Augusta’s Jerome Preston Bates debuts his new role on a popular soap

This isn’t the first time Police Chief Derek Frye has chased fugitives through the terrain around Bear Mountain. The Satin Slayer almost killed his own daughter, Danielle.

The little town that his officers patrol is known for antics that threaten to overrun the evening news. Frye just can’t seem to get a handle on the residents.

“I’m dealing with the people of Pine Valley and making sure that they abide by the rules —- and they’re out of control!” explained the law enforcement officer.

But at the end of this grueling, 17-hour day of filming “All My Children” on location in upstate New York, Augusta native Jerome Preston Bates hasn’t given up on his new neighbors. In fact, he’s only just gotten started.

Throughout the month of November, Bates’ featured role on the long-running ABC daytime drama will be the nexus around which the show’s newest storyline unfolds. A couple — he can’t say who — is on the run from the law, and bigger things than fugitives are afoot. Police Chief Frye, not known to suffer fools lightly, is directly involved. And that can mean only one thing: The town’s most prominent residents must be involved. Among the chief’s concerns: the scheming black widow known as Erica Kane (played by Susan Lucci).

“I’m involved in a main storyline with everybody — Erica, Greenlee, Kendell, Aiden — I’m going to have a scene with everybody within the next couple of days,” Bates said. “It’s the only featured black character that they have on the show. It’s a good role, a role of integrity and authority. They haven’t put me into any slimy stuff yet.”

Of course, this is Pine Valley. Bates’ best hope for his character’s longevity is to fall into a coma, or to develop rare clusters of tiny brain tumors. Better yet, he could discover that he has an evil twin. Then viewers will really see the actor in action.

And although the evil twin thing is kind of locked up on “All My Children” by the 24-year continuing saga of Adam and Stuart Chandler, the complete lack of attention paid by soap operas to the natural laws of the universe means that there is a 76.3 percent greater chance of twins occurring in soap opera families than in the average American family. (Editor’s note: We totally made up that statistic.) But the point is, they can’t all be good people.

“It’s good work and it’s a character-driven story. But it is a rather grueling schedule,” Bates said. But at least he’s not portraying a character comprised entirely of a floating head, a la former “Grease” actor Adrian Zmed on the now-cancelled “Passions.”

And anyway, Bates knows about a grueling schedule. Despite his new gig, and the fact that he just finished the film “The Narrows” with Vincent D’Onofrio, he found time to co-direct and act in the Lucy Craft Laney Museum’s production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In addition, he’s been married to Sumati Karen for 14 years, and they have an 11-year-old daughter, Kyrsten. He also takes on counseling and pastoral responsibilities as an elder at his church, New Genesis Christian Center in Brooklyn.

“I wish I was smart enough to keep up with my frequent-flyer miles,” he laughed.

“It was hard for us to get him this time,” acknowledged Christine Miller-Betts, the executive director of the museum. But the fact is that this graduate of Lucy Laney High School wouldn’t have missed the opportunity if he could help it.

Museum Program Director Anthony Page tells a story that Bates likely wouldn’t relay on his own: “He had committed to doing a play for the students at his daughter’s school and his agent got him a big opportunity that was going to be presented that night, and he really wanted to do it, but he decided that he was not going to let those kids down,” Page said.

Bates almost entirely shrugs off stories like that.

“I’ve been a busy actor… and sometimes I’ve been a busy bellman,” he laughed. “It’s all in God’s time. He knows when it’s time.”

Bates credits the Upward Bound program at Paine College for setting him on his path. The program provides educational support to students from low-income families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree. They stay in the dorms during summer months on the Paine College campus.

Bates had something of a nomadic existence in his early years, moving around the Eastern states. His mother didn’t have a lot of formal education and, like a lot of people in her generation, moved as she found work as a domestic employee.

