A big man on Greenmount Avenue Hometown guy: Charles S. Dutton acted on his talent in the nick of time. He remembers well the hard times in Baltimore.

November 27, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

The criminal charge for which actor Charles "Roc" Dutton had been jailed was incorrectly reported in the Nov. 27 Today section. He was jailed on a manslaughter charge.

The Sun regrets the errors.

No limos for Roc.

"I always take a rent-a-car," he says, "and the first thing, I head to Greenmount Avenue to hang out. 'Hey, Roc,' they call, the guys, they come over, we hang together. It's just like it was, only it's always a bittersweet moment."

That's Charles S. Dutton, formerly of Baltimore, Md., on the Baltimore drill: What he does when he returns from his life as award-winning Broadway, TV and movie star to the streets of the town that spawned him, imprisoned him and ultimately liberated him.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Now he sits in a Washington restaurant, an imposing man in a double-breasted suit, starched shirt, power tie, gold watch, and waiters scurry nervously to please his whims, though of course he's far too decent to have whims. Still, they'd please them if he did.

The magnificence of his dome fills the space with light; when he smiles or laughs, lightning and thunder are released. He's huge, powerful, charismatic, a man who seems to have it all, a lion king of the entertainment world, here doing public work for another movie in which he is absolutely the best thing, "Nick of Time."

But he's remembering his past, his youth, his friends on Greenmount.

"You can remember them when they were young and vibrant," he says, "and you just hang around . . . you hand out some money. Then I'm off to see my family. That's my ritual. There's always a measure of sadness."

Dutton's story is famous, of course: He's the man who got out. Born to the toughest of streets in Charm City, he was incarcerated for armed robbery. In prison, he discovered something: his talent.

Upon release, he went to Towson State, Yale Drama School, then New York and began the storied ascent. Now, Broadway and movie success behind him, three years of starring on a top-rated television show as "Roc" (his Baltimore nickname) behind him, he's co-starring with Johnny Depp. He's a shoeshine man who helps Depp overcome impossible odds as an innocent man plucked up and made the focal point of an assassination conspiracy against the governor of California.

But Dutton isn't quite ready to return to his duties as an advance man for the thriller.

"What happened to me in prison wasn't that I was rehabilitated. What I did was discover my own humanity. And my talent. Once I tTC discovered the gift, I discovered what I was born to do, then I knew I was never going to return. I knew if I didn't pursue it to the limit, it was back to prison. There was nothing in between. I didn't know I was the artist in the family. And when I discovered it, it infused me with a sense of compassion. I had to think about the things I'd done, the people I'd hurt. To deal with it, you have to look yourself in the mirror."

Roc doesn't make any excuses about what he was; no clever phrases hide it; he doesn't pretend to be any kind of victim. He says, of his days on the street, "I was a Rhodes Scholar in that ----!"

What got him out? The luck or the talent?

"Part destiny, part fate -- but I had to work like a dog! I didn't know it was going to pay off, that I'd even get beyond regional theater. The leading roles don't really matter. I went in this business to make a living, and if I can do that, everything else is gravy."

Now, the opportunities crowd in. There's an NBC offer on the table for him to develop and star in a TV series. He received a 1995 Emmy nomination for "The Piano Lesson," a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production. His movie work continues to blossom: he'll be starring in "A Time to Kill," the Joel Schumacher production of the John Grisham novel, as well as the soon-to-be released "Cry the Beloved Country." He's working on a screenplay about his own life.

And, "I'd like to get back to the stage again for four or six weeks."

Of course, there's also "Nick of Time." "I had some doubts about playing a shoeshine man," he admits. "But in the black community, shoeshine men and barbers, they're more than just their jobs. They're philosophers, in a sense. They've always got something to say to you, and you'd best listen. And I wanted to get that part of him on screen, and I think the movie did."

But no matter what happens to him, one senses that Dutton will always remember Greenmount Avenue and the life he left behind.

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