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From Mouse to Rat Pack

Actor Don Cheadle gets into all kind of characters, from the trigger-happy to the swingin' Sammy.

May 24, 1998|Ed Leibowitz | Ed Leibowitz is a writer based in Los Angeles

Starvation, sleeplessness, a mouthful of cotton balls and a bellyful of gin: Method actors have employed all of these well-worn tricks to goad themselves into character. Nevertheless, as a gang kingpin with a lousy conscience and a chronically upset stomach in Warren Beatty's political satire "Bulworth," Don Cheadle may lay claim as the only performer ever to ingest mass quantities of antacids.

"The first few days, I was shooting real Rolaids," Cheadle admits. "After we knew it was a character trait, they got some vitamins. But that first day, it was chalky mouth."

The Rolaids character conceit was Cheadle's sudden inspiration. Despite the CIA-level secrecy that surrounded "Bulworth," someone managed to smuggle in a bottle or two. Beatty had sketched out the part of L.D., the South Central gang leader who delivers a scathing sociopolitical lecture to an unhinged U.S. senator, but after Cheadle came aboard, he and Beatty rewrote the role together.

Perhaps Cheadle's recent bout of gangster indigestion was not completely feigned. Since westerns have been on the wane, few outlaws have murdered with more grace, good humor and sheer frequency. In 1987's "Colors," LAPD patrolmen Sean Penn and Robert Duvall spend the better part of the movie solving the shotgun drive-by that Cheadle's character, Rocket the Crip, commits during the first few minutes.

Cheadle was so endearing as Denzel Washington's psychopathic colleague, Mouse, in 1995's "Devil in a Blue Dress" that he won the National Board of Review and Los Angeles Film Critics awards for best supporting actor. This summer, in "Out of Sight," he debuts as Snoopy, a surly drug dealer, who vies with ex-con George Clooney for a horde of diamonds hidden in the home of a Milken-era robber baron.

"I've been really fortunate to visit a lot of different people," Cheadle, 33, explains over a lunch of sliced turkey and mashed potatoes at Maxwell's in Culver City. "It's just that the gangsters make the most noise."

It is in less trigger-happy roles that Cheadle has demonstrated his ability to transform himself into any character, no matter how esoteric or overly familiar. In "Boogie Nights," Cheadle breathed life into his part as an African American porn star, sullen and self-conscious in his country-western attire, whose life's dream is to launch "Buck's Super Cool Stereo World." For John Singleton's "Rosewood," he played a distraught piano teacher in 1920s Florida who defends his family against a horde of racists.

As Sammy Davis Jr. in HBO's "The Rat Pack" (airing Aug. 29), Cheadle dances, sings, plays the trumpet and drums, and locks his face into Davis' immortal smile.

"What was difficult was playing somebody who was so affected, who was such an affectation," Cheadle says. "I feel, 'Am I going over the top?' But his whole persona was so 'on' all the time."

In its way, the descent into pure entertainment caricature seems as unnerving as any gangster role. The father of two young girls and companion to their mother, actress Bridget Coulter, Cheadle says he is troubled by the disintegration of Davis' personal life beneath the weight of the grand public facade.

"He created this gilded cage that he couldn't get out of," Cheadle says of Davis. "He was trying to be a dad and be home and do the right things, but he realized that it was cutting into his 'Sammy' time. And he realized that his whole life up to that point had been about creating this character, this fabulous thing. And he realized he couldn't drop it even for his family."

Before Mouse and Snoopy, Rocket and L.D., there was Cheadle's character role debut. In a fifth grade production of "Charlotte's Web," he portrayed Templeton, E.B. White's bitter, scheming, greedy rat. Asked whether he tried out for the lead role of Wilbur the Pig, Cheadle's brow collapses in mock shame. "Yes," he murmurs, "they passed me over," before detonating the lie with a laugh.

Born in Kansas City, Mo., Cheadle was raised mostly in Denver, where his father, a psychologist, treated children and teenagers. Although his father's offices were just down the street from the high school, Cheadle learned to steer clear of them, just as he learned to avoid any discussion of his father's work.

"It was a 'don't ask, don't tell' kind of thing," he says, "but I know it was a strain." Despite the silence, Cheadle credits his father with steering him toward acting. "Getting into different characters and playing so many people and figuring out their psychology and their motivation," he says, "I probably got a lot of that just by osmosis."

By the time he graduated high school, Cheadle was weighing whether to study jazz vocals at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, or the University of North Carolina, or pursue theater at Carnegie Mellon or CalArts. The choice was less than scientific.

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