“I was born in Augusta. I came to New York when I was about six years old, came back to Augusta and lived, then went to Atlanta for 10 years, and then finished 11th and 12th grade in Augusta. We lived a couple of months in Spartanburg, and six months in Columbus, Ohio…” he thought back over the moves and felt no regret. “My mom was just moving around trying to find the work and I admire her for that. And I was with Mom.”

But in Upward Bound at Paine College, he studied drama under Les Roberts, who told Bates that he was leaving Augusta to study theater at Yale University.

“I thought you go to college to be doctors and lawyers,” Bates said. “I said, ‘Wow, if I can’t make up my mind what I want to do, I’ll study acting.’”

And along with his experiences at the historically black college, which exposed him to another dimension of artistic life, was what Bates called “the poetry of that day, the drama of that time” while he was growing up. Blacks were beginning to enjoy more prominence on television and film. Bates mentioned Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones as inspirations. Poitier, of course, was the first black man to win an Academy Award for his 1963 role as Homer Smith in “Lilies of the Field.” Jones was nominated in 1971 for an Academy Award for his role in “The Great White Hope.” Tyson, an Atlanta resident, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1972 for “Sounder.” She was also the first African-American actress to win an Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Television Movie for her 1974 performance in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Bates went on to Knoxville College, where he majored in speech and English. Then he went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in London (LAMDA), and on to the Lee Strausberg Theatre and Film Institute, HB Studios, The New School and the Yale Repertory Theater. He also went back and studied with Lloyd Richards, who was the original director of “Raisin in the Sun” with Poitier and actress Ruby Dee. All are people and places known for progressive techniques, exciting new work and bold interpretations. Not to mention the success of their alumni.

“I have a lot of friends like Jeffrey Wright and Isaiah Washington and Eric LaSalle that I came up with through the theater,” Bates mused. He also knew Laurence Fishburne and Denzel Washington, although they didn’t quite run in the same circles.

“That’s the kind of road I traveled. It’s all in timing,” he explained. “You see all your friends get these roles — I remember working with Wesley Snipes — and you see them get all these roles. But I’m a working actor.”

And while Bates may not yet be a household name, his résumé in film, theater and television goes back 20 years. From his 1979 film role as “Preston” in “Incoming Freshman” to his recurring character as Travis Smith on HBO’s “Oz” to his role billed simply as “Desk Sergeant” in the 2000 Samuel L. Jackson vehicle “Shaft,” he’s made the most of cobbling together a successful living in the world’s most competitive acting market.

“It’s a journeyman’s life,” Bates said. “I’ve been blessed along the way, and this [AMC] is a monumental break. I’ve had breaks along the way. When I got cast in August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars,’ that was a monumental break.”

Indeed, Bates originated the role of Floyd Barton, the musical scoundrel with good intentions whose last week of life is the subject of much of the play.

The break for Bates came not just in the casting by one of the nation’s most prolific playwrights, but also in the ability to watch and learn from Wilson.

“It was a privilege to see him sitting there in the audience every day, getting a chance to get to know him and talk to him about the character,” Bates said. The award-winning playwright was a funny storyteller, and the cast could never be 100 percent certain that he was telling the truth about the things he’d seen and done. But he was also a generous resource for the members of his cast and crew.

“He was kind enough to write in my copy of ‘Seven Guitars,’ ‘To Jerome Preston Bates, the first Floyd Barton,’” he said. “And I’ll have that to treasure for the rest of my life.”
After that play, Bates went on to the New Federal Theater’s production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” a production lauded by the New York Times — of particular notability because the Broadway production that starred Angela Bassett had closed so quickly that few saw it. Bates worked with Wilson again in the cast of “Jitney.”

He’s appeared no less than eight times in the “Law & Order” franchise. His other television credits include “New York Undercover,” “NYPD Blue” and “Third Watch.”

“I’ve been a basketball coach, a DNA technician; I’ve been the father of a murdered son, a cop, a fire chief… We try to soak up as much TV as we can here, and film, but I work mostly in the theater,” Bates said.

