had one other condition. It was that she wouldn’t surround me with standup comics. I wanted actors. I wanted real, legitimate actors. If she had surrounded me with standup comedy, they would’ve written standup material, and they’d all be waiting on their standup line, so therefore, we wouldn’t have any real chemistry.
I insisted on hiring Carl Gordon and Rocky Carroll. We were all doing a play together, and the similarities and the chemistry in the play would fit the TV show because Carl was playing my uncle in the play, and he would play my father in the series. Rocky Carroll was playing my best friend in the play, and he’d be playing my brother in the show, so we already had instant chemistry. We knew each other, and we’d been doing this play together for three years.
We loved and respected one another. There were no ego problems, no phony exteriors or personas. We auditioned for the wife, and Ella Joyce who got the role was also from the theatre. That’s how it came together, and between all of us came some really compelling work back in those days.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’d say groundbreaking in the 90s because many episodes aired live.
Charles S. Dutton: Yes. We did one live episode the first season, the entire second season was live, and one was live in the third season. The only reason we went back to tape the third season was because as interesting as doing it live was, we actually went down in the ratings a couple of points. Because we were live, we didn’t really have anything to advertise. We couldn’t do previews of scenes, and there was the question of whether Fox would be willing to spend money doing a live advertisement of what to expect on Roc because that would’ve been cutting into the commercial time on one of the other shows. It was all this business of getting Hollywood involved in the commercial aspect of it.
The only thing the audience got was, “Roc live on Sunday!” They never got a sneak preview. When it was all said and done after the season, we actually went down two points, and that sucked. That was about two million people, so we figured we should go back to tape, and then the third season ratings went back up to where we were during the first season. We had a ball.
There were some scary moments though. Don’t get me wrong. When we went live, we took turns doing a prologue to begin the show, and you’d get that speech five minutes before you went on because the writers would be up in the room watching the mood in case they needed to come up with something funny. They would come down with a page with something funny, and you wouldn’t know anything about it because you’d be downstairs preparing to go on (laughs). Of course, the first day we had to do that, I was the first one and had to learn it in five minutes, but once you’re jazzed up on adrenalin, somehow it just comes to you. We had a great time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Charles, are you recognized more for Alien 3 or Rudy?
Charles S. Dutton: Oh man, Rudy by far! Alien 3 is a close second though. I can’t walk in any airport in America that I don’t have somebody doing that Rudy chant, “Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!” I don’t think any of us, the producers, directors; any of us knew that film would become so iconic because it didn’t do well at the box office when it came out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe it was more successful in Europe.
Charles S. Dutton: It did much better in Europe and so did Aliens 3. The Americans caught on to it later. Rudy opened the same weekend as another football movie. I think it was called The Program. They did a lot of press on that film. Rudy became a classic many years later, and there are kids still watching it. I had a little kid walk up to me about a month ago and say, “I’m five foot nothin’, a hundred and nothin.’” (laughs) He was about seven years old, and his dad probably put him up to it, but it was really cute.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What fills your days when you’re not working, Charles?
Charles S. Dutton: I have a small farm in Maryland, so when I’m not in Hollywood or on a set, I’m shoveling all kinds of manure … cattle, horse, sheep, goats, chicken manure (laughs). I bought a farm in 1997 just trying to live out my boyhood dream. Every morning I get up and look out on the farm and say, “I know what you were feeling, but what the hell were you thinking?” It’s a lot of work, maintenance and money. I’m not a farmer in the purest sense of that it’s my livelihood.
It’s not my livelihood, and when something’s not your real livelihood, then it just becomes an expensive hobby, but it’s what I love. I write a lot. I’m developing some things for HBO and directed a couple of independent films. I kind of disappeared for a couple of years because when I first bought the farm, I really did try to make it work as a farm. I didn’t know as a small farmer, it was such a big struggle (laughs). I found out the hard way. I grow some produce, but pretty much donate it to churches and homeless shelters.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a young boy growing up in some tough neighborhoods and out on the streets, did you ever think you would have a successful acting career?
Charles S. Dutton: No, not at all, Melissa. Not at all in those days. You could say I was a product of my environment, but at the same time, I don’t blame anyone. I don’t blame society. I dropped out of school by my own accord. I didn’t drop out of school because I couldn’t handle it academically. I dropped out of school at twelve years old in the 7th grade because I thought there was more happening on the street corner than the classroom. That’s why I dropped out. Yeah, we lived in a housing project and all that, but my mom struggled really hard. I can remember a few hungry nights, but not a lot of them.
You grow up in certain areas and see a certain level of toughness. I enjoyed the toughness part of it. There are things I regret and wish I could take back, but I know I can’t, and it’s part of my life, part of my history. When I started going in and out of reform school and then in and out of adult prisons, it was like the old blues song where the warden tells the inmates, “I didn’t send for you, and I didn’t ask for you to come down here.” This was so true. The warden didn’t send for me. The judge didn’t send for me to do something wrong and to be locked up or to go to prison. I felt that way back then.
I wasn’t playing the blame game. I thought to myself, “You should’ve stayed in school. Everybody said you had potential.” But then when it was all said and done, I just figured that maybe I had to go through what I went through to get where I am because in a way, Melissa, had I not gone to prison (and I did almost eight years the last time), we wouldn’t be talking. I’d have been either dead, had life in prison or strung out on heroin or alcohol. I went in prison in 1969 and didn’t return until 1976 the last time, and everyone my age, by the time I got out, were all either dead, doing life in prison or strung out on alcohol or drugs.
I’m not going to memorialize and say, “I would’ve beat that.” Without a doubt, it would have happened to me because it happened to all my friends, and I would’ve probably been right in the mix with them. In a way, I was plucked out. God took me out of the mix, I guess, to save me from myself.
That’s where I discovered acting, that’s where I discovered the theatre … in prison. That’s how I changed my life when I made that discovery. I think I discovered what I was born to do while I’m on this planet. It couldn’t have happened in the streets. It just wouldn’t have happened in the streets.
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