IKE RICHARDSON was driving by the corner of N. Fulton and Clifton in West Baltimore when he thought he saw a familiar face. He stopped and came over, hoping to get a chance to say hello.
"I don't want to go up and pretend that we were friends, but I did live just around the corner from him," Richardson said. That was about 25 years ago in the Pimlico section when Richardson and Charles "Roc" Dutton were neighbors.
Dutton went on, as Richardson said so many in the neighborhood did, to get in trouble with the law, ending up in prison on a murder conviction. But then he discovered the world of acting and, in an often told story, became a hit on Broadway and now stars in "Roc," the Fox sitcom that runs Sunday nights on Channel 45 (WBFF).
Dutton was in town over the weekend for a Sunday night Shakespeare performance at Towson State, where he first studied drama after getting out of the Maryland penitentiary in 1976. Yesterday, Channel 45 had him out on the street taping promotion spots for the station.
"I would have been with him that night he got arrested, but my mother made me stay home," Richardson said. "He was a tough PTC guy. My mother wouldn't let me run with him."
During the 90 minutes Dutton was out on the cold, cloudy afternoon, passers-by often yelled out, "Hey, Roc." He responded with a smile, a wave, an upturned fist.
A small crowd of neighborhood residents gathered on the sidewalk, many getting autographs. All said they watch the show and like it.
"He looks smaller than he does on TV," one said. "And he's not as ugly, either, he's got a nice smile."
Told of that, Dutton responded with his deep, hearty laugh. The Tony-nominated actor often returns to his home town. He grew )) up in East Baltimore, near the penitentiary that would eventually confine him, before moving as a teen-ager with his family to the Pimlico area.
"Baltimore was very sectionalized in those days," Dutton said. "If you were from the East, you were from the East. If you were from the West, you were from the West.
"But I knew some people from around here," he said of the area of the taping. "Some of the guys I was in the pen with were from this part."
Dutton said he still keeps up with his old crowd. "Some of them are doing OK, some of them aren't. I try to give them the respect they are due."
George Graves was another old acquaintance who drove by, spotted Dutton's distinctive shaved head and pulled over. The two worked together on a drama project in the schools in the Park Heights area, back when Dutton was at Towson State and Graves was working at the School for the Performing Arts. Yesterday, they exchanged a warm greeting.
"Even back then, he knew he was going to make it big," Graves said. "Getting into Yale, that was his break. There was another guy we knew who applied to Yale but didn't get in. He's kept trying, but never made it. And Roc did. Just teaches you something about what life can be like."
Dutton went to Yale Drama School following his graduation from Towson State and then carved out a distinctive career on Broadway, highlighted by his performance in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson."
When television beckoned over the summer, he answered its call, starring in a show set in his home town, playing a character who has his nickname. The Roc in "Roc" is a hard-working Baltimore garbage man with an equally hard-working wife, a militant, stuck-in-the-'60s father and a con man of a brother.
"Sitcom work is not that challenging for a stage actor," Dutton said. "But I do think, of all the sitcoms on television, this is the most challenging because we can go from an outlandish piece of comedy in one moment to a serious dramatic incident in the next.
"I sat down and looked at all the shows we had done, and I thought we were getting away from some of what made the pilot so good. We were doing too many one-liners. So we just had a meeting with all the writers and producers to get the show back on track, to remember why we got so many good reviews.
"There has to be real conflict between these characters," Dutton said. "And we have to figure out a way to make sure we understand the environment they live in, that there's guns and drugs right out on the street, that Roc could walk out his front door one day and be shot. You have to do that without being too heavy about it."
"I watch the show. I like most of it," said Lloyd Robinson, one of the actual city garbage men who came down in shiny new uniforms, manning a truck that would serve as a prop in some of the promo spots.
"The one thing I didn't like was when he told his brother, 'I work for the city. I'm a garbage man.' And his brother said, 'No, really, what do you do?'" Robinson said of an exchange in the show's first episode. "I thought they were making fun of us." Dutton laughed when he heard that, too. He knew that wasn't the intent. Roc is the solid, admirable one. The brother is the flake. Roc is the one who is going to make it one day, who will, like the real Roc, be able to come back to his old neighborhood and wave to the friends and acquaintances who look on with a combination of envy and pride.