But theater, with its late nights and long rehearsals, is out of the question while working on a television show. Cast members usually have to be on set around 7 a.m. Then they have hair, makeup and wardrobe to go through. Afterwards, the actors relax in their dressing rooms until the crew is ready for them. Bates may study his lines or read his Bible. Car chases, jump cuts and special effects — barring any disembodied, levitating heads cleverly worked into the script — are few and far between. So soap opera actors have to remember massive amounts of dialogue for these very character-driven shows.

“Then they call you up on the set and what they do now is called block-dress-tape. They block it, they dress it with the camera and they tape it. It is really quick. We don’t want to do too many takes,” Bates said.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of chaos. “Entertainment Tonight” spent a day last week following around “Dancing With the Stars” competitor and fellow cast member Cameron Mathison, who plays Ryan Lavery. Between scenes, Bates spends time fielding telephone calls from places like Atlanta’s The Alliance Theater and organizations across the country that want him for workshops and speaking engagements.

But although there is longevity to be found in soap operas — along with catfights, kidnappings, hauntings, divorces, natural disasters and the occasional orangutan — it may not be a role he will play forever.

“I would have to say that I’ll take it one day at a time. This is a recurring role, and we don’t know how long it will last. It’s a storyline that has been on AMC for a couple of years, and I may be like the third actor to have done it,” Bates said, with humor bubbling over his answer. “But the practical thing is if the work is there, I’ve got to have the work. You either work on working or get the work.”

For the moment he’s content while walking to work every day from his 41st-floor apartment in midtown Manhattan. The paparazzi haven’t found him yet, but he’s found that he has fans around town.

“People do recognize me. Sometimes I try to tell them, ‘No, you’ve gotten me mixed up with somebody else,’ and they’ll tell me exactly what I’ve done,” Bates said. “One time I was walking on the street and a guy said ‘Yeah, man, yeah! Good work!’ I said, ‘You’ve seen me in a play?’ And he said, ‘No, man, you were in ‘Shaft!’”

And then there’s “Law & Order.” The original show and its spin-offs, “SVU” and “CI,” run almost continually on cable and network television. It’s so popular that it has even spawned a host of “fan fiction” sites, where show devotees pen their own episodes or short stories featuring the characters and themes from the show.

“They’re running things I did 12 years ago,” Bates laughed. But at least he still gets residuals when the episodes run. “But I think it’s good in terms of getting your face fresh and out there.”

Bates took an almost 10-year leave of absence with church and family responsibilities, and leaving an entertainment career in which an actor has gathered momentum can be disastrous. But Bates is a respected actor in Gotham City, and was able to regain the ground he might have lost.

“It’s really only been the last three to four years that it’s felt like I’m back in the business and only recently that I’m back full time,” he said. And he’s looking to build on his recent success. He’s angling for more film work and shopping around plays that he’s working on. “Augusta Brown,” which isn’t quite completed, is about a blind blues guitarist in Augusta. “Breathe” watches two families dealing with the effect of having their sons incarcerated.

“It’s not an easy play for regional companies to produce. I think their seasons have to be rather friendly,” Bates said.

While he waits to see how things develop, he has his hands full with his spunky television daughter and a heavy caseload involving Pine Valley’s sociopathological citizenry.

“I came up here working as an extra on these things and hoping that I would one day get the kind of work that was steady,” Bates said. “I’m called to acting — as difficult as it is, as unsteady as it is, as up-and-down as it is and as flaky as it is. God is good. God is opening doors and I just have to give him the glory.”

Something greater than man must be involved. After all, Erica Kane survived 11 marriages, 18 affairs, two murder trials, three kidnappings, four blackmail attempts, a shooting and a stabbing. Sounds like Bates will be keeping an eye on her.

Jerome Preston Bates can be seen weekdays at 1 p.m. on “All My Children” on ABC. He will next appear as “Chuckie” in the film“The Narrows” in 2008. Look for him in the Lucy Craft Laney Museum’s production of “Radio Days” in January of 2008.

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