Cigar lover Michael Cudlitz battles for survival in style each week in the hit AMC series “The Walking Dead”
When we last saw Abraham Ford, the zombie-hunting, red-haired tough guy from the hit series "The Walking Dead," he and his companions were kneeling in the dark, surrounded by a score of bad guys and staring down a particularly nasty adversary, armed with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. That bat was then swung with bad intent, raining a (presumably) fatal series of mighty blows upon someone's unlucky head, the victim's identity a mystery. Viewers were left with a cliffhanger—who lived? Who died?
Michael Cudlitz, the actor who plays Ford, walks into a Palm steakhouse in midtown New York looking very much alive. He's wearing dark brown biker boots, jeans and an untucked blue shirt. Six-foot-two without the boots, Cudlitz has a powerful build and a bushy mustache the size and shape of a horseshoe, his signature look for portraying the toughest character on one of television's most popular shows, watched by 17 million people on Sunday nights. "The Walking Dead" returns in October for its seventh season. So—is his character still alive?
Cudlitz takes a sip of his drink, a Bulleit Rye Old Fashioned, and orders a strip steak medium rare. He's not spilling any secrets, but all signs point to his character's survival. First, he still has the mustache, plus the orange-hued mane (he's actually a blond who dyes his hair to portray Ford). To top it all off, Cudlitz has been filming in Atlanta, home base for "The Walking Dead." He looks just like his alterego, without the guns, the dirt and the occasional gallon or so of fake blood, which is all part and parcel of starring in such a show.
Much like "Game of Thrones" or "The Sopranos," main characters on "The Walking Dead" meet their doom on a regular basis. In this show the dead walk the earth, society has collapsed and those still alive face danger each and every day. And while there are zombies everywhere, the graver danger often lies in encounters with other survivors, for all are battling for the dwindling slices of civilization that remain. No one is safe. "Typically the lead of a show is not wondering if he's going to have a job next year—even though they know the show has come back already," says Cudlitz.
For now he's happy to be free of the grime he has to wear on set to portray a man who is wandering a wasteland and fighting for his life. He sometimes returns to his hotel from a shoot only to find his on-set cleanup has missed a spot or two of fake blood, dirt or both. He's ruined more than his share of hotel-room towels.
His character is remarkable and memorable, a former Army sergeant who loses his wife and children in brutal fashion soon after the world falls apart. With nothing to live for, he prepares to kill himself, only to find a person in need of protection, which gives him a new mission and a renewed will to live. His military training is his edge in a world gone mad, and his character's proclivity to speak his mind with poetic profanity adds a bit of humor to a very dark show.
"He'd rather go through it than around it—and I appreciate that of him," says Cudlitz, a 51-year-old who speaks in a softer voice than the bombastic, zombie-killing character he portrays on the small screen. "I think we all wish we were like that. He's the guy who says what we're all thinking. He's so indirect in his directness. The guy can answer most of the questions he's asked with ‘yes' or ‘no,' and he chooses this 15-minute route to get there. He's probably the least poetic poet on television. People have called him the poet laureate of the apocalypse." An example of the word of Abraham: "There is a vast ocean of shit that you people don't know shit about."
Born and raised in Flushing, Queens, Cudlitz moved when he was five to Lakewood, New Jersey. He always yearned to act. "I've wanted to be an actor as long as I remember wanting to be anything," he says. As a kid he would act out the commercials on TV, singing the jingles. "My folks say that I always wanted to do it. I was always performing."
He enrolled in the California Institute of Arts in Los Angeles but had a plan if acting didn't pan out. "I was going to school for engineering as my backup," he says. His father encouraged him to follow his dream. "The next day," he says, "I quit school."
His first break was getting a part in A River Runs Through It, the 1992 Robert Redford film. Later, while he was working as the construction coordinator on "Beverly Hills 90210," to pay his way through acting school using his hands, the producers saw his work on the big screen and gave him a role in the television show.
But his breakout role was portraying Staff Sergeant Denver "Bull" Randleman in HBO's critically acclaimed World War II drama "Band of Brothers," which originally aired in 2001. The miniseries, based on the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose, centers on the members of Easy Company, who fought their way across Europe in such landmark conflicts as the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. The Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks production stressed realism, and for the actors portraying U.S. soldiers fighting in the Second World War that meant going through boot camp. For Cudlitz, it also meant serious research on the man he was portraying. Everyone who knew Randleman mentioned one particular trait.
"He always had a cigar stub hanging from his mouth. Everyone described him that way," says Cudlitz, happily putting fire to the foot of a Bolivar Corona Gigante, a Cuban Churchill with a wrapper the color of a chocolate bar. "I spoke to his wife, I spoke to his friends. We all think we know who we are. If I really want to know who you are, let me go ask your wife. Let me ask your buddy from high school."
HBO originally gave Cudlitz cigars for the show, but they were horrible. "They were basically like cigarettes," he says. "I went to a cigar place in Knightsbridge, in London. It was a club. It had a little cigar shop on the street with a really nice humidor. I got to speaking with the guy who ran the place, his name was David Fetzer. He gave me a history of cigars, and he was very, very knowledgeable. I settled on what we were going to smoke. It was a very long Churchill, which I would cut into three pieces."
