Actor Stories: Charles S. Dutton Began His Acting Career in Prison

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  • Actor Stories: Charles S. Dutton Began His Acting Career in Prison 

    Dutton would leave prison and go on to build a successful career in the performing arts

    (Arranged by AM Staff)

    (Charles S. Dutton in Bessie)

    Charles S. Dutton’s career spans four decades and includes noteworthy performances on stage, on television and in movies. He is best known for his starring role as Roc Emerson on the Fox television show Roc, which aired from 1991-1994.

    Although Roc was his “star-maker”, Dutton has had a steady string of successes in movies like Rudy (1993), Menace II Society (1993), Gothika (2003), Secret Window (2004) and Legion (2010).

    Shockingly, Dutton began his amazing acting career in the “hole”, a tiny, urine-infested, concrete box, reading his first play using light that seeped from under the door.

    “I went in prison when I was nineteen and I got out at twenty-six. When I read a play for the first time I was in isolation in prison in “the hole” – a five-by-seven room with a sink where you can get water and a grated hole in the floor. I was sent a book, an anthology of black playwrights – you’re allowed to take one book into isolation,” Dutton recalled.


    “When I got out of the isolation that last time, I knew what I wanted to do while I was in prison. I got together ten, eleven guys and we started this little drama group and I directed The Day of Absence, not knowing a damn thing about directing. And I played the lead.”

    (Charles S. Dutton)


    “I finally got adjusted enough to the stench, to the cement floor, to the loneliness, to the depression, and I lay on my stomach and I read the book of plays on my stomach. There was a door about a half inch above the ground, the light seeped under the door. I read The Day of Absence first and I found it so hilarious I said, “When I get out, I’m going to get the craziest guys I know in prison and we are going to start a drama group.”

  • “I didn’t know a damn thing about it, but it was interesting. When my six days in the hole were up, I practically had memorized every one of the plays.”

    “When I got out of the isolation that last time, I knew what I wanted to do while I was in prison. And I got together ten, eleven guys and we started this little drama group and I directed The Day of Absence, not knowing a damn thing about directing. And I played the lead.”

    (Charles S. Dutton in Sopranos)

    “During one of the shows, when I was doing a speech from the play, I saw I had this captive audience, pun intended, in the palm of my hand and I felt this eerie kind of power. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but later on I understood it to be stage presence. I felt wherever I went the eyes of the audience shifted with me, although there were eleven other guys on the stage. I automatically knew how to gesture to be effective. I automatically had a sense of fearlessness physically. I instantly knew to be unpredictable. It was the freest that I had ever been in the three or four years that I had been in prison.”

    As Charles S. Dutton proves, an actor can begin an acting career anywhere, even in prison, and go on to have remarkable success, with the right amount of drive, discipline and determination.

    Dutton would leave prison and go on to build a successful career in the performing arts, including earning a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actor for playing Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson (1995).

    (This story is an excerpt from In Character: Actors Acting, by Howard Schatz)


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