Michael Chiklis: Hollywood Survivor
After a controversial film and five Years as TV's "Commish," Michael Chiklis's next challenge Is Convincing Producers He's younger than his roles
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For Chiklis, Michelle was a wake-up call. "At the time, all I could think of was my career," he says. "Hurting my leg forced me to slow down. It was almost as though life was saying, 'You have to stop right now so you can meet this girl.'"
The two had been dating for four months when Chiklis landed "The Commish" role in 1991. The series was being shot in Vancouver, more than 1,000 miles from Los Angeles, and suddenly, the two were faced with the choices of breaking up, having a long-distance relationship, or Michelle moving to Vancouver. "And, leap of faith, she came with me," Chiklis says, still amazed at her moxie. They married the following year. "And all those friends who took us to the party are still single," he says with a laugh. "So if someone tries to drag you somewhere, just go."
"Everybody thought I was crazy to move, but I knew," says Michelle. "Of course, I had to train him a little. He was the ultimate caveman. He could have had a club in his hand. He grew up in a house with guys and didn't understand about women--things like presents, birthdays, acknowledgments. After a while, he was like, 'Wow, this is kind of cool.' Now he wakes up in the morning and says, 'Let's go to Fred Segal today and go shopping!' "
The taming continued when their first child, Autumn Isabella, was born in 1993. "There's something about a father and a daughter," Chiklis says. "When I saw her coming out of her mother and realized she was a girl, I thought, 'Oh, fuck. I'm dead.' My knees buckled. That was it. I knew I was a slave forever.
"I look at her and see myself without all the fuckups, without all the stuff that's gone wrong. I'm fiercely protective of her. People say, 'Just wait till she's 13.' I don't wanna hear that--[when she goes through adolescence] and rebels. Cause I'm going to do everything in my power to avoid that. I'm going to be the coolest dad I can possibly be. So hopefully, she'll care what I think. It's a fine line. Discipline's very important, but so is staying young with them, listening to them, enjoying them."
Already, Chiklis is spotting trouble: Autumn's a chip off the old block. Like the time she begged to take a Broadway curtain call with him. "Most children, when you introduce them to new people, they grab their father's knee and hide behind his leg," he says. "My kid grabs my hand and with a flourish opens her arms and curtsies deeply. Then she lets go of my hand and gives it up to me. And the audience lost it, they were going crazy. I thought, 'Oh my God, it's a genetic disorder. She can't even help herself.'"
Chiklis is now in deeper "trouble." Last March, their second daughter, Odessa Rose, was born.
He stops suddenly and makes a face. "Oh, I don't want to talk about this anymore," he says. "Every time someone talks about their great married life and their great children, next thing you know they're getting divorced and their children are tattooing their foreheads.
"Maybe being married to a Jewish girl, I've become superstitious," he adds. "Michelle's parents have every superstition in the world. You lost something? Turn over a glass. Pin a red ribbon under the mattress. Don't pass a knife to a friend, it'll cut the relationship. You adopt [the superstitions] just in case."
Superstitions aside, it turns out that Michelle is the ultimate cigar smoker's wife--not because she smokes herself (she once tried Romeo y Julietas because the name sounded romantic), but because she lets Michael and his buddies smoke in the house.
"I'm embarrassed to say this, but my house is really kind of crazy," says Michelle. "The only two rules are no smoking near the kids or finger-painting in daddy's office. [Autumn's] friends love to come over. I have slipcovers on the furniture that come off and wash easily, so I let them paint on them. Michael's friends love it, because I let them smoke in the house.
They're like, 'Wow, Chiky, your wife lets you smoke. You've got it made.'
"To me, when I come home and smell the smoke and hear the guys playing poker, it's life and celebration," she adds. "When Chiky's out of town, I can hear the ticking of the clock, and it's awful."
At the moment, Chiklis has pokers in several fires. Proficient in guitar, bass and drums, he is working on a demo CD of raspy blues to shop to record labels; and he and Michelle hope to produce and direct films through his production company, Extravaganza. He spent the fall of 1998 and the ensuing winter on location in Amsterdam playing the bad guy in the independent film Do Not Disturb, co-starring Denis Leary, Jennifer Tilley and William Hurt. It was made by the Dutch filmmakers who won the 1998 Best Foreign Film Award for Character.
Do Not Disturb will premiere in the Netherlands in November and will reach U.S. theaters in December. Chiklis recently shot a CBS pilot called "St. Michael's Crossing," about cops and firefighters in L.A., but its future as a series is uncertain. Before that, he had navigated the TV pilot season as a free agent for the first time since "The Commish," with no development deal limiting him to one network or studio. "I decided to be available to all the networks as a gun for hire," he says.
His strategy is partially the result of his frustration with TV's increasingly formulaic approach, the high mortality rate for new shows, and Hollywood provincialism. "The 'All in the Familys' weren't just setup, setup, joke, which just gets tiring and boring," he says. "That's why the mortality rate for new TV series has gone up from probably 50 to 98 percent. The Hollywood attitude is to throw enough shit against the wall and see what sticks. Last season, one show kept going. One. It was 'Ally McBeal.' And look at it. There's thought and content behind it. I think a common mistake by Hollywood is that [they think] the people between New York and Los Angeles are ignorant. As an actor, you always have to assume that your audience is as smart or smarter than you," Chiklis says.
"Whatever I do on TV, I want it to be something hopeful. It's one thing to see a movie that's dark and sinister. But if you're going to tune in every week, with very few exceptions, I don't think people want to be made to feel nervous and upset about the world."
By now, most of the terrace tables at the Grand Havana Room have emptied, with the few remaining members retiring inside to the dimly lit lounge, richly adorned with blue, burgundy and green velvet couches and green drapes soaring to the 30-foot-high ceiling. A soothing aroma of wood and tobacco wafts through the club. Off to the side, a glass-encased room houses cedar humidors bearing such names as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and Robert De Niro, among other stars. Not bad company. Chiklis lights the Opus and takes a few quick puffs.
"It's a particularly fine smoke, the blend of tobacco, the way they wrap it," he says. He turns the lit portion toward him and watches the smoke curl upward into the evening. "The idea of a cigar right now begins to relax me. Cigars help to keep me sane. After a day like today, where I just spent eight hours doing the narrative of a movie, the idea of sitting and having a nice dinner and a cigar is one of the peaceful pleasures in life."
Another peaceful pleasure is simply being peaceful--a hard-won victory given the volatility of his career. "With me, after Wired, it's impossible not to keep my head," he says. "I enjoy success better now, because I know how fleeting it can be. I learned a long time ago that life is not a meritocracy. Things aren't based on merit and what people deserve. There are people who become very powerful who are the last people in the world you want to see become that, or who get the job you're after that aren't as good as you. One thing that's kept me mentally well in this business is not wanting other people's stuff. That's a tremendous amount of energy expended on a negative. I've always felt there was plenty of room for me. That everyone around me can be successful and I can, too."
Eventually, Chiklis grinds the cigar tip into the ashtray, blows the last of the Opus into the night air, and watches it disappear. It's a look of sheer contentment. At last.
Los Angeles-based Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist who has written for the London, Los Angeles and New York Times, Playboy, Newsweek, TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly.