Suddenly, he's a star

Columbia teen-ager stars in `Sounder'

Television Preview

January 18, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

When Daniel Lee Robertson III first heard about auditions for Sounder, he was reluctant to send in a tape.

In the few years the Columbia teen had been acting, he'd trekked to Philadelphia, New York and all over Virginia and Maryland to audition for roles in plays and movies including How Stella Got Her Groove Back. He'd been told many times he was good, but he wasn't the right shade, height or he didn't look the right age.

This time, however, he received a callback. And a call to another audition in New York. And then, he landed the lead.

On Sunday, when ABC airs the new Sounder at 7 p.m., the 16-year-old Robertson will make his starring national debut - an accomplishment that he's savoring after years of parts in local plays and small, non-speaking roles on Homicide: Life on the Street. And the fact that Sounder - based on the children's literary classic - tells the inspirational tale of an African-American teen who perseveres in pursuing his goals despite staggering odds is especially significant to Robertson.

"I hope people take away the message about not taking anything for granted and not giving up on your dreams," said Robertson, an 11th-grader at Friends School of Baltimore. "The boy in the movie, he wanted to read and he wanted to do all these things, and no matter what troubles he faced, he never gave up."

The soft-spoken teen's love for acting began and blossomed early. His parents, Glenda, a retail sales clerk, and Daniel Lee Robertson Jr., a food-business consultant, enrolled him in an arts camp when he was 9. There, he took to the stage and soon landed a role as a child beggar in a Center Stage production of Galileo.

"You get an immediate reaction from the audience and, when they like it, it's one of the greatest feelings ever," he said. "I remember there were these student matinees when the kids would come in. ... There were times when people were screaming and stuff like that because they were enjoying it so much. I was just smiling from ear to ear because I was 10 years old and people were cheering for me."

And, although he never received formal acting training, he began landing small parts in plays in the Baltimore area. Kevin Hooks, director of Sounder, said he chose Robertson out of about 100 teen-agers.

"When I saw Daniel Lee, I was immediately struck by the compassion and the sensitivity that his face sort of held, that he was able to reflect the subtext of the material with his eyes and with his expressions," Hooks said. "And so much of this story is about the unspoken word. It's about the looks and the things that go unsaid between the father and the son and the son and the mother that you need an actor who can reflect that.

"Secondly," he added, "you need an actor who is intelligent and mature enough to understand the subtext of the material but who is also at a crossroads between boyhood and manhood himself because it's very difficult to direct that."

Hooks was especially invested in Robertson's role because the director had played the young boy in the 1972 Sounder, which starred Cicily Tyson and Paul Winfield.

"This was a very, very unique situation for me as a director because I have never had the opportunity to direct an actor in a role that I had originated or even played before," said Hooks, who most recently directed the television series Philly and Soul Food. "So I also had tremendous insight into the character."

Robertson said he was initially worried he would disappoint Hooks. "But he told me to forget about the movie, to forget it completely," Robertson said. "He said this is my movie, to do it the way I want to, not the way he would."

Both Robertson and Hooks said they were glad the movie is going to air the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"The earlier film was right on the heels of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and his message and his vision for world peace had resonated throughout the world so recently that I really think it had an impact on how people received the film," Hooks said. "But even in 2003, the vision of Sounder and its message of humanity and compassion is totally consistent with Martin Luther King Jr.'s message.

"It's pretty clear that during the past 30 years since Sounder was first released, we have become much more savvy and sophisticated with regard to how we deal with racial issues," Hooks added. "But I also believe that when you see the events that led up to the resignation of Trent Lott most recently, it brings to light the sort of subconscious racism that does exist in the United States. And that we are still vulnerable to that weakness, so I think that the message is as important now, if not more important, than it was then because racism in 1965 was a lot more overt than it is now."

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