If you do not recognize the name Dennis Haysbert, you most definitely know his face and voice, thanks to nearly four decades of memorable film and TV roles like Major League’s voodoo-practicing slugger Pedro Cerrano, Heat’s doomed parolee, 24’s President David Palmer and those omnipresent Allstate ads.
At this point in his enviable career, there are very few genres Haysbert hasn’t conquered, save the lead in a romantic comedy or a place in the Marvel or DC Universe (please get on that, casting gods). Haysbert recently added “zombie apocalypse thriller” to his resume via Dead Rising: Watchtower, which is adapted from the popular video game, so Playboy recently caught up with Haysbert to learn more about the zombie apocalypse survival skills he acquired in portraying the formidable General Lyons in the film, which is currently streaming for free on Crackle. We also discussed his shared monopoly on insurance commercials with J.K. Simmons, why he does not need to own the Jobu idol from Major League, his eight USO tours, and how he paved the way for our first African-American president.
How was Dead Rising pitched to you?
They asked me if I wanted to do it and I said, “Yeah”
I would then maybe assume you’re a fan of zombie apocalypse situations?
I’m a fan of gaming. I play mostly sports games, but I like the violent games only if they’re killing something that is not necessarily human. So I’m a Kill-a-Zombie fan.
I’m not a huge fan, they seem smelly and gross, but people love them.
It’s a subject matter that has been going around for years, ever since the first zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead. It’s just like vampires, I wish they had a Kill-Your-Neighborhood-Vampire game.
What would you say would be your most valuable skill in a zombie apocalypse?
Ooh, I guess I’ve done enough military and cop movies I would be a very good shooter. And I have a love for the sword, so I would be very good with a sword.
I have a lot of respect for actors who do the military and tactical training for roles.
Thank you. My whole M.O. for any character I play is that when the person who [does that job] in real life will look at me and say, “That’s how you do it.” I hold that very close to my vest and very dear because I want [those people] to really understand that I did take the time to learn how to do it right.
What’s the longest bit of training you did for a role?
A movie I did way back called Navy SEALS. When I did that movie we all had our own SEAL assigned to us that did what we did in the movie. I was a Master Chief, so I had a Master Chief train me. We did a lot of tactical stuff, a lot of diving; I learned how to dive during Navy SEALS and really fell in love with the water. I dive to this day. Actually, I set a Guinness World Record for deepest dive while narrating under water.
Did you know that Jobu, the actual idol from Major League is in the Louisville Slugger museum? I feel like they should give it to you when they’re done with it.
Well, yes and no. Let me tell you why. I believe that that kind of stuff works and voodoo and all of that is a practiced religion and I really don’t need those kinds of symbols. It’s probably better not to have it, for me. That’s my take on it. I’ll just let that be.
Which of your characters gets quoted at you the most?
That would have to be Major League. That [character] had the most quotable lines. I get The Unit; people love David Palmer, but there’s no particular line that people would latch onto. That and the All-State commercials.
I don’t know if you’ve met J.K. Simmons at all, but…
I have! We do share a kindred connection. We had a laugh about it.
You both have such wonderful careers, and yet, I think J.K. made a joke recently that even with an Oscar win people will still recognize him mainly for his insurance commercials.
Well if you consider for our various insurance companies, we are on television everyday, every hour on every channel so, it’s kind of hard not to know us at this point.
How do you feel about being our first African-American president and the role David Palmer may have played in paving the way for our actual first African-American president?
Generally, I have a disbelief that that happened, except that Ethel Kennedy told me that I had an instrumental [part] in it. Then I started to believe it.
How did that happen?
I go to the RFK golf tournament whenever I can make it and we became friends and she really enjoyed 24. She did say I was instrumental so, hey, if Ethel Kennedy says it, then you gotta believe it.
What’s the most surprising part of doing USO tours?
I’ve had eight tours and [they’re] really interesting and very, very informative. I learned a lot from doing it. When I got the part in The Unit, I felt I really needed to go because I wanted to understand more about what our troops go through and I also wanted to portray them correctly. I remember going in 2005 and looking at faces of the patrol that was about to go outside the walls from the operating base and they were very tense, very serious and then I saw the patrol as they came back and the elation and the relief — that sat with me for a long time. I have over 200 challenge coins, all given to me in a handshake, with the phrase “Thank you for risking your life to visit us.” The first time I got one of those coins it threw me because I was oblivious to the danger all around us. That kind of hit home. They looked at me with these really strange looks, their heads tilted to one side, “Thank you for coming but man, why are you here?” [Laughs] I said, “Hey, you guys need a little taste of home” It was incredible. So I did it seven more times.
When you’re evaluating potential roles in TV and film, is there something you’d still like to check off your list?
I haven’t really done a romantic comedy yet. I would love to do a superhero film, get into that Marvel or DC Universe. Yeah, I’d like to do all those things. And I’d also love to do Star Trek.
What was your first encounter with Playboy?
It was one of my brother’s Playboy magazines that he had hidden under his mattress. [Laughs.] I was pretty young but I just thought that the women looked amazing. I was old enough to know what I was looking at.
What movie scared you most as a kid?
Oh my God, you know I’d probably have to go with Night of the Living Dead.
What’s your pop-culture blind spot?
Ah, I wish I didn’t know anything about the Kardashians. It confounds me that people can actually make money pushing themselves out there in front of the screen like that and I don’t get it. They’re not embarrassed by anything? That and Paris Hilton. Never got what was appealing.
Well I do remember saying, “I wonder when Paris Hilton will go away” and she sort of did.
Andy Warhol always said that everyone was going to have their 15 minutes of fame, and boy he was right.
Let’s pretend you’re on death row: What’s your last meal?
Oh, God, it would be a cholesterol apocalypse. If I’m dying, it would have to be lobster mac and cheese, collard greens with ham hocks, probably the best fried chicken ever made, wherever that’s made. I was going to give you that name, but they don’t pay me to tell you that. But it’s in New Orleans.
What was your first car?
My first car was a 1963 Chevrolet… I think it was an Impala, no it wasn’t an Impala, but it was one of those cars and it was a junker. It wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, it was a point A-to-point B.
I think that’s what all of us need as our first cars, nothing fancy.
Yeah. I wish I’d remembered that before I bought my son his first car.
What was the first song you knew all the words to?
“L-O-V-E.” One of my favorite karaoke songs. That and “If You Want Me To Stay,” by Sly and the Family Stone. Either one of those.
What’s your favorite mistake?
I don’t know, I guess my favorite mistake was picking up the game of golf. I swore I’d never do it because my father used to make me caddy for him and I knew nothing about caddying. He’d ask me for a club, I’d give it to him and then he’d make a bad shot and blame me for picking the club. [Laughs] “You asked me for that club!” Not like he asked me for a 6 and I gave him a 9. But I tell you something: I just got back from a trip and the first thing I did when I got home was pick up my sand wedge and went out in my backyard and started chipping. I’ve got it bad.