PASADENA, Calif. -- It's Sunday afternoon tea at the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and an elderly German couple on holiday are chatting casually over the gentle clink of fine china when Charles "Roc" Dutton arrives, looks in the lounge area and then hurries off, accompanied by his publicist and an assistant.
"Did you see that?" the German woman whispers urgently, leaning across the table and grabbing her husband's forearm.
"That big black man with the two white girls who just passed by. That's what," she hisses.
And just when you expect the conversation to get totally racist, she says: "Don't you know who that was? That's Roc, from Baltimore. From the television. The hard-working fellow with the lovely wife and the lazy brother. On TV, he's on TV! He's wonderful, just wonderful, Frederick."
Herr Roc: German icon. Wunderbar.
"Yup, the same old bald-headed Roc, that's me," Dutton says later, chuckling as he settles into an overstuffed chesterfield chair in his suite at the Ritz for some conversation and catching up.
"But, man, I am getting mail from Germany, Sweden, all over Europe these days. They're showing 'Roc' over there now, and I think the European viewers are getting it. They like 'Roc,' and I think they're getting the message."
One of the great things about the 46-year-old Baltimore native, both in his work and conversation, is that there is almost always a message.
His insistence on social relevance and positive messages about African-American family life in "Roc," the Fox sitcom about a Baltimore garbage collector, led to its premature cancellation in 1994 after three stormy seasons in prime time.
He did not go gently, triggering a loud, public debate about a system that he says rewarded black actors who played "buffoons," like Martin Lawrence in "Martin," while silencing the voices like his that tried to inject a sense of social conscience into sitcoms about African-American life.
"I always maintained it was not taken off the air for ratings. It was taken off for content," Dutton says.
"And I have to say, even today, three years later, if I had just made 'Roc' into another clown show, it would still be on the air, and I guess I would be "
He doesn't finish the sentence, but one way to fill in the blanks would be to say, "at least a million dollars richer."
Not that Dutton's hurting. He's been working steadily in feature films: "Mississippi Masala," "Menace II Society," "Alien 3," "Nick of Time." His performance as Boy Willie in TV's Hallmark Hall of Fame version of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" earned him an Emmy nomination in 1995.
A chance to direct
The latest career news on Dutton is that he has gone behind the camera to direct his first film, "First-Time Felon," an ambitious made-for-TV movie which will air in September on HBO, the creme-de-la-creme cable channel for TV movies.
It is the story of a gang member (Omar Epps) who is sent to jail for selling drugs and winds up in a prison boot camp with a shot at redemption.
Dutton plays a small but memorable part as a gang leader in one of the harrowing jailhouse scenes.
Not surprisingly, given Dutton's oft-told real-life history of 7 1/2 years as an inmate at the maximum security Maryland State Penitentiary for a variety of crimes including manslaughter, a press conference earlier in the day with television critics from around the country was mostly spent on the prison aspects of the film.
"Charles, I would presume, with your ex-prison background and all, this is something you actively sought or brought to HBO," one questioner said. "I mean, were you looking to do a prison film? It seems like a perfect fit."
"No, no, no, no, no," Dutton replied, trying to soften his words with a smile. "My background in prison had little or nothing to do with it at all.
"First of all, this isn't a prison movie. That's what it's not.
"What attracted me to this film and what drove me to the passion I saw in the script are what happens after he gets out of boot camp. I think the prison section is every bit of four or five minutes. That's not the film.
"The film is the journey of this young man to discover his own humanity, to become a responsible member of the community. That's the message. That's what matters," Dutton concluded.
Invariably, though, it was back to questions like, "OK, Charles, but if I can just go back to the prison scenes again for a minute and the time you spent in prison "
Dutton's jail-to-Yale biography is a compelling one. After getting out of prison in 1976, he spent two years studying theater at Towson State University and then went on to earn a drama degree from Yale before going to Broadway.
Sending the message
But it is no longer the most important thing to know about him. What matters, as he said, is the message. And the message that you can find in all his work involves what he calls "the silent black majority of decent, hard-working, family-raising, community-concerned folks who you hardly ever see on television."
Dutton's best work is an attempt to provide a television voice for that group in counterpoint to the one of gang-bangers, drug dealers, rappers, hustlers and hyped-up athletes that the mainstream media seem to prefer.
Those who have seen "Roc" on Fox in first-run, or in reruns the last two years on cable's Black Entertainment Television, heard that voice when Dutton's Roc Emerson, spoke. It was especially eloquent when Roc took on the black drug dealers and gang members he felt were destroying his Baltimore neighborhood.
It will be heard loud and clear again by viewers of "First-Time Felon" during an intense and graphic scene involving Epp's character and a tough-as-nails black sergeant at the boot camp (Delroy Lindo).
When the sergeant sees Epp's character showing off for his comrades by pointing his finger at the back of a guard's head and mimicking the action of shooting a gun, he pulls the inmate into a broom closet and tears into him with a speech you won't forget.
Most of it can't be printed here because of the language, especially the frequent use of the "n" word. But it begins with the sergeant saying, "Do you know you're the enemy? I'll bet you don't even know there's a war going on, do you? There is one it's between honest, hard-working, law-abiding black people and [people] like you."
