Charles S. Dutton must have the most unique resume in show business. A felon who was jailed for manslaughter and then possession of a deadly weapon, he also was found guilty of assaulting a guard while in prison. But Dutton turned to theater while reading a book of plays in solitary confinement, founded a drama group in the slammer, and eventually wound up obtaining a master’s in acting from the Yale School of Drama.
Since then, he’s been nominated for Tonys (for two August Wilson plays), won three Emmys (for acting and directing) and become a poster child for how the arts can turn a life around. Dutton, 58, recently finished shooting an updated version of the 1980 hit “Fame.” He also has a small but pivotal role in the new movie “American Violet,” which is based on the true story of racial injustice in a small Texas town.
Lewis Beale caught up with Dutton during a break while shooting an episode of “CSI: NY.”
Q. “American Violet” is the true story of what happened in Hearne, Texas, when a racist DA threw a group of innocent black people in jail on trumped-up drug charges. You play a minister who fights this injustice. Did your experience with the prison system influence your decision to take the role?
A. My situation was so darn long ago, I’m starting to forget about it. It’s been 34 years since my last prison stint. I looked at this as less to do with my experience, and more to do with the American justice system. It didn’t relate to myself at all, because I was guilty of all my charges.
Q. The film is about abuses related to the war on drugs. Did it make you think about legalization or dealing with the issue in noncriminal ways?
A. When I was in my outlaw days, there were only about five prisons in my home state of Maryland; now there are over 30, and most are maximum-security facilities. The drug thing, that’s tied into what has become the prison-industrial complex. You wonder how or why would anyone be interested in really bringing it to a halt, because so many jobs rely on it. That might be preposterous to think about, but what if you did bring the drug problem to a halt? How many prisons would you close down, how many less police and prosecutors would you need? There is some validity in legalization, but I don’t know how you do it. How would it be controlled? Who would control it?
Q. You’ve starred in, and were Tony-nominated for, two plays by August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson.” Wilson died nearly four years ago, a huge loss for American theater. Can he be replaced?
A. It was one of those great things where a playwright comes along in the right time, and our paths crossed at the right time. It was one of those magic moments and golden eras that didn’t just bode well for black actors but the American theater in general. For him not to waver and go to Hollywood - he set out to write those 10 plays, and he did it, and that’s an amazing thing. There is a void; it will take a heck of a writer to fill that void. How many people are on the level of an O’Neill, an Arthur Miller?
Q. Speaking of Arthur Miller, later this month you’ll be starring as Willy Loman in a 60th-anniversary production of “Death of a Salesman” at the Yale Repertory Theater. What’s your take on the character?
A. I’ve never played him, nor have I ever seen a production of it. What I can contribute to it, I don’t know. It’s almost like, be careful what you ask for. I think the character is the American equivalent of King Lear, but what you have to watch for is you don’t scream and shout for two hours. From the first scene in “Death” when he mentions (his son) Biff’s name, you can wind up screaming and shouting. I want to find some varied colors in his character.
Q. When did you realize you could make a living as an actor?
A. When you go to a top school like Yale, you think, “When I get out, I’m gonna be big.” But I told myself the only thing I wanted out of it was to be able to make a living. I thought if I could just be on the stage, that’s all I would need. I didn’t have a long out-of-work period. I graduated in May ‘83, and in April ‘84 I was doing the first production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” That was my first paying job. And it was nice to make a living playing make-believe.
Q. Of all the parts you’ve played, what do people in the street recognize you for the most?
A. Of course it’s “Roc” (the 1991 sitcom Dutton starred in), which is amazing to me, because it’s been off the air since ‘94, and it never really went into legit syndication. When it does roll out on BET, you get a whole new generation watching it. But the main film, the main thing, period, is the movie “Rudy” (the 1993 film in which Dutton played a groundskeeper who encourages the title character). I can be anywhere and I can hear “Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!” Or people will come up to me and say (quoting him in the film), ‘You’re 5-foot-nothin’, 100-and-nothin’.”