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Five questions for a former on-screen president and sergeant major

Jan. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Actor Dennis Haysbert poses for a photo with Army Warrant Officer Levar Gillie during a USO Spring Troop visit to Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan, on April 23.
Actor Dennis Haysbert poses for a photo with Army Warrant Officer Levar Gillie during a USO Spring Troop visit to Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan, on April 23. (Staff Sgt. Adora Medina/Army)
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Dennis Haysbert on stage at the 2013 USO Gala at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25. (MC1 Daniel Hinton/Navy)

BONUS NOTE

Haysbert has also shown his military-action chops in video games. Voice-over credits include “Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow” and “Call of Duty: Finest Hour.”

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Actor Dennis Haysbert may be best known for his role as President David Palmer on the TV series “24” or as Allstate’s deep-voiced spokesman. But he gained a legion of service member fans while playing Sgt. Maj. Jonas Blane on “The Unit,” a four-season show loosely based on the Army’s Delta Force special operators.

Haysbert’s father and brother are Navy and Army veterans, respectively, but he said they never really talk about their service. It was “The Unit,” he said, that got him acquainted with the military and led to his frequent support for the USO.

“It got me very empathetic about what our troops go through, and I wanted to see firsthand,” Haysbert said.

He made his first USO trip in 2008, to Iraq and Kuwait, followed by another in 2009 to Afghanistan with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.

“It’s always fun, it’s always educational. It’s always emotional, you know, because just being an actor, I’m a little more perceptive than the average tour person,” he said. “I’m about immersion. I eat where they eat, I walk where they walk.”

Military Times sat down with Haysbert earlier this year to dish on his experiences playing a soldier on TV and interacting with real troops in the war zone.

Q. On your USO visits, did people recognize you as the president or Sgt. Maj. Blane?

A. The president. But at the time, it was really about Jonas Blane, because we were playing special operators, and they knew that they couldn’t ever get that kind of notoriety. The fact that we were portraying them and doing a credible job, they really enjoyed that.

Especially when I got to go to the special ops compound. I got a chance to shoot all the weapons and just talk to these guys.

They were just beside themselves, you know, as were we. They were giving us compliments on what we did and I said, “Guys, we just act. I mean, as soon as they say cut, we go home. You guys are still in it.”

He said, “Yeah, but that’s just our job.”

Q. What are your favorite memories from visiting the troops?

A. One of the best moments was at Camp Victory, [Iraq]. We were talking to a few troops, my colleagues and I from “The Unit,” and someone says, “You know what? Let’s go play a trick on one of the guys here. He’s in his cot, watching “The Unit,” and he’d be so shocked if he saw you.”

I said, “Oh yeah, let’s go check it out.” And his back was to us, he was watching the show. So we kind of walked in and didn’t say anything, because he just thought his buddies were back. And I just, you know, using my deepest Jonas Blane voice, said, “Oh, I remember that scene.” ...

His eyes went wide as saucers and he said, “No way,” and looked back at the screen and said, “No expletive way!”

Q. What was the best part about playing a Special Forces sergeant major?

A. You know, it was doing the job. We knew we were portraying a group of men and women who never get that notoriety or the accolades of doing their job. And also telling as much truth as we could within the confines of television.

Everyday was a great time. You didn’t mind getting dirty because you’re in fatigues and that was your job. You just got to do your job. And I always felt like I was channeling, with every episode, a different sergeant major.

By name I was Jonas Blane, but it just felt like I was whomever was in that kind of story. Because I know every story we shot, at least in the first year and a half, had some elements of truth to it.

Q. Did training for the show prepare you for being in a war zone?

A. [In Iraq]we had two Black Hawks that we were on. And one thing I noticed right away is that we got real serious when we were heading to the choppers. We had our flak jackets on and our helmet and everything else. Every one of us, we all found ourselves next to the gunners.

It wasn’t a safety thing being next to gunners, because I’m sure the Iraqis ... knew where the guns were and where to target. And we didn’t discuss it, but we all knew how to shoot, so if anything happened to the gunners, we would just take the chair.

I’m not saying we were doing this under any kind of bravery, we just did it because it was practical. We kind of went into our characters, I guess.

Q. Your voice is your trademark — how do you take care of it?

A. I drink a lot of tea and honey. Cayenne pepper is really good because it cuts through any kind of mucus and phlegm. I kind of treat it like a singer.

I never say too much in the mornings, until I’ve had my first cup of tea. And not a lot of yelling. I don’t have to yell, ever. It’s just not my way. Even with my kids, when they were younger, I developed “the look.”

I’ve come around corners sometimes and said, “Hello.” It can be a little intimidating to people, but most of them think it’s sexy.

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