'Roc' Dutton tells his tale to Howard student leaders Actor triumphed over early trouble

May 05, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

From Jail to Yale is one of Roc's favorite raps.

Charles "Roc" Dutton, the Baltimore native who stars in the Fox Television comedy "Roc," shared the story yesterday with a group of Howard County student leaders.

Wearing a blue nylon sweat suit and spotless white sneakers, the Tony-nominated actor described his road from ex-convict with a manslaughter conviction to student at the nation's pre-eminent graduate school of drama.

Mr. Dutton, whose real nickname is Roc, applied to the program while studying at Towson State University in the late 1970s. Three weeks after his audition in New Haven, Conn., a letter arrived saying he was on the waiting list.

"I was a little bitter about it," he said, galvanizing the teen-agers with his rich, crisp baritone.

He began to call the admissions office every few days to see if a space had opened.

"The fifth or sixth time I called, the registrar said, 'Yeah, Charles, congratulations, you're accepted.'

"I didn't know it was a setup until many months later. Every time I called, they logged it. They wanted to see how badly I wanted it."

David Buckholtz, a senior at Glenelg High School, turned to Mr. Dutton and told him that he is on the waiting list now for undergraduate school at Yale.

"Congratulations, man," said Mr. Dutton, slapping David on the back. "Give them a couple of weeks and then start calling."

Mr. Dutton, 42, visited Ellicott City yesterday to participate in the "Roc" Dutton Youth Leadership Summit at the Howard County Board of Education Building.

Charles Fox, deputy director of the Maryland Film Commission, invited 90 Howard County students to attend the daylong workshop. During the program, Mr. Dutton met with students in small discussion groups to talk about leadership qualities and to try to design school and community projects.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer began the morning by introducing Mr. Dutton, who stars in the situation comedy about a hard-working Baltimore garbage man. As Mr. Dutton entered the room, the students leapt to their feet and burst into applause. They then crowded the stage for 15 minutes to pose for photos with the actor.

Darin Odayoye, a freshman at Centennial High School, grinned as he shook Mr. Dutton's hand and gave him a button that stated, "Be Successful and Proud."

Sharon Rebeck, a junior at Mount Hebron High School, chatted him up. "I feel kind of silly [saying], 'Hi, I'm Sharon,' " said the Ellicott City girl.

"I think it's cool he could take time out of his busy schedule to visit students in little Howard County."

After the students returned to their seats, Mr. Dutton stood alone on a bare, black stage and told the now-familiar tale of his rise from Baltimore's Latrobe housing projects to Broadway.

He spent his adolescence in and out of reform school, fast on his way to becoming a professional ward of the state. In 1967, he stabbed and killed a man in a knife fight.

"I was 17 at the time," he said. "I really had no remorse."

As he unfolded the tale, the teen-agers stared unblinking, some with their mouths open. Some gasped when he told of assaulting a prison guard.

They hadn't heard that part of the story before.

While in solitary confinement in 1972, he read an anthology of plays by black writers.

Inspired, he started his own prison drama club.

"I started to understand and discover this gift I had," he said.

Mr. Dutton's rise from rough circumstances gave him particular currency with students in this affluent suburban county.

"I really think it made us realize how lucky we are," said Kelly Naylor, a junior at Oakland Mills High School. "He started with nothing. He never let anything get him down or stop him from achieving. That's something that I think will stick with us out here."

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