Born Dennis Dexter Haysbert, June 2, 1954, in San Mateo, CA; son of Charles (a security guard and sheriff's deputy) and Gladys (a homemaker and housecleaner) Haysbert; married an office manager (divorced, 1984); married Lynn Griffith (an actress and caterer; divorced, 2001); children: Charles, Katherine. Education: Graduated from American College of Dramatic Arts, Pasadena, CA, c. 1977.
Addresses: Agent—Paradigm Talent Agency, 360 N. Crescent Dr., North Bldg., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Home—San Marino, CA.
Actor on television, including: The Incredible Hulk, 1980; Quincy M.E., 1980–81; Code Red (movie), 1981; The A-Team, 1983; The Return of Marcus Welby, M.D. (movie), 1984; Off the Rack, 1984; A Summer to Remember (movie), 1985; Growing Pains, 1985, 1987, 1988; Knots Landing, 1987; Just the Ten of Us, 1988–89; K-9000 (movie), 1991; Queen (movie), 1993; Return to Lonesome Dove (movie), 1993; Hallelujah (movie), 1993; Widow's Kiss (movie), 1994; The Writing on the Wall (movie), 1996; Now and Again, 1999; 24, 2001–05; Secrets of Pearl Harbor (movie), 2004; The Unit, 2006–. Film appearances include: Major League, 1989; Navy Seals, 1990; Mr. Baseball, 1992; Love Field, 1992; Major League II, 1994; Heat, 1995; Waiting to Exhale, 1995; Absolute Power, 1997; The Thirteenth Floor, 1999; The Minus Man, 1999; Random Hearts, 1999; Love & Basketball, 2000; Far From Heaven, 2002; Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (voice), 2003; Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, 2004; Call of Duty: Finest Hour, 2004; Jarhead, 2005; Breach, 2006; Goodbye Bafana, 2006. Hired as Allstate Insurance spokesperson, 2004.
Awards: Saturn Award for best genre TV supporting actor, for Now and Again, 1999; best supporting actor, Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, for Far From Heaven, 2002; Black Reel Award, theatrical—best supporting actor, for Far From Heaven, 2003; Golden Satellite Award, best performance by an actor in a supporting role, drama, for Far From Heaven, 2003.
For more than 20 years, Dennis Haysbert has played a steady stream of solid, trustworthy television characters. Despite the perpetual face time on network TV, Haysbert remained on the fringes, seeking to be recognized as one of Hollywood's A-list African-American actors. In the early 2000s, Haysbert finally achieved the celebrity status he craved after earning the role of Sen. David Palmer on FOX's 24. His character became the U.S. president, making Haysbert the first African-American president on network television. Haysbert's pleasant, yet authoritative fictional president gained him legions of fans. No longer does he walk the streets unnoticed—people call out "President Palmer" and ask him to run for office. Speaking to the Observer's Akin Ojumu, Haysbert commented on his long path to success. "I always thought things would end up pretty much the way they are … but I thought it would happen a whole lot earlier. I dreamt well, and those dreams are starting to come to fruition."
Haysbert was born on June 2, 1954, in San Mateo, California. His parents, raised in Louisiana, had recently relocated from the South. Haysbert's Catholic father, Charles, worked as a sheriff's deputy and airline security guard. His Baptist mother, Gladys, was a homemaker who stayed busy with her nine children and cleaned homes to earn money. Haysbert was raised Baptist with Catholic customs, such as fish on Fridays. He was the second to last child born into the family and was ill due to a severe hole in his heart that did not heal until elementary school. Because of the life-threatening condition, Haysbert's parents did not let him play sports, so he amused himself through imaginative playacting. "When he would play cowboys and Indians, you saw the actor in him," one of Haysbert's brothers told People. "He was dramatic."
