LOS ANGELES — YOU WOULD think nothing would faze Charles Dutton, not after he's made the long journey from Baltimore's Latrobe projects to the Maryland Penitentiary to the Broadway stage. But this acclaimed, Tony-nominated star of August Wilson's Pulitzer prize-winning play "The Piano Lesson" admits that he's nervous about his latest step into prime time.
Dutton, 40, is the title character in "Roc," a new show for Fox that will premiere in late August. He plays a hard-working garbage man, married to an equally hard-working nurse, who lives in a Baltimore rowhouse and put up with his crotchety Malcolm X fan of a father and his con man of a brother.
"Of course when you go into this, you want to have a hit show, but then you get worried that if it is a hit that's all people will think you can do," Dutton said.
"I mean my real nickname is Roc, probably 90 percent of the people I know call me that. If this is a hit, the whole country will know me as that."
The potential impact of prime-time exposure is something that Dutton is still struggling with, even as he comes to terms with the different demands of this medium.
"You know, when you're an actor who was trained at Yale, you think you're only supposed to do the classics, like 'King Lear' and 'Othello,'" Dutton said.
"I resisted television for a couple of years. But when I decided to do it, to leave the stage and to put off my film career, I wanted it to be the right kind of show."
"Roc" is clearly that, but Dutton admits that he felt a bit out of place making the pilot, working before cameras, wondering what would be funny, what would work. Indeed, he said he was surprised when he saw the finished product -- the pilot that will air just before the Emmy awards show on Aug. 25 -- surprised at how good it is.
To help him make the transition, Dutton has brought along two of his co-stars in "The Piano Lesson" -- Carl Gordon, who plays his father, and Rocky Carroll, who is the brother -- and another stage actress, Ella Joyce, as his wife.
"I wanted actors who were just off the stage, who hadn't lost those stage muscles while they were out here in Hollywood," he said.
"We want to be able to play the moment, to make it seem real. If it's angry, we want to think that Roc really can get angry," Dutton said.
He credits Jackie Gleason with inspiring his television career.
"I think he was an excellent actor and not just a comedian; he was a great tragic actor, too," Dutton said.
Indeed, the original premise for his entrance into TV was virtually to remake "The Honeymooners." But when "Roc" producer Stan Daniels, who wrote for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and helped create "Taxi," became intrigued with Dutton's background, they visited Baltimore and talked to a number of sanitation workers.
"Roc" then became more complex and resonant than Dutton's (( original "Honeymooners" type of show, but it certainly remained a program that's supposed to make you laugh.
"I wanted a show where I could explore my comic possibilities," Dutton said. "I couldn't get arrested in a comedy on Broadway."
Getting arrested is a subject Dutton learned about while growing up off Greenmount Avenue. A series of juvenile arrests sent him through the stepping stone of state reform schools. Later, arrests for manslaughter after he killed a man in a knife fight on Eager Street and subsequently for possession of a deadly weapon and an assault in prison sent him to every state correctional facility except Patuxent.
Two events of the mid-'70s changed his life. One was a knife fight in prison.
"I felt that I had come full circle. I was put in jail for killing a man with a knife and now I was almost dead because of one," he said.
The other was reading the one book he was allowed to take into solitary confinement at the Maryland Pen. He happened to choose a book of plays by black authors sent to him by a girlfriend. Dutton had never read a play before, or attended a performance.
"Before that, I was a knucklehead," he said. "I didn't believe in anything. But when I read those plays, I realized what it was I was born to do with the rest of my life. It wasn't a religious experience. I just knew that I wanted to act. It gave me something to believe in, a positive direction for the first time in my life."
When he got out of solitary, he formed a prison drama group and earned his high school diploma. When he was released in 1976, he went to Towson State and majored in drama and then, in 1980, went to Yale for graduate work.
While he was in prison from 1969 to 1976, "Those were the years when drugs began to run rampant through my community," he said. "If I had been out there, now I might be like most of the people I knew growing up, strung out on cocaine or heroin, or dead, or, even worse, selling drugs."
Instead, Charles Dutton will be on Fox on Sunday nights.