Dutton could talk all afternoon about the scene -- that's how much he put into it.
"In the end, though, it came down to this," he says. "I told Delroy just as he was going into the closet to shoot the scene: "Delroy, I'm not even going to tell you how to act this. I'm just going to give you one thing and let you work with it from there. In this scene, you are speaking for the silent black majority. You love the black community and you hate anybody who you think is trying to destroy it.' "
Dutton says he heard that voice as a child growing up in East Baltimore.
"I heard that argument, those statements, since I was 7 or 8 years old in the '50s. I could hear it in my living room. Or I could hear it in other peoples' living rooms," Dutton says.
"But you never said that publicly or if any whites were around. Know what I mean? And I'll tell you something: That voice of conscience in the black community needs to be heard in the media now, before it's too late."
The last sentence is said softly, almost in a whisper, but with an intensity that makes you feel as if you are in that sweat-hot broom closet with the sergeant instead of an airy, sunny, expansive hotel suite chatting away with a director about his latest film.
Talk race with Charles Dutton, and you'd better be prepared to get intense. He doesn't do the topic any other way.
Not that the entire interview is spent at that level. Much of it is easy-going, amiable conversation with Dutton talking about his interest in visiting American battlefields or house-hunting in Maryland so he can start splitting the year between Los Angeles and the place he grew up.
But, somehow, the conversation always finds its way back to media, messages and their impact: "I'm a big Civil War, American Indian wars buff, right?" Dutton says. "So, last year, I went out to Montana to the Custer battlefield. I'm a big Custer fan and all that stuff. He was quite a character. I just find that man to be amazing.
"Anyway, so here I am, I'm doing the battlefield, right? And I'm the only black person there. And it was almost like I had to leave, because people wanted to talk to me about 'Roc,' you know.
"I mean, these were farmers, and they were saying things like: 'Man, you know, I used to want to write and tell you to send your brother [in the show] out to me. I got a farm in Iowa and we'll put him to work. We'll get him up off his behind.' I mean, they really connected with the show as a wholesome, family situation.
"So, for all the battles involved, in one sense, yes, it was worth it with 'Roc,' because in the end we managed to put some positive images out there that continue to circulate and affect peoples' lives. I owe that show a lot, and I can feel satisfied about what was accomplished as I move forward with my career."
Besides directing, Dutton's forward movement includes co-starring with Courtney Vance in "Blind Faith," a film scheduled to premiere on the Showtime premium cable in September.
"It's a very emotional role for me," Dutton says. "It's about a black family in the 1950s, and I play a police captain, a rigid ex-Marine. I'm the type, I want to assimilate so bad I can taste it. And then my son kills a white person. Then, I find out he's a homosexual. And the family is just torn apart."
There is also the possibility of news on the theatrical front. Dutton says he will be meeting this week with Lloyd Richards, the celebrated director of Wilson's plays, to discuss a return to the stage.
Dutton was nominated for Tony awards in 1984 for his performance in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and again in 1990 for "The Piano Lesson." He has not been on the stage since.
"I'm aching to do a play again," Dutton says.
"I think I need it creative-wise right now," he adds. "I don't know if I'll be able to do a long Broadway run. But, if I can find something with a limited Broadway engagement or, for that matter, I'd be willing to work at Center Stage [in Baltimore] for the right play. But it would have to be the right play."
There are a lot of "ifs," though, with Dutton's returning to the theater. For one thing, he says he has to be involved in casting.
"I told Lloyd this, and he understood, because, as hard as stage work is after you reach a certain level of your career, you just don't need to work with jerks anymore, you know?"
He adds: "I look at myself and say, 'Well I'm 25, 30 pounds heavier and 10, 12, 13 years older. I wonder if I could do Levee again from 'Ma Rainey.'
"And, then, I have dreams about it. I say, 'You know, I can go in the gym, get down 30 pounds. You know, I could look 33 again.'
"Then, all of a sudden, you look at that hamburger sitting there on the plate, and it looks so good, and you say: 'What the hell, I already did it. I've been there. I've already made a difference.' "
Broadway, hamburgers and the angst of the artist in middle age, wondering if he still has the power to create moments of aesthetic transcendance in a darkened theater.
Whether Dutton ever returns to the stage, he continues to make a difference in our culture and our lives. Take the scene in "First-Time Felon" with the sergeant and the inmate.
The first script given to Dutton called for the sergeant to be white. With that casting, at best, the scene would have played as white-black racial conflict.
At worst, it had the potential for flat-out race-baiting and a message that black teens need discipline from white authorities if there is any hope of their becoming productive members of the community.
Dutton rewrote the scene, recast it with a black sergeant and turn the lemons into lemonade. He found a quiet way, against considerable odds, to give voice to his "silent black majority."
And, then, there's the German tourist having tea at the Ritz with her husband, the woman who has seen Dutton's "Roc" on television at home and thinks he's "wonderful, just wonderful."
"These television images are promoted around the world, and people tend to believe them," Dutton once said in denouncing sitcoms that feature what he calls "black buffoons."
Thanks to him, viewers around the world now have the chance to believe in Roc Emerson, hard- working City of Baltimore family man, too.
Pub Date: 7/23/97