Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Sanaa Lathan, Sean Combs and Justin Martin Sean Combs

Sean Combs is nothing if not fearless. A neophyte actor, he starred in the 2004 Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" and not only received decent reviews but the production broke all sorts of box-office records.

He'd never before been on a live stage when his acting coach encouraged him to take on the role of Walter Lee Younger Jr., a black man whose family stands at a crossroads in 1959. "It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done as an artist," Combs says, "and it like truly changed my life."

It's a role he was so excited about he quickly agreed to reprise it in ABC's new TV-movie version of Lorraine Hansberry's classic play. The title comes from the opening lines of Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem" — "What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"

It's about an African-American family struggling to get by on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s. The Youngers are in conflict as they anxiously await a $10,000 life insurance check.

Lena (Phylicia Rashad) wants to quit her job as a maid, send her daughter, Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan), to medical school and buy the family a home of their own. Walter Jr. (Combs), wants to invest in a liquor store. His wife, Ruth (Audra McDon-ald), is at odds with him.

And the Youngers face biogtry.

"Raisin In the Sun" was screened at Sundance last month, the first broadcast network TV movie anyone can remember doing so. The reaction was enthusiastic.

"That was history in itself," Combs said. "And just the response from the audiences. ... It's just overwhelming to see how people are receiving it."

Combs — variously known as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy and just plain ol' Diddy over the years — is, of course, best known as a hip hopper. His participation brought in a younger audience who, if they'd even heard of "Raisin In the Sun," chances are they'd never seen it.

Oscar-winning producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ("Chicago," "Hairspray") had been pitching a new version of "Raisin" for several years before the Broadway revival.

"But when we saw the revival with Sean, we thought, 'That's the way to do it' because of the extraordinary audience that Sean brought into the theater," Meron said.

After getting the OK from ABC, it took Zadan and Meron years to put the movie together because it was tough to find a window of time when all the actors were available.

"It didn't matter when we made the movie, it just mattered that we made the movie and that it got broadcast because we felt this was so important to be seen by a new generation," Zadan said.

"I think the core message for this generation (is) when things are rough and all the chips are down, your family is going to be there," Combs said. "And to never give up hope and keep on pursuing your dreams."

And there's something charming about hearing his enthusiasm for the play.

"Just falling in love with Walter Lee Younger Jr. and having so much passion and so many different colors and dimensions you don't read scripts like that these days, especially for African Americans ... so I jumped at the chance to do it," Combs said.

And he said he could easily relate to his character.

"Ironically, people ... think that maybe I may not be able to relate because I've had a little bit of success," he said. "I was destined to play this role because my father was killed when I was 3 years old and I grew up in a house with three women — my mother, my grandmother and my sister. I went through those years of having to watch my mother and my grandmother work two jobs and not being able to take care of my family and the look on my mother's face when I would ask for things and she couldn't afford it. And me just having a dream of being in the music industry kind of related to Walter Lee's dream of having a liquor store."

Combs is aware that "a lot of people, they get surprised" that he's trying to be taken seriously as an actor.

"Especially being a hip-hop artist, people are known for the bling bling and the money and the champagne and all of those things," he said. But, in his case, it's "very, very blown out of proportion because most of the time, I was just in my office working or in the studio."

Zadan and Meron, who have worked with everyone from Jack Nicholson (in "The Bucket List") to Bette Midler ("Gypsy") to Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger ("Chicago") said they were hugely impressed by Combs.

"Sean is probably the hardest working person we've ever met with on every level," Meron said. "After, like, take eight, he wants to do it again. He just is tireless.... You stand in awe of his energy and his commitment, and his work ethic was just wonderful. I mean, we've worked with a lot of big stars. Sean has worked harder. He knows he has a lot more to prove and he works even harder to prove that he is worthy — and indeed he is."

"He was extremely serious about every aspect of the film and really held everybody up to a very high level ... We felt like Sean was a born film actor," Zadan said.

"He has the most to gain and he also has the most to lose and he was aware of that every minute," Meron said.

Combs said he's not giving up music, but he's "transitioning" to acting.

"I just view myself as an entertainer and really try to look at myself as the entertainers of old," he said, "and they did many things. They had albums and they acted and they also had some other businesses. So, I like entertaining people and pushing the culture of hip hop forward — that we could do other things. "I still have a lot more growing and a lot more learning to do and I want to continue to work with great actors. But I feel that I truly did my best to tell the truth in the film."

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