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A Lesson Before Dying

May 16, 1999, Sunday

TELEVISION / RADIO; Playing It Again: Lone Black Man In a Racist World


AFTER making a name for himself largely by playing slick gangsters, Don Cheadle was given the kind of breakout offer that actors pray for: the part of Sammy Davis Jr. in the HBO movie ''The Rat Pack.''

He turned it down.

The problem was not concern about his ability to emulate Davis's remarkable versatility; Mr. Cheadle is a trained jazz musician who can sing and dance too. The issue was that despite Mr. Davis's ''Baby, this is a gas'' facade, he was a lone black man struggling for recognition and dignity in the white, racist world of the late 1950's and 60's, and yet the original script barely mentioned the humiliations he endured or how they affected him.

''I don't want to play that guy who says, 'Race doesn't matter,' '' said Mr. Cheadle. ''Race always matters.''

Mr. Cheadle ended up expressing his concerns to Rob Cohen, the director, who said he was so eager to enlist Mr. Cheadle that he had the part rewritten to show Davis's emotional struggle. Mr. Cheadle went on to play the character with such charm and pathos that he won a Golden Globe Award and took a big step toward opening up his career.

But in some respects the role was just a continuation of a part that Mr. Cheadle, 34, said he had been playing much of his life, and certainly since his high school days in Denver -- a talented, lone black man, smooth on the outside but vulnerable inside, struggling for recognition and dignity in an overwhelmingly white world. Of course, any African-American can feel the sting of being in the minority, but growing up in a suburb that was even whiter than the country at large, Mr. Cheadle said, made the issues more present and pressing.

''I don't think he could have rendered such a vivid performance if he hadn't had similar experiences,'' said Mr. Cohen.

It is a role that Mr. Cheadle is exploring again, if in a slightly different context, as Grant Wiggins in HBO's ''Lesson Before Dying'' (Saturday at 8 P.M.), based on the 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines.

Here Mr. Cheadle is a proud and snobbish man eager to break out of a dirt-poor black community in the South of the 1940's, where he teaches shoeless children in overalls. He looks down on the tight-knit community as a world without hope, one that he longs to escape. But when Grant is asked to instruct a condemned black field hand, Jefferson, on how to go to his execution with dignity, if only to show his white jailers that a human heart beats beneath the dark skin, Grant learns some hard lessons about his own place in a racist world and the possibility that he may never truly escape it.

Mr. Cheadle plays the role with the same cool exterior, broken only by flashes of wrenching emotion, that marked his portrayal of Davis.

''What Don really contributed to in this part was the inner side of the character, the hidden values,'' said Joseph Sargent, the director. ''He did not shy away at all from playing the character with all his warts, and it was that much more effective because of it.''

Mr. Cheadle described the role as a window onto the real world. ''What happens, what Grant explains to Jefferson, is it's not fair, but he has to deal with the truth,'' said Mr. Cheadle. ''Fair works for 4-year-olds. This is about real life.''

Mr. Cheadle was born in Kansas City, Mo., then moved to Lincoln, Neb., and finally to Colorado, where his father had a practice as a psychologist. He said he had quietly suffered the wounds and slights from being so racially isolated and that acting had given him a brave face to hide behind.

''I think that's why I went into acting,'' said Mr. Cheadle.

He attended the California Institute of the Arts to develop his craft and quickly landed impressive parts, with roles in movies like ''Colors,'' in which he was a street-gang member, and ''Hamburger Hill'' and in television series like ''Picket Fences,'' in which he played the District Attorney, John Littleton.

His break came in 1995, when he played the humorous but murderous Mouse in the gangster film ''Devil in a Blue Dress.'' There were some complaints at the time that the movie, which starred Denzel Washington and had an almost entirely black cast, had not been marketed aggressively enough. The movie did not perform impressively at the box office. And some people felt that Mr. Cheadle, who won a Los Angeles Film Critics Award for his role, should have received an Oscar nomination.

But, Mr. Cheadle said, even his failure to get a nomination received such publicity that it advanced his career and helped lead to roles in movies like ''Bulworth,'' ''Out of Sight,'' ''Volcano'' and ''Rosewood.''

Some of these characters were strikingly ambiguous, tough as well as vulnerable, like Buck in ''Boogie Nights.'' In that film he portrayed a sweet-natured porn star who favored western garb and had a dream of getting married and opening Buck's Super Cool Stereo World at a strip mall.

Last year, in ''Out of Sight,'' based on an Elmore Leonard novel, he played Snoopy, a psychopathic killer and drug dealer who could switch in a minute from lighthearted banter to handing out guns and hatchets to his gang, preparing to slaughter a customer with an overdue account. The movie's director, Steven Soderbergh, said the slipperiness of Snoopy's character and his surprising mood switches were all traits that Mr. Cheadle had brought to the character.

''I sensed from the first read-through that Don was incapable of doing anything typical,'' said Mr. Soderbergh. ''He has an innate knack for avoiding the obvious and especially in this character he didn't resort to the kind of histrionics another actor would have.''

He continued: ''Don is one of those actors who is so intense that if the other actors are not up for a scene, they're going to get smoked. It's not like he's Mr. Thespian, but you have to be ready. But he's very generous with other actors. If you mention him to other actors, their eyes light up.''

In spite of his recent successes, however, Mr. Cheadle was frustrated, he said, by not having received bigger offers. He acknowledged that he was unlikely to become a major romantic star, as a small number of other black actors have become, and that his options were somewhat limited because of the dearth of parts for black character actors.

''There's like Denzel, Wesley, Fish, Eddie, and then there's the rest of us,'' said Mr. Cheadle, referring to Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne and Eddie Murphy. ''Yeah, it's slim pickings.''

Several people, including Mr. Cheadle, said they believed he would probably be getting more high-profile opportunities, like the character of Grant in ''A Lesson Before Dying,'' if he were not a black man in a business that was still overwhelmingly white.

Indeed, the Screen Actors Guild recently released a study showing that the number of roles going to African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and American Indians in movies and television declined in 1998 for the first time since 1992, when the guild began to collect the figures. The roles for African-Americans, the guild said, dropped from 14.1 percent of all roles in movies and prime-time television in 1997 to 13.4 percent of all roles cast last year.

''There's no question if you had the white equivalent of Don, in terms of the talent and kinds of movies he's been in,'' said Mr. Soderbergh, ''every studio in town would be elbowing each other to have a deal with him and they would be making pictures built around him.''

Still, Mr. Cheadle said, he feels lucky to be broadening his repertory. He is about to begin filming ''Mission to Mars,'' for Disney, in which he plays the first astronaut to set foot on Mars. He said he would also like to do some comedies.

''He's a character actor, but so is Dustin Hoffman,'' said Mr. Cohen. ''He will carry a movie. He has those serious chops. There is so much emotion he puts into it, so many colors on his palette.''

But Mr. Cheadle said he also remained keen on developing characters who connect with his central concerns about being a black man in a white society. He has, for instance, been trying to develop a film version of ''Groomed,'' a play he wrote. It follows a group of young black men who find themselves stuck in a hotel room in Nebraska the day that a contentious football game between the University of Nebraska and the University of Oklahoma sends white fans rioting through the streets in a murderous mood. The script is a long meditation on how these black men deal with racism in such a threatening situation, and how violence between the races seems both tragic and unavoidable. Ultimately, Mr. Cheadle said, it is about the feeling of being trapped in a hostile world.

''I just wanted to get at the truth of the experience, which I really understood,'' he said.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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