Never fear, America: Dennis Haysbert is back in charge. The assassination of his character on 24, President David Palmer, was a shocker, but on March 7, Haysbert returns to TV as the no-bullspit special-forces commander, Jonas Blane, on CBS’s The Unit. The David Mamet–produced drama follows a crack squad of commandos, as well as the wives they leave at home. (Think Desperate Housewives meets The A-Team—but in a good way.) Adam Sternbergh spoke with Haysbert.
Did the producers of 24 kill off Palmer because you’d landed The Unit?
That’s the dramatic way of looking at it, but they’d already decided after the third season that they weren’t bringing me back as a regular. At that point, I actively started looking.
Have you been getting reactions from fans about Palmer’s death?
Emphatic reactions. People are very upset about it. As I was. As a matter of fact, I refused to do it for a very long time.
What changed your mind?
As the season was drawing closer, my close friend, who’s running the show this year, took me out to breakfast and explained why they needed to do it. I said, “Okay. But I want you to know I don’t like it.”
What upset you? The abruptness of the assassination?
I didn’t think this character should be killed at all. I didn’t like the message that it sent. With all the nastiness in the world—in both real administrations and fake—why kill off a character that is so loved by everybody? You know, I’ve been asked to run. Half-kiddingly, of course. But literally every day. Now what people say to me is “Why? Why?”
Palmer definitely surpassed Martin Sheen as everyone’s fantasy president. I actually won a USA Today poll. Which included the real president. But that didn’t surprise me as much as beating out Martin Sheen. I guess I’m the better crisis president.
Your character on The Unit gets some great Mamet lines, like when you take command of a hostage crisis from three FBI agents by saying, “You, you, and you: Panic. The rest of you—come with me.”
Yeah. I love that line.
Speaking of iconic lines, do you practice different readings of “Are you in good hands?” for your Allstate TV ads?
I don’t practice at all. It just depends on the message of the spot. Lately, they’ve been kind of reprimanding—but not scolding. It’s more like, This is the information that I have for you. Are you going to take it, or are you going to continue doing what you’ve been doing?
And you’re preparing to play Nelson Mandela. That must be daunting.
You’ve said a mouthful there, son. You’re talking about one of the top five human beings in human history. But I’m up for the task.
Will we ever get to see you as an out-and-out villain?
That all depends on the story. But there’s enough guys out there doing that. There aren’t many guys doing flat-out heroes. So I think I’ll keep playing characters of higher vibration rather than lower. And I welcome that.
The Unit premieres Tuesday, March 7, 9 p.m., CBS