Lance Reddick doesn't get to smile a lot on the job.
As federal agent Phillip Broyles in Fox's hit drama "Fringe," he is icy -- and possibly sinister -- as the head of an interagency team investigating a pattern of bizarre, deadly incidents. Flip the channel and you might also catch the Baltimore-born-and-raised actor in his recurring role as the stern and smartly dressed Matthew Abaddon, whose last name may be a fearful omen for the survivors of the plane crash of ABC's "Lost."
And he was rarely happy in his best-known role as the ambitious Lt. Cedric Daniels in HBO's "The Wire," where his character was trapped between the political miasma of the Baltimore Police Department and the never-ending wave of drug dealers wreaking havoc in the inner city.
Given his strait-laced gallery of characters, it's almost surprising to see Reddick flash a real smile away from the cameras. In fact, he's almost unrecognizable from his on-screen personas, appearing younger, less worldly and a bit self-conscious.
During a recent interview at his manager's office, he apologized to a photographer who was directing him: "I'm sorry, I'm not terribly visual," he said quietly. But Reddick's modesty cannot stop him from acknowledging that he's on a hot streak. In addition to bouncing between two hot dramas, he's also doing voice-overs for Cadillac commercials and is planning to revive a music career.
"It's true; things are pretty good right now," said Reddick, whose character is a key figure in tonight's "Lost" episode. "I went from being on one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television to one of the hottest shows on television."
"Lost" executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof said they felt very fortunate to have brought the fearsome-looking actor into the fold of their spooky serialized hit.
"One of the things we really gravitated toward was that Lance is very scary-looking, and he's a very intensive actor who also has this incredible charisma," said Lindelof.
Added Cuse: "What he does incredibly well is deliver exposition, and the audience isn't aware of it. That's an incredibly rare skill to find in an actor."
But even with his career flourishing, Reddick remains wary of the fickle nature of the business.
"As I watch the industry and see what it took me to get where I am," said Reddick, "I am more aware how precarious my position is. There's no such thing as a holding pattern."
But Reddick does concede there's an upside to being in demand and recognized by fans. "Sometimes it's fun. I do get caught up in it."
He approaches his work with a dedication honed at Yale University's drama school: "I'm an artist at heart. I feel that I'm very good at what I do. When I went to drama school, I knew I was at least as talented as other students, but because I was a black man and I wasn't pretty, I knew I would have to work my butt off to be the best that I would be, and to be noticed."
After graduation, he enjoyed some success landing guest or recurring roles on "Oz," "CSI: Miami" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." He also appeared in several movies, including "I Dreamed of Africa," "The Siege" and "Great Expectations," but it was his searing portrayal as Daniels in "The Wire" that was his breakthrough.
"Nothing will ever top 'The Wire,' " he said. "It was historical. It was black cinema."
He added that playing Daniels was no easy gig.
"He was a real challenge," he said. "I kept him tight -- he was very self-contained and analytical, but he also had a lot of rage."
And the role was no less demanding physically. To prepare, Reddick would work out by punching a body bag -- "I wanted to show a guy who looked like he could go off at any moment."
While critically acclaimed and with a devoted fan base, "The Wire" never managed to draw a large audience.
"I don't want to be impolitic here, but I felt it could have connected with a wider audience," said Reddick. "In the industry, there seemed to be this perception that it was a black show. It wasn't funny or melodramatic. It didn't fit the mold."
But the show and his performance attracted attention.
"He's just a spectacular actor," said Jeff Pinkner, an executive producer of "Fringe." "We needed someone in that part who had strength, who looked like they were holding their cards close to the vest. But he also has a deep emotional wellspring. He's generous."
Reddick, who calls Los Angeles home but lives for now in New York, where "Fringe" is shot, is eager for more doors to open. He's in "Tennessee," an upcoming movie with Mariah Carey. A classically trained musician, he's also developing a jazz album.
"I really don't take any of this for granted," he said. "It makes me evaluate more what's really important in life, and it makes me work harder. You either get better, or you don't progress."