Drug lord role: a tough act to follow Actor: Perhaps dogged by a lasting image as Luther Mahoney, Erik Dellums waits for another good part.

May 07, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Stone cold in the ground, Luther Mahoney continues to stalk the living.

Although "Homicide" drove a stake in Luther's evil heart last TV ++ season, his ghost still haunts the Baltimore-based drama. In its season finale tomorrow, "Homicide: Life on the Streets" will again owe much to the character that would not die -- a 6-foot-6, seductively sinister drug lord named Luther Marcellus Mahoney.

Luther, in absentia, is still in our heads.

"He's like Elvis," says actress Toni Lewis, who plays "Homicide" Detective Terri Stivers.

The man who was Mahoney, actor Erik Dellums, should be sitting tall and pretty in TV land these days. Easy to picture him on "The X-Files" or "NYPD Blue." But we haven't seen Dellums at all, because Life After Mahoney has been a stab in the career.

"I'm not working at all," Dellums says. "I'm really struggling."

To add injury to insult, Dellums has been hobbled by recent surgery for a bone spur in his foot. His condition featured stitches, restricted bathing, unlimited boredom -- a real-life pain in the foot. So here Dellums sits waiting for the proverbial phone to ring in his Washington home.

Erik Todd Dellums is a family man -- his father is former U.S. Rep. Ronald Dellums -- and he lives with his mother Roscoe Dellums, an attorney and avid arts supporter. She calls her son "Toddy" and is the keeper of the family photo albums.

She proudly rose to the occasion Wednesday by unearthing Dellums' "work" photo album: pictures of his theater roles at Brown University (he was a political science major); very cool postcards from Spike Lee; and eyelashes he once wore playing a transvestite. It's quite the funky keepsake.

At the risk of maintaining law and order at home, Dellums and his mother adopted a gregarious, in-your-face, chow mix, and named him Luther Marcellus Mahoney II.

"Ma, Ma! He's in your bedroom. He's going to get your shoes," warns Dellums, as the Mahoney pup invades Mrs. Dellums' bedroom. "Perfect name for the dog," he says.

There's been time to watch the dog -- and TV, mainly that cult cop show out of Baltimore. Dellums relished last Friday's "Homicide," which set the plate for tomorrow's season finale.

"I was so jealous," Dellums says. Naturally, he wished Luther could have been there in the flesh. "And it's especially hard to watch while you're sitting around with your foot up."

Dellums has averaged about one audition a month since leaving "Homicide." And the opportunities have been mixed: He landed a guest spot this season on Fox's "New York Undercover." But he turned down a day's work on "One Life to Live" because he didn't want to play "a low-rent version of Luther."

He had appeared in two early Spike Lee movies, including "She's Gotta Have it" where Dellums' lone line was: "I just want to rock your world." After Luther's run, Dellums was asked to audition for Lee's latest, "He Got Game." He didn't get the part of a pimp.

In Eddie Murphy's movie "Dr. Dolittle," Dellums' small role again leaves the actor feeling, well, small. "I spent two and half weeks in L.A. earning money for just standing around," Dellums says.

"Homicide," it turns out, has been a tough act to follow. "You become very spoiled," Dellums says. "In acting, there is no exam, no test, no tenure. But I feel doing 'Homicide' was like passing the bar."

Although he appeared in only five episodes of "Homicide," it seemed like so many more. No surprise Dellums didn't want his character killed off. He even harbored thoughts of playing Luther's sister on the show this season, a la the transvestite he played in Oliver Stone's "The Doors." That would have been one creepy Georgia Rae Mahoney.

"We knocked that idea around -- for about 10 seconds," says Tom Fontana, the show's executive producer. "If we had used him more, I think the character would have lost credibility."

Speaking for the cast, Clark Johnson says Luther had overstayed his welcome.

"We were sick to death of him," half-jokes Johnson, whose character (Detective Meldrick Lewis) nearly went to the grave battling Mahoney. "But it's a testament to the fact the guy lived in our consciousness after he was gone from the show."

Dellums surely should be working, Johnson says, but the country is crawling with good actors who should be working. Dellums, in Johnson's timid opinion, should go west, young man.

"Say 'hi' to that knucklehead for me. And tell him to ... get to L.A.," Johnson says. "He needs to go where the break takes you -- and your break ain't in D.C."

Dellums did venture outside the Beltway for the so-called pilot season in California. Dellums had four auditions, including one for "The New Love Boat." Imagine, if you will, Luther Mahoney as the new Gopher.

But he left California with no work. He came home to D.C., where people stop him on the street to tell him he should replace Jimmy Smits on "NYPD Blue." Dellums dreams of shaving his pony-tail, donning a suit, and going mano a mano with Dennis Franz.

He would like to work again for Fontana; the two men have talked about a role for Dellums on Fontana's new drama, "Oz." But the part has to be right. Specifically, "I don't want him doing Luther Mahoney," Fontana says. That character was so specific that casting directors might have trouble seeing past Luther, Fontana says.

"I'll tell you, man. I wouldn't mind being typecast," Dellums says. "I feel like I'm starting from scratch -- and I think I earned the right not to start from scratch again."

Maybe so, say Johnson and Lewis. But keep scratching and "keep your chops up," Johnson advises him. "Erik will find his niche," Lewis says. "His task is to get beyond Luther."

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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