March 31, 2003 12:00 PM

As President David Palmer on 24, Dennis Haysbert has proven himself cool under fire—whether facing down terrorists, fending off a scheming ex-wife or foiling a turncoat National Security Adviser. But recently, at his Tudor-style home in San Marino, Calif., Haysbert encountered a real crisis: With guests due and the minutes ticking away, he suddenly discovered he faced a coffee-mug shortage. Making a quick executive decision, “I ran out and bought red, white, blue and yellow mugs,” he says. “I didn’t want to make it a totally American theme.” He adds wryly, “I can understand how a President’s hair goes from jet black to white by the time he finishes a term.”

It’s a small price to pay for costar-ring on FOX’s hit serial thriller. Kiefer Sutherland may keep the adrenaline flowing as the President’s handpicked operative Jack Bauer, but Haysbert, 48, also causes female hearts to palpitate. “Dennis has this wonderful authoritative voice. He also has a puppy-dog quality,” says Penny Johnson Jerald, who plays his conniving ex Sherry. “We flirt an awful lot. Thank God I’m happily married!”

“He cuts a very romantic image,” agrees Julianne Moore, Haysbert’s Oscar-nominated costar in Far from Heaven. “His whole demeanor is gentle, and that’s incredibly appealing.”

Yet there is also something of Palmer’s steely integrity in Haysbert, who says he modeled the character on Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. The fact that Palmer is black “is an afterthought,” says Haysbert. “What the producers and myself see is that he is the President first.”

Race is paramount, however, in Far from Heaven, which casts Haysbert as a Hartford, Conn., gardener in the ’50s whose relationship with his white employer (Moore) causes a town scandal. Haysbert, who once brought a white girlfriend home to his parents, could relate. “My dad was born and raised in Louisiana at a time when you couldn’t stand on a sidewalk when a white woman was approaching. He was very worried for me,” says Haysbert, who shrugged off his father’s fears. “I love women of all colors, shapes and sizes. If someone chooses to make something of it, they’ll have a fight on their hands.”

Initially, his battles were health-related. The eighth of nine children, Haysbert was born in San Mateo, Calif., with a life-threatening hole in his heart that did not close until grade school. His parents—Charles Sr., a sheriff’s deputy who died in 1991, and Gladys, 82, a homemaker—forbade him to play sports until he was stronger. He soon found an alternative. “Dennis was a born actor,” says brother Al, 59, an addiction-treatment specialist. “When he would play cowboys and Indians, you saw the actor in him. He was dramatic.”

Real-life drama soon intervened. After dropping out of two colleges and waffling on plans to pursue acting, Haysbert was set straight in 1974 by oldest brother Charles Jr., then 34, who was dying of bone cancer. On his deathbed, Charles Jr. urged Haysbert to go to L.A., telling him that “tomorrow is not promised.” He died that night; Haysbert left three weeks later.

Graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena in 1977, he poured himself into theater work and TV guest shots. He soon made a splash in movies like Major League, Waiting to Exhale and Heat, and on CBS’s Now and Again.

Haysbert landed 24 in 2001, the same year he split up with second wife Lynn Griffith, 44, an actress and caterer (his first marriage, to an office manager, ended in 1984). He lives near Griffith and their kids Charles, 12, and Katherine, 7, and still holds out hope of finding a soulmate. “I’m the marrying type,” he says. “I don’t enjoy being single, but I’ll tolerate it as long as it takes to meet the right lady.”

Until then, Haysbert’s counting the hours left on 24, dreaming of the chance to pull a Harrison Ford on the series. “I like where Palmer is going now, but I would love to see him become more action-oriented, like in Air Force One,” he says, laughing. “I’m a frustrated action hero.”

Jason Lynch

Lorenzo Benet in San Marino

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