March 8, 2009 in Features

One door closed, then one at ‘E.R.’ opened

Luaine Lee McClatchy-Tribune News
Associated Press photo

Eriq LaSalle
(Full-size photo)

Actor Eriq La Salle may not be a gambler, but he figures he’s beat the odds.

The man who played Dr. Peter Benton for 169 episodes on “E.R.,” says, “I’m a tall, skinny bow-legged kid from Hartford, Conn. who quite honestly, statistically speaking, I’m not supposed to be sitting in this beautiful hotel in Beverly Hills right down the street from my house.”

La Salle, 47, has had his share of losses. One of four kids, he was raised without his father present in an era when African-Americans were not crowding the soundstages.

“We had Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby,” he says. “It was more unheard of and seemingly unrealistic. So there was natural fear and concern.”

In his latest role, LaSalle portrays an absentee father who turns up just when his family has reconciled to his loss on Hallmark’s “Relative Stranger,” airing Saturday.

The show is edgier than Hallmark’s usual movies. And that’s what LaSalle likes about it.

“They never compromised anything,” he says. “They never said, ‘Let’s soften it, he has to be a good guy.’ He’s a flawed character, and it’s the journey of this flawed character that we really want to see.”

LaSalle admits he has an edge himself, forged from his tireless pursuit of perfection. He was 14 when he first thought of acting. Drama club in high school changed him.

“My grades went up,” he says. “I knew if I didn’t do it all well it could be taken away from me. It gave me focus.”

He studied at Juilliard, encouraged by his mentor, director Clay Stevenson. But in his second year he was booted out.

“They felt my speech and diction wasn’t up to par by their standards,” he says. “That was devastating because I knew I wasn’t ready to go out in the world and make it as an actor.”

He immediately signed up for private speech lessons and then headed for NYU.

“That became a standard for many other obstacles,” he says of his Juilliard experience. “I was working as hard as I possibly could. I wasn’t out partying, not going to class. But you realize in that moment that even your best isn’t good enough. And you still have to survive. I think that experience became something for me that said: ‘You can get over these unexpected obstacles even when you’ve given your best and it’s not enough. You still can dig deeper and find something else.’ ”

He suffered another bad experience when he was fired from the Michelle Pfeiffer movie, “Love Field.” They still had to pay him, however, which helped him find something better.

“The second week I enrolled in directing class,” LaSalle says. “And truly it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

The birthday bunch

Actress Sue Ane Langdon is 73. Actress Lynn Redgrave is 66. Musician-actor Micky Dolenz of the Monkees is 64. Bassist Randy Meisner (The Eagles) is 63. Singer Gary Numan is 51. Actor Aidan Quinn is 50. Actress Camryn Mannheim is 48. Actress Andrea Parker is 39. Actor Freddie Prinze Jr. is 33. Actor James Van Der Beek is 32. Singer Kameelah Williams of 702 is 31.

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