From “Law and Order’s” Detective Mike Logan to “Sex and the City’s” Mr. Big, Chris Noth keeps stretching the boundaries of his acting career.
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Noth didn't become an actor for the fame or glory. Indeed, when he started, he was still searching for just what it was that he did want to do with his life.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, he and his family moved to Stamford, Connecticut, when he was young ("My mom was on the cover of Life magazine in 1947 for a story called ‘The Good Life in Madison'," Noth notes). His father, an insurance executive, died when Noth was still a child. So his mother-CBS News correspondent Jeanne Parr-raised Noth and his two brothers.
High school in Connecticut was rough. Noth found himself enrolled in an experimental school that didn't particularly suit him: "It was a very free high school-no grades, coed," he says. "It was hell on academics, a very bucolic experience."
He went to Marlboro College in Vermont, where he challenged himself scholastically: "Hey, I even took Latin, and that was painful," he says with a humorous raise of the eyebrows. "I was thinking about writing but didn't really know what I wanted to do.
"I was kind of lost and wanted to find something for me, something I could do. Marlboro had this summer repertory theater and I joined. And I found a freedom in acting that was suited to who I was. Acting uses one's own impulses; it uses the things you don't like about yourself, takes them and makes them useful. It blends body, mind and spirit-your fears and insecurities can be a fuel, an impetus, because you have the ability to draw upon yourself. It was very cathartic for me. Finally, here was something I could do, something I could take and build on."
Noth remembers one college play in particular, a production of Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story," that fixed his goals for the future.
"We did it for one night-but we rehearsed for two months," he says. "It was electrifying. It was like a shock, almost, going out on stage.
"After that, all my acting dreams had to do with the stage because of that visceral feeling I had-that feeling of moving an audience with a story and taking them on that journey. I loved it so much because it was this great experience. Theater was all I wanted to do-I never thought about movies."
His brain afire after reading about Sir Laurence Olivier and the flowering of the British theater, he moved to New York to study with acting gurus Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner: "For better or worse, I never felt confident until I studied with one of the great masters," he says. "I was just fascinated by the whole world of New York. You saw a life in the theater and what it meant. I got hungry to do a lot of plays. And where they were doing that was Yale. So then I went to Yale Drama School for graduate school-and believe me, they eat, breathe and shit theater there. And I was very happy to be doing that."
He left grad school and launched his career, working in theater while landing small parts on TV and in films-until he was cast as Detective Mike Logan in "Law & Order," the long-running police procedural drama he joined at its inception. He shot the pilot in 1988, then waited for NBC to put it on the air, eventually starring in 111 episodes during the show's first five seasons, 1990-1995.
"That was heaven," Noth says. "When I started, the cast was all men and this was a different city. It was a show that was always concerned with complicated and ethical questions, more than just a dead body: terrorism, abortion, racism. It went places TV had never gone.
"And it was the only thing going on in New York City at the time. This was when New York City was not one boutique after another. The city still had a depth of neighborhoods, a lot of different neighborhoods. The show was exploring the city in a way it had not been explored before, before everything became franchised.
"We shot the pilot on 16mm film, handheld. It was an exciting time to be doing TV, at a point when TV was considered off-limits if you wanted to have a movie career. But I could see the writing on the wall in 1995, after five years on the show. It was before the show spawned all those franchises."
Noth is referring to the growth industry "Law & Order" eventually became, giving birth to spin-offs such as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
"It's almost a corporate thing, all those franchises-like Coke Light to real Coke," Noth says. "You wonder what gets lost in that, because it's just so derivative."
Which didn't stop Noth from returning to the "L&O" orbit, reprising the Mike Logan character for three seasons (2005-2008) on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," a decision he now says he regrets.
"I never really believed I fit in that show," he says. "I did it because the deal was so good and because I didn't have to do every episode. Vince (D'Onofrio, who also played one of the lead detectives) needed a break."
Not that he has no kind words for that show: "The two years I did it with (writer-producer) Warren Leight running it, we did some good shows. We had a good crew and I liked the people. But I don't want to do something that's just comfort food. Those procedurals lull you into a certain state because they all look the same. And they're death to the creative process for an actor. You try to bring everything to it and a lot of the nuances are just washed right out to get to the story."
Which is the difference, Noth says, between the "L&O" universe and "The Good Wife," his newest series. The show, which debuted in the fall of 2009, has become one of CBS's hits of the 2009-2010 season. It stars Julianna Margulies as an attorney who put her career on hold when her husband (Noth) went into politics as a state's attorney-and who has now returned to work at a law firm because he has been imprisoned on corruption charges.
