PASADENA, Calif. - It was a gift to his grandmother that convinced actor Dule Hill he’d done the right thing when he decided to become an actor.
The costar of USA’s “Psych,” had been cast as the personal aide to the President on “The West Wing.” At the end of his third year, a book commemorating the series was produced. “There was a full page picture of me,” he says over lunch in a restaurant here.
“I gave that as a gift to my grandmother. She opened the book and just broke down and kept saying, ‘Look what I lived to see.’ I remember that moment - knowing her journey. She’d worked as a seamstress, walked to the bus in the middle of winter ... It taught me that when you pursue your dreams and sometimes you keep working hard, working hard and you may not get the reward yourself - but for the grace of God, it all works out in the long run. That taught me a lot. You don’t know what you do today how it affects tomorrow.”
Acting wasn’t an easy choice for Hill, who plays the goofy sidekick of the phony psychic on “Psych,” which has begun new episodes. He started as a dancer, performing with Harold Nicholas in “The Tap Dance Kid” when he was 10. He’d been dancing since he was 3 mostly because his cousins, brother and mom were all dancers.
“I really love the art form,” he says. “But at the age of 15 I made the choice I wanted to pursue acting. It wasn’t necessarily one over the other, I just wanted to become an actor.”
Easier said than done. “My first gig was when I was about 13 I played basketball boy on the show ‘Ghostwriter.’ I had about two lines. That’s how I got my SAG card and I did commercials too.”
He and his mom would fly from his home in New Jersey to Los Angeles for auditions. “We’d come out all excited and I’d go back all disappointed. It was just part of the journey, you pick yourself up and keep going toward it,” he says.
When he was 15 one of his best friends from “Tap Dance Kid” was shot and killed in the Bronx. It had a profound effect on Hill. “About a week before he passed I was kind of upset with him and I didn’t call him just trying to prove a point. And the point was proven to me.
“One of my friends had said, ‘You should call.’ And I said, ‘No, I’ll call him next week.’ That taught me to not get caught up in nonsense and express love when you have the chance to; to let bygones be bygones, not carry baggage even from yesterday. You never know when that time is going to end.”
Once he decided to become an actor, Hill never deviated. “The only time I thought about possibly quitting acting was when I moved to L.A. and I went for about a year without booking a job. It’s not a long time, but when you’re on your own it is a long time. At that point I made my mind up: I was going to be an actor or spend the rest of my life trying. From there things began to improve. I started to see change after that.”
Hill had quit college in his junior year when one of his professors refused to allow him take to the final exam early so he could perform in “Bring in da’ Noise, Bring in da’ Funk” off-Broadway. “You have to make up your mind whether you want an education or you want to be in show business,” he told Hill.
The actor had scored a few small parts when the role in “The West Wing” arrived. “I read twice for that role, but had gone a year without working. Just about in the summer of ‘99 I’d booked a small episode of ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ and a small role in ‘Men of Honor.’ My role was pretty much cut out. If you blink you’ll miss me. Then I read for ‘West Wing’ for (executive producers) Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme once and came back and read again. I was guaranteed four episodes, so my screen test was my first four episodes,” he says.
When the role in “Psych” arrived Hill had to display a comic side. “After they cast (costar) James Roday, Roday and I got together and did a chemistry work session and they could see that it could work,” he says.
Hill, 33, has been married for four years to Jamaican actress Nicole Lyn. They met in New York when he was still struggling. “When she walked away I was like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I need in my life.’ She’s a beautiful lady and a sweetheart, too.”
It turned out that she was already in a relationship, but Hill says, “I always talked about her. Three years later I moved to L.A. I was out here trying to do the dating scene, but I always said if I ever had a chance to hook up with her I knew I would marry her even though I only met her for 15 minutes.”
One night he was invited to a party and ran into her again. “I looked at her and said, ‘That’s the girl I’ve been talking about!’ It turned out she lived less than a mile away from me.”