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Jussie Smollett: Where does the 'Empire' actor's career go from here?

"He's got notoriety right now. We're talking about him, and people will be interested to see what happens next," one communications professional said.
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The case of "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett has been filled with so many twists, turns and stunning reversals that making predictions about the next chapter of his career is like playing a game of Yahtzee, according to one crisis communications expert.

"Every day we're rolling more dice and we're getting completely different numbers," said Richard S. Levick, founder of Levick, a Washington-based communications firm.

But now that Chicago prosecutors have dropped all 16 charges against Smollett, who had been accused of staging a hate crime attack on himself in January, attention could soon shift to his future in Hollywood. Smollett, 36, has denied any wrongdoing.

In interviews with NBC News, four other public relations experts said they believed that Smollett's career in the entertainment industry was tarnished but salvageable. Two other communications experts said they believed Smollett's career most likely could not be resurrected.

"I think his reputation has been very severely damaged by this case, and he can't expect everything to go right back to normal," said Eden Gillott, president of a crisis communications firm that represents businesses, athletes and celebrities. "But if he is patient and hard-working, it's possible to come back from this."

In the wake of the allegations against Smollett, the actor's role on "Empire" as hip-hop dynasty scion Jamal Lyon was cut from the final two episodes of the fifth season to "avoid further disruption on set," the show's executive producers said in a joint statement Feb. 22. The show is on hiatus until the fall.

In a statement Tuesday, 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment, the studios behind the series, said they were "gratified that all charges against him have been dismissed." It was not immediately clear what would become of Smollett's character on the series, which has lately experienced lagging viewership after debuting as a ratings hit in 2015.

David E. Johnson, the CEO of the Atlanta-based Strategic Vision PR Group, said that Fox network executives and advertisers will likely pay close attention to shifting public attitudes about Smollett. If the outrage simmers, Johnson said, he could foresee a "pathway" to career rehabilitation.

Johnson said he would advise the actor to submit to a hard-hitting primetime television interview, get involved in a charity or nonprofit, take a brief sabbatical from the entertainment industry, shy away from hot-button political topics on social media, and then gradually re-emerge at industry functions, such as movie premieres.

"I think he needs to answer some of these questions swirling around him — what happened, why there seemed to be changes or contradictions in his story," Johnson said. "And then, after he's addressed those questions, don't talk about it any longer. The longer you talk about it, the controversy will keep going."

The communications experts who spoke to NBC News pointed to the examples of other celebrities who successfully weathered legal problems, such as Martha Stewart, or overcame personal struggles that had threatened to overshadow their on-screen work, such as Robert Downey Jr.

Howard Bragman, a veteran Hollywood crisis manager based in Los Angeles who said he thought Smollett could rebound "if enough time goes on," said he has long believed there is a "big disconnect" between the fans of an artist's work and institutions that draw attention to troubling allegations, such as the news media.

"That disconnect is going to help Jussie," Bragman said.

The doubters

But the relative confidence about Smollett's fate on the small screen was not universal. Ronn Torossian, the president and CEO of the New York-based 5W Public Relations, said he believed Smollett's career was "over." Many observers believe Smollett to be guilty, Torossian said, so "I think he needs to find something else to do."

"The measure in this business is risk versus reward," said Torossian, whose firm's celebrity clients have included Sean Combs, Snoop Dogg and Morgan Freeman. "The risk of being involved with him — the media attention, the negative noise ... who needs it?"

Ryan McCormick, co-founder of New York-based Goldman McCormick PR, agreed that "a lot of studios are not going to take a chance" on Smollett since his clouded reputation could jeopardize a primetime franchise.

"I believe this is a permanent setback," McCormick said. "He might be able to pick up smaller roles, but I don't think his career will ever reach anything close to its current height."

Howard Breuer, CEO of Newsroom Public Relations and a former staff writer at People magazine, said he was unsure if Smollett could return to "Empire," which is expected to conclude its fifth season next month. But that doesn't mean there won't be another star vehicle in Smollett's future, he added.

"Maybe his next project is a reality TV show of some kind. It's a different age," Breuer said. "He's got notoriety right now. We're talking about him, and people will be interested to see what happens next. The right producer or director can leverage that and do something interesting."