When Rif Hutton began work as Dr. Ron Welch on the ABC series "Doogie Howser, M.D.," his character existed to provide the script's technical jargon. Since then, the producers have capitalized on the actor's own sense of humor to turn Welch first into a joke-cracking womanizer and then a sensitive married man.
"It's been fun growing with the part," says Hutton, whose own wife, Pat, is an actress and stand-up comic. "It's a great show to be on. As an actor, you end up doing so many jobs for the money, it's nice to have one where you can genuinely say, 'This is a good show.' "
It is perhaps somewhat ironic then that, despite prime-time success, during which time he also appeared on daytime's top-rated "The Young and the Restless," Hutton is receiving his greatest viewer recognition from commercials. Since November, 1991, he has played KFC franchise owner Russ Beeler on nearly 70 television and radio spots for the fried chicken.
The Texas-born, New Jersey-raised actor seeks to be a role model to African-Americans off-screen as well as on, speaking to South-Central grade school students about career possibilities. He also helped distribute toys to Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles at Christmas, and is now preparing a Veterans Hospital party for next month's National Disabled Veterans Week.
Besides regularly donating money to the Los Angeles Mission for the Homeless, Hutton has helped serve Thanksgiving dinner there, spurred by a particularly personal reason: Though he has since received awards for theater performances, appeared in "Stand and Deliver" and other films and has television credits including "Murphy Brown," "L.A. Law" and "Knots Landing," Hutton was himself homeless for a time during the mid-1970s, when he first arrived in the Bay Area from New Jersey.
"I had (brought) $1,000. I kept going on auditions, thinking I would get a job that would turn things around," he recalls. "One day, I looked in my wallet and realized I had no money for a room for the night. I snuck into a hotel that was being refurbished and slept on newspapers, and the next night I slept in a movie theater. I finally made it out, with the help of friends. I thought then, when the time comes, I want to help. I want to give back."