By high school, the 6-foot-4-inch Haysbert excelled at sports and was offered several scholarships, though he turned them down in hopes of becoming an actor. As a young adult, though, Haysbert dropped out of two colleges and failed to get started with his acting career. In 1974, Haysbert got motivated after his oldest brother was diagnosed with bone cancer and, just before dying, told Haysbert to go to Hollywood to pursue his dream before it was too late. Haysbert took his advice and moved to Los Angeles, enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He graduated around 1977.
Within a few years, Haysbert was earning steady roles on television with guest appearances on such 1980's staples as The Incredible Hulk, Quincy M.E., The A-Team, Knots Landing and Growing Pains. Movies followed, including the 1989 slapstick comedy Major League, which focused on a group of misfit ballplayers. Starring alongside Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen, Haysbert played a voodoo-practicing outfielder. He also played Michelle Pfeiffer's love interest in 1992's Love Field, a somewhat successful film set in the 1960s. Supporting roles in more high-profile films followed. Haysbert appeared in the 1995 chick flick Waiting to Exhale, which focused on a group of African-American women and the men in their lives. In this film, Haysbert played Whitney Houston's married love interest. That same year, he appeared in Heat, playing an ex-con alongside Robert De Niro.
Haysbert gained some critical acclaim for the 2002 drama Far From Heaven, which portrayed the less-than-idyllic life of an upstanding white family in 1950s suburban America. Haysbert played a black gardener who developed a scandalous relationship with the white woman—and mother—he worked for. Julianne Moore co-starred. The movie, which revealed the hypocrisy of the era, earned a Golden Globe nomination for best screenplay but received only moderate attention. Haysbert was glad he chose the role, even though he knew the movie would never be a blockbuster. Haysbert believes movies should be about more than just entertainment. "I don't think movies are just about a fun night out," he told the Star Tribune's Jeff Strickler. "I think they also can provide an educational night out or a reflective night out. Movies can generate emotions and present ideas. That's what movies are all about to me. I go to a movie to come out thinking or feeling something that I wasn't when I went in."
Haysbert's big break came when he landed the role of Sen. David Palmer on the FOX series 24, which debuted in 2001. An attention-grabbing action thriller, 24 is a cop show that deals with a counter-terrorism unit led by agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland. The show has one twist—each season captures just one day in the lives of the characters, with each one-hour episode shot in real time and telling just 60 minutes of the day. By season two, Haysbert's character had been elected president, though he was later assassinated in season five.
A USA Today poll found Haysbert's Palmer to be the first pick for fantasy president, beating out Martin Sheen's popular West Wing president and even the real president, George W. Bush. Haysbert said he modeled Palmer after Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Colin Powell. Speaking to the Tampa Tribune's Walt Belcher, Haysbert said the role on 24 was one of his best. "It was a great role for me personally and a great role for the people in this country to see—a great role for young black kids to see and for white kids. Palmer never put too much onus on his color. He put more on his character."
Haysbert was sad to see his character written off the show, though he continued to make guest appearances on 24 in other roles. In 2006, Haysbert began another television leadership role by playing Army Special Forces Commander Jonas Blane on the CBS-TV action-adventure The Unit. The show covers the clandestine operations of a military squad. The squad is so elite it answers only to the president.
As Haysbert's career took off in the early 2000s, other gigs followed. In 2004, he was tapped to be the spokesperson for Allstate Insurance after the company's research concluded Haysbert was one of the most trusted people on television. He returned to the big screen in 2006, playing Nelson Mandela in Goodbye Bafana, a movie about jailer James Gregory, the man who befriended Mandela during his imprisonment.
For those who know Haysbert, his success is no surprise. Moore, his co-star in Far From Heaven, explained his allure to People this way, "He cuts a very romantic image. His whole demeanor is gentle, and that's incredibly appealing."
Newsday, March 7, 2006, p. B21.
Observer (London, England), February 9, 2003, p. 14.
People, March 31, 2003, pp. 77-78.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), November 17, 2002, p. F6.
Tampa Tribune, March 7, 2006, Section: Baylife, p. 1.