Between a ‘Roc’ and a hard place

Michael Lucarz

The conference room at the Four Seasons on 18th and Franklin is electric, the mood slightly chaotic as the unique ambiance of celebrity takes shape in front of a few journalists slyly checking out each other’s credentials under the guise of small talk and chit chat. Charles Dutton is somewhere in this hotel, the man everyone is here to see, the convicted felon turned Yale drama student turned Emmy award winner whose name adorns the huge poster for “Against the Ropes,” the new comedic drama costarring Meg Ryan and Omar Epps.

He strolls in like an old-time gangster, a black Al Capone to be precise, a charcoal pinstripe suit his attire of choice on this particular afternoon, sleek Gucci sunglasses dangling from his bling-encrusted right pinky. When he extends his hand, my eyes are drawn immediately to what is quite possibly the largest, most dazzling ring I have ever seen, resembling more of a Super Bowl championship band than a casual accessory. The man is distinguished; he speaks eloquently and his countenance reflects that of a worldly traveler, somebody who knows the inner workings of the Hollywood scene firsthand, aged and weathered in that immediately recognizable celebrity kind of way. He is one of those people you’d know at first glance, his cherub face a fixture on television and the silver screen for years, most notably as the title character on the early ’90s sitcom “Roc,” as well as countless movie stints, particularly his near-epic portrayal of janitor Fortune opposite Sean Astin in “Rudy.” He is down-to-earth but in a way that distinguishes him from others, humble yet fully aware that he is the one these journalists have come to see.

It’s hard to imagine Charles Dutton doing anything else besides acting, his face as animated and elastic as any actor you’d think of, each question eliciting a different expression, each answer forcing a new mannerism. A brief scan of the man’s biography, however, would have you thinking otherwise.

Dutton’s younger days are surely the thing of legends on movie sets, the seven and a half years he spent in prison for convicted manslaughter instigating gossip before every first impression he makes. And the man knows how to make a first impression, one in which he humbles and humanizes himself to the point where his past experiences are merely a part of his own history. Questions about this aspect of his life are routine these days, especially on 15-city promotional tours where he has learned to openly accept the curiosity of inquiring minds in the same graceful way that has steadily risen his star in Tinseltown.

“If you drop the negative karma that surrounds you, you find that all kinds of positivity suddenly surrounds you,” Dutton philosophizes. “Guys on the street act tough and keep it up, thinking they’re leaders but are really just followers,” he continues.

Dutton possesses the rare combination of street smarts and high society tact around the soigne superficiality of premiere parties and cocktail lounges. Like a true actor, however, he has managed to merge the two worlds together and keep a foothold in both extremes, and perhaps this is the same vicarious nature that allows him, like all respectable actors, to channel a role that may not bear any relevance to real life. The topic of our discussion, the loose biopic of female boxing promoter Jackie Kallen, is an area of his life Dutton is as passionate about as film.

“There are a lot of parallels between boxing and acting,” Dutton admits. “A fighter is often forced to discover and then re-discover humanity, learning how not to be intoxicated by money, fame, and power. The same has happened to almost every actor I know.”

While Dutton’s ability to portray character roles has been widely recognized by critics and moviegoers alike, most recently in the form of an Emmy award in 2000, he is still fascinated by the headliners who never cease to amaze him on set.

“Never was I concerned with Meg [Ryan’s] acting. We forget actors have range and should be able to do a role without being lambasted in the end,” he says. “This is a tough business though.”

Just as the interview picks up steam, we are warned that our time is over, PR people making sure their strict timeframe will allow for another interview in the lobby with an NBC correspondent. Dutton rises from his chair, meticulously checking if his pants are still crisply ironed, his cufflinks upright and orderly. Even before a television interview, Dutton still reflects the humility he has surely maintained throughout his life and career, flashing a set of perfect pearly whites while grinning.

Dutton contemplates for a moment. “Lord,” he said, “If I don’t screw this up, it should be pretty good.”