March 17, 1997 12:00 PM

PROSPECTS WERE GRIM FOR DENNIS Haysbert in 1974. Just 20 years old, he’d dropped out of two colleges and was caught between a longing to be an actor and a sense that he was frittering away his life. Dennis was also about to lose his brother Charles, then 34, to bone cancer. Even in the throes of his own pain, Charles could see his kid brother suffering. “What are you going to do with your life?” he asked one afternoon as Dennis, now 42, sat by Charles’s hospital bed in San Mateo, Calif. “I want to be an actor,” Dennis told him. “So get out. Do what you got to do,” advised Charles. “Tomorrow’s not promised to you.”

Charles died the next day. Within two weeks, Haysbert left home to audition for—and win—admission to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena. After he graduated in 1977, success came slowly. Local stage roles led to a guest spot in CBS’s Lou Grant and a recurring role on NBC’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, followed by supporting roles in such films as Major League (1989), Heat (1995), Waiting to Exhale (1995) and, now, Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power. His turn as a shady Secret Service man is a testament to his status as one of Hollywood’s top character actors. “Clint is one of those guys that I got in this business because of,” says Haysbert, who bonded with Eastwood over long talks about their shared passion for golf. “He’s a hero of mine.”

Haysbert has had to be Eastwood-tough at times. In 1990, Haysbert was chosen to star with Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field, the story of an interracial romance in the days after the JFK assassination. Despite on-set tensions with Pfeiffer (“Sometimes I can feel a little superior and a little uncaring about certain people,” Haysbert says elliptically), he thought the film would transform him into a leading man. But its financially strapped studio didn’t release the film until 1992, and then lent it little promotional support. Though critics praised Haysbert, and Pfeiffer was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, the movie bombed. Says Haysbert: “It hurt not getting the respect or notoriety.”

Scott Glenn, his costar in Absolute Power, predicts that Haysbert will soon get another shot at a leading role. “He’s talented,” he says. “He just has to hang in there and it will come.”

Patience and persistence are virtues that Haysbert had to learn early on. The eighth of nine children in his San Mateo family, he was born with a life-threatening hole in his heart. His mother, Gladys, a homemaker, used to tell him that as a toddler he stopped conversations when he entered a room. “People could hear the fluids pumping through your chest,” Gladys would say. “It was a strange and scary sound.” The hole closed on its own by the time Dennis started grade school, but Gladys still thought of her son as fragile. She forbade him to play sports until he grew into a muscular teen. Haysbert recalls peering through chain-link fences “watching all these people do what you want to do and know in your heart you can do.”

Haysbert’s father, Charles, a sheriff’s deputy at the San Francisco Airport, was a different sort of parent. “A classic disciplinarian,” the actor says. “Very rough.” But the two made their peace before his father died of a heart attack in 1991. “He did things,” Haysbert says, “the only way he knew how.”

Haysbert’s approach to family life is decidedly more upbeat. The actor shares a one-story, wood-and-stucco house in the San Gabriel Mountains with his wife of seven years, actress Lynn, and their-children Charles, 6, and Katherine, 2. Haysbert’s first marriage, to an office manager, ended in 1984. “I don’t think she understood what being married to an actor would be about,” he says. He met Lynn at an L.A. party in 1987. She remembers looking up at the soft-spoken, 6’4″, 215-pound Haysbert and “everything around me went real quiet…and I heard in the back of my head: ‘Oh, my goodness, you’re going to marry this guy’ ”

When he’s not on location, Haysbert likes to play nine holes of golf each day, cook family dinners and help with the carpooling. In dealing with his kids, he favors encouragement over punishment. “I’m never going to break my children’s spirit,” he says. The heavy punching bag in his backyard is another matter. After a hard day of dealing with people on the set he has been known to rip into the apparatus with hair-raising abandon. “I envision various faces on it,” he says slyly.


LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles

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