In the thick of a war, Randleman wouldn't have smoked cigars like an aficionado in a cigar bar, leisurely puffing away on a double corona without a care in the world, and replacing it with another. He puffed when he could, kept a half-smoked cigar in his mouth and his pocket, never knowing when he would find another. Cudlitz did the same. "I found the perfect size that would work for what I was doing," he says. Every two weeks or so, he would return to the cigar shop to buy another Churchill to make his three-stub prop.
He kept the cigar stubs in the jacket pocket and instructed the staff to never clean the outer jacket. The aroma would help him take on the character of Bull. "When I would get to work I would bury my face in the jacket. I wanted the cigar smell, the sweat—for me that was Bull. I would throw the jacket on, put a cigar in my mouth. That pulled everything together."
Bringing Randleman to life led Cudlitz to his a-ha cigar moment. His wife had travelled to England and visited the same cigar shop where Cudlitz bought his prop smokes in search of a 10th anniversary present. She splurged, buying an "A" sized vintage Cuban that had a price tag of £70, worth about $140 at the time. He was horrified. "A $140 cigar—are you out of your mind?" He brought it home and kept it in a bag. A few months later, he brought it to a dinner with some of his friends from the show.
"We sat on an outdoor patio. After dinner I lit the cigar. I remember thinking after the first two puffs—wait a minute. It was amazing. Indescribably amazing. The taste, the smoothness of it, the complexity." He was blown away by the huge cigar, which was still going strong by the time dinner broke up. "I get in my truck, I'm still smoking the cigar. I get home, there's still five inches of the cigar left. So I sit in front of the house just smoking the cigar. I'm not ready to be finished with this experience, and it was still changing. That was my definitive cigar. That was the moment where I said ‘I get it.' I beyond get it."
Cigars have found him in his zombie gig. In Season 6 of "The Walking Dead," Cudlitz's Abraham makes a precious find, stumbling across a box containing a few cigars while out on a supply run. He stops, sits on the back of an army truck, puts his assault rifle aside and lights up, momentarily forgetting the problems of the hell in which he lives, enjoying a little bit of civilization for a change.
Cudlitz was originally against the idea.
"It was a little too close to Bull and a little too close to me. I didn't necessarily agree with that. I want the characters to live on their own," he explains. "But I justified it—had he come across cigars, he would have smoked it. And I was kind of having fun with the audience—it was an homage to Bull."
Cudlitz has found a niche playing a guy who knows how to handle trouble. That includes his portrayal of police officer John Cooper on the acclaimed 2009-2013 TV series "Southland," (written by "Ray Donovan" creator Ann Biderman). Cudlitz won a Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the final season of the show.
He also crossed one big item off his bucket list, when he traveled to Cuba with former schoolmate Don Cheadle to film a few episodes of the Showtime series "House of Lies."
"Mike's a big cigar dude, I think he was in hog heaven," says Cheadle, who has known Cudlitz for more than 30 years. "He's a very loyal guy—a lot more sensitive then the characters he plays. I think he has a gooey center under that tough façade."
Cudlitz admits to enjoying his time in Havana. "I found the people to be amazing. It was a very positive energy," he says. And he enjoyed the cigars. "I smoked many Cuban cigars in Cuba," he says. He was happy he could bring some back, but was disappointed about the $100 limit.
Some of those cigars might end up in a very special humidor. Cudlitz is a woodworker of considerable talent: he built his own house in California as well as much of its furniture. "There's a floor in my house that is made from a 125-foot pecan tree that used to be in my backyard. I had it all slabbed on site." Woodworking is quiet time for Cudlitz. "It's just you and the piece that you're making. If you're doing stuff for yourself, there's not a timeline. It's just time that you spend with yourself. I don't think any of us do that enough—something you just love to do, no time limit, no time constraints—projects you get back to over time."
He learned how to work wood from his father, a cabinetmaker, and when Cudlitz told his dad he was having trouble finding the right sized humidor, his father started making him a custom model himself.
The cigars that go inside will be smoked among friends. "For me, it's a very social thing," he says. "It's carving out time. It's a commitment."
He likes an espresso with his cigars, or a whiskey. "I'm learning more and more about whiskey, strangely enough from my wife," he says. "Most people don't expect women to be whiskey drinkers. I find that odd. Some of the most awesome women I know drink whiskey and tequila, drink it neat. Whiskey for me is very similar in taste and experience as cigars."
In his downtime he's likely to be found with a cigar, particularly Fuente Hemingways. He tends to share his smoking (and whiskey drinking) sojourns on social media, where he has an ardent following. He chooses what he's going to smoke based on time. "The same way you don't walk away from the bar with whiskey in your glass—you don't want to put four or five inches of cigar down and walk away from it. You're being rude to yourself. It's delicious, and you're leaving at the best part."
Click here to watch Michael Cudlitz on video, talking about his love of cigars.
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