"It's a really smart show and I think we're telling a good story," Noth says. "I like what they're writing, as well as the dynamics between her character and mine, the political world and what's happening in both careers.
"Plus I like the fact that it's her show. At this point, I have no desire to have my own hour-long series. When you do an hour series, you do that and not much else and it's one of the hardest jobs there is. The hours are unrelenting. But I want to keep doing stage work-I try to do a play a year-and they made it possible for me to do that and still contribute to this show."
Margulies, who met Noth when she did an episode of "Law & Order" in 1993 (before she was on "E.R."), says, "When the producers first cast me and asked who should play my husband, I said it had to be a Bill Clintonesque type, someone women are drawn to. When they suggested Chris, I thought it was a genius idea. He has such a presence; he stands at attention and he just exudes that power. He's got a gravitas."
Robert King, one of the cocreators of "The Good Wife" with wife Michelle, says, "We wanted Chris for a certain stature. He's got great versatility-and there's a slight bad-boyness to his grin that translates to politics. And yet he's also got the vulnerability we wanted him to have. He was our only choice-the top of our list."
Adds Michelle King, "He's got a charisma that plays so well and has been so wonderful in other shows. It was tricky because he had to be someone so wonderful that you understood how Julianna's character would stay with him, even after what he did."
Shot in New York, "The Good Wife" gives Noth the time he seeks to spend with his son, Orion ("No nicknames-no ‘O' or ‘Ryan'-I'm going to make sure he corrects people," Noth avers). His son was named after the constellation, which Noth remembers from the early winter skies when he was in college.
"I lost my father at a young age and I spent so much of my youth looking for father figures-and I had a few," Noth says. "So I hope the influence of having a dad will be more positive for him. To be a father is thrilling. It's like a new pair of shoes and I'm trying to see how it fits-not in terms of comfort but in never having worn that identity before."
Recalling himself as a bit of a hell-raiser when he was younger, Noth laughs and says, "If my kid does the stuff I did- well, if I can just protect him from that, I'll have done my job. Really, I don't know how I got where I am. I look at my parents and how they raised three boys and I don't know how they did it. It was a much simpler time, I guess. I had a lot more freedom as a kid: no helmet when I rode a bike, wandering in the woods. On every level, there was more room to move. Everything is more controlled now."
And more homogenized. Even as Noth bemoans the way New York City is losing its rough edges, he sees the same thing happening all over the country-and worries there won't be anything authentic or unique left by the time his son is old enough to notice.
"Life kind of loses its meaning when you grow up in a mall, when everything is the same all over the country, all over the world," he says. "The candy store of my youth had a certain poetry. When you sacrifice that for the need for comfort, you lose a sense of memory. It's not just a certain time, it's what a place is as well. I wonder if we aren't in danger of losing the things we care the most about."
For Noth, one of those things is theater. He shrugs at the fact that his TV work has never led to meaty film roles, beyond the Sex and the City movies: "The kind of movies I want to do are the kind they only make about eight of a year," he says. "I do get calls for movies, but not the kind I want. Movies are too much hard work not to do something you believe in. I don't want to do goofy romantic comedies. I've already got Sex and the City, which does it the best. So the movie thing is still up in the air for me. I have more plans in terms of stage than movies.
"I've done Shakespeare and I'd like to do more. I love the Russians and would like to do bunches of Chekhov. For an actor, that's some of the most stimulating material. And I've been thinking about a revival of ‘Born Yesterday.' "
Relaxation also involves cigars, a pleasure he first enjoyed while working in Canada where he was able to sample the joys of a Cuban cigar: "The first real cigar that got me hooked was a Romeo y Julieta Churchill," he says. "And OpusX beats the taste of any cigar out there. I can't wait for the Cuban embargo to end."
He deepened his taste for cigars while acting in the 1997 miniseries, "Rough Riders," as part of a company that included Tom Berenger, Sam Elliott and Gary Busey.
"We were in Texas at a boot camp in the middle of Texas heat-and Texas is full of cigar stores," Noth says. "After a day of that, there's nothing like a cigar to smoke while you're pondering what's left of your life."
Noth likes "a long cigar-I get a real buzz," he says. "I like to be sipping something with it, maybe a little Glenfiddich. I want a good draw. I don't like them too spicy-or too mild. I just want a good, rich flavor of smoke in my mouth and then I want to let it out slowly. And I smoke them right down to the butt end.
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