PASADENA, Calif. - When actor Harold Perrineau was 16, he found himself in a Brooklyn hallway confronted by a police officer with a drawn gun. He turned to run, and his life changed forever.
"I grew up in these projects and sometimes the cops would harass us," he recalls. One day, the situation escalated suddenly. "We were punk kids hanging out where we shouldn't probably . . . . And we were all standing in the projects just talking, I don't think we were doing anything. Before we knew it, somebody screamed, 'Cop.' And when somebody screams 'Cop' you're supposed to take off."
As Perrineau ran, a bullet whizzed by his head. It was a pivotal moment. "You don't have to tell me twice," says Perrineau, now 49. "The hanging out, the cool. Got it. You don't have to mention it again. I got the lesson."
The actor, who's costarred in shows such as Lost, Romeo + Juliet, Sons of Anarchy and TBS's new musical sitcom, Wedding Band, premiering Saturday, says that lesson has sustained him ever since.
He and his wife, Brittany, have two daughters, 18 and 4, and are expecting a son in late March. He has always worked consistently, whether it was acting or something else.
During his "struggling actor" years he sold Time-Life books and worked as a soda jerk, a delivery boy, a file clerk, and was hired to count bonds in a basement on Wall Street.
"I did a show at a theme park, Kings Dominion in Virginia, where you did eight shows a day," he recalls over coffee in a diner here. "It was a full musical revue. Every once in awhile I look back at pictures of me in my Oklahoma! costume dancing, it just makes me laugh."
Many viewers first spied Perrineau as the wheelchair-using narrator on the gritty series Oz. But there were periods of struggle before that, including two years at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., and two years as a dancer at the Alvin Ailey School of Dance.
"Acting was the thing I wanted to do, I just didn't know how to get there," he says. "So I started using that skill [dancing], thinking it would get me into the door to be an actor, but it only got me in to be a dancer . . . so I stopped dancing. And I was waiting tables and bartending and went back to acting school."
Six years ago, he was touring with a play, and last stop was Los Angeles. "Right before the show was closing, I decided to go to an audition and I auditioned for Lost and moved to Hawaii for two years," he recalls. "My character was going to come back but we didn't know when. So that's when we moved to Los Angeles, and that's when my second child was born."
Though his parents were never married, they reared him together and his mother always supported his idea of becoming an actor. She died three years ago. That's still hard, Perrineau says with a sigh.
"My mom passed, my daughter was just born, and suddenly you realize all the stupid things you thought about, fought about, were really, really mad about, couldn't do."
"Suddenly, she's gone," he says. "Like the vessel that brought you here is suddenly not here."