Henry G. Sanders, in his fifth co-starring year as Robert E., the strongly independent village blacksmith and former slave in the CBS-TV series set in the post-Civil War west, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," did a whole lot of living before the possibility of acting for a living ever occurred to him.
Born in Houston, Texas to Henry and Mildred Sanders, Henry attended Catholic schools for the first three years of his life. He was sent off to a boarding school in Louisiana until the ninth grade. Back in Houston, he attended a public high school. Henry had developed into an overweight and rebellious teenager who often suffered the jeers of his classmates. Enrolled by his mother in a health club, he trimmed down so successfully that he was able to join the Army which, he felt, would provide an escape from the life he led and a chance to gain his independence.
In 1960, Henry started a military career at Fort Livingsworth, Missouri and Fort Knox, Kentucky. After basic training, he was transferred to Sturbering, Germany. Henry fell in love with Germany and decided to reenlist. His unit was transferred back to the "States" and stationed at Fort Mead, Maryland. Anxious to get back to Europe when his "tour of duty" ended, he reenlisted and was stationed in Berlin, Germany. Before leaving the service completely, Henry felt it was important to go to Vietnam [November 1996].
Henry put in nine years as a field communications expert while serving two duty tours in Germany and two in Vietnam, during the second of which he won a Heart and Combat Infantry Badge. Married while in service, he became the father of a daughter, Chanel, in 1967. The marriage ended less than two years later, soon after Henry returned to civilian life.
Henry spent the next four years writing and trying to get a novel published of his experiences in Vietnam. Uncertain about what he wanted to do with a nearly-completed novel, but certain that if "one was going to starve, it should be done in warm weather" [November 1996].
Henry moved to Los Angeles where his closest companion was his Underwood manual typewriter. Anxious to put the past behind him, Henry used his G.I. bill to enroll in Valley College. There, on a bulletin board, he saw an announcement for an acting workshop at the Oxford Theater. To Henry, the workshop classes were like therapy. He found himself with emotions he thought he no longer had and could not express. Acting opened him up. "It was like a dam burst," says Henry. "I cried for the first time in over ten years."
Henry admits he became consumed by the acting bug; his novel took a back seat. He took every acting class he could, auditioned for every role he heard about and acted in every little theater play that would have him. He attended dramatic classes at Los Angeles City College and cinema school at UCLA. "My friends groaned every time they got another invitation to see me in a play," laughs Henry. "Sometimes the play was bad, sometimes I was bad -- and frequently we were both bad. But by hook or crook, I was going to learn my craft!"
Over the next few years, Henry appeared on stage at the Los Angeles Actors Theater, L.A. Theater Center, James A. Doolittle Theater, Crossroads, Stage 13 and the Westwood Play- house (now Geffen) in such plays as "Whimpers," Miguel Pinero's "Guntower," "No Place to Be Somebody," "Fool for Love," "Eyes of the American," "The Meeting" (in the role of Martin Luther King) and as El Raheem in Pinero's "Short Eyes." More recently, he's done "Miss Ever's Boys" at the Alabama Shakespeare theater, "Driving Miss Daisy" at the Phoenix Little Theater and "Fraternity" at the Oakland Ensemble Theater.
When Bobby Roth, a young filmmaker, saw Henry on stage he cast him in his thesis film, "Independence Day," and began a close friendship that continues to this day. Another UCLA filmmaker saw Henry in the Roth picture and cast him as the lead in a small gem of a movie, Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," which called forth a LOS ANGELES TIMES review describing Henry as "a wonderfully understated actor."
It wasn't until Bobby Roth cast Henry in "The Boss' Son," in which Henry played a perpetually broke truck driver with an impossible dream to be a salesman, that the actor began receiving major critical notice. The TIMES' Charles Champlin wrote that Henry's performance was "a beautiful and subtle portrayal, real and devastating as hopes collapse and truth spills out." The NAACP saw fit to nominate Henry for Best Actor. It was the second of more than a dozen theatrical and television movies written, directed and/or produced by Roth in which Henry has played major roles.
Other motion pictures in which Henry has appeared include "Circle of Power," "Endangered Species," "Made in Heaven," "Bull Durham," "The Man Inside," "Heartbreakers" and "Rainbow" Drive." Made for television movies include "The Switch," "Trouble in the City of Angels," "The Johnnie Gibson Story," "The Man Who Fell to Earth," "The Atlanta Child Murders" "Hob- son's Choice," "Backstairs at the White House," "Ride With the Wind" and yet another film directed by Bobby Roth, NBC-TV's "In the Line of Duty," with Sheldon's "Nothing Lasts Forever," which aired on CBS Nov. 5, starring Brooke Shields, Vanessa Williams and Gail O'Grady.
Henry has been married for seventeen years to Naila, a wardrobe and costume design teacher at Los Angeles City College. They are the parents of daughter Azizi, 13 and son, Naeem, 10. Henry became a grandfather almost three years ago when his daughter Chanel had her first child, a boy, Brendan.
Last Updated on Sept. 27, 1997
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