April 1, 2000
When Harold Sylvester (A&S '72) studies his character for an upcoming episode of the new CBS drama "City of Angels," he has a couple of advantages actors don't normally have. For starters, instead of recalling some vague acting theory, Sylvester can rely on his knowledge of the human psyche learned from his studies in psychology at Tulane.
His other advantage: He is on the show's writing staff in addition to being in the cast, so possibly the dialogue he memorizes was in his head before it was in the script.
"I love the opportunity to write," Sylvester says. "It's ultimately more creative than just being an actor." Sylvester began writing shortly after he graduated from Tulane in 1972, "more as an emotional outlet than a commercial outlet," he says. "Then I figured out in 1990 I could turn it into something commercial."
That was the year he penned the autobiographical screenplay about his history-making high school basketball team at New Orleans' St. Augustine. The screenplay was made into the 1998 TV movie, "Passing Glory."
For Sylvester, becoming a screenwriter is just another natural turn in his long and varied career. That path began with his acceptance to Tulane in 1968 as the university's first African-American student to receive an athletic scholarship.
Had he not been admitted to Tulane, he was willing to settle for the only other college to which he had applied and been accepted--Harvard. In his early college days, Sylvester majored in psychology, not even considering theater until he took a psychodrama class. Wanting to understand the drama part better, he approached a professor in the theater department and came away with quite a bit more than he bargained for: a basic understanding of the art as well as a role in an upcoming play. "I fell in love with the whole process," he says.
The result was a change in majors. With his commitment to basketball, Sylvester was unable to be involved in plays as much as other theater majors. "I had limitations. I couldn't do anything for almost six months of the year in theater, so I did very few full-blown productions," he says. "My course load was the same; I just focused on many of the production and academic elements in the limited time I had."
After graduating in 1972, Sylvester was still juggling between theater and psychology--a juggling act that led him to work at DePaul, a New Orleans psychiatric hospital, while also working with the New Orleans Free Southern Theatre. This comfortable stalemate began to sway more toward performance in 1974. An open audition was held for the sequel to the critically acclaimed movie, "Sounder."
Sylvester won the lead role and made what became a permanent move to Los Angeles. Though "Sounder, Part II" didn't match the success of its predecessor, it opened many doors for Sylvester. Within a year of moving to California, he signed and became one of Universal Studios' final contract players, and has acted alongside such actors as Rock Hudson, Richard Gere and Gene Hackman. He became a regular on Fox's "Married with Children," and currently has high hopes for the Steve Bochco production, "City of Angels."
If the show doesn't last, Sylvester is far from being concerned about his next move. He is busy with a number of projects, the next of which is a documentary about playground basketball called "On Hallowed Ground." Sylvester has made his career by following his passions and dreams. He says a person shouldn't settle for a career for the sake of security.
"You know what? Nothing is safe," he says. "Even careers in law and medicine aren't as secure as they were 30 years ago. "My advice to anybody is: Follow your passion. If you are creative, do your thing and create. You can fail setting short goals and it feels like the same failure as if you shot for the moon. Why not go for broke?"
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