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
| By Susan Karlin | From Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

"You're at the wrong table."  

Michael Chiklis had been a member of the famed Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills since it was under construction, and this was the first time he'd seen Jim Belushi there. After seven years, Chiklis was not about to lose his one opportunity to square a serious misunderstanding with the actor. He boldly planted himself next to Belushi. Belushi just as boldly glared back, repeating, "You're at the wrong table."  

All Belushi could see was the young punk who'd played his brother, the late comic John Belushi, in the controversial 1989 film Wired. He hated the way the movie portrayed John and was in no mood to chat up its star. He got up to leave.  

"Please, don't do this," said Chiklis. "I've never met you. Let's sit down and talk about this."  

It wasn't that Chiklis needed Belushi's approval for career reasons. The stocky, raspy-voiced actor had spent five years carrying the ABC police drama "The Commish" and three "Commish" TV movies, just made a cameo in the Oliver Stone film Nixon, and was set to star on Broadway in the one-man show Defending the Caveman. It's just that Jim was John's blood, and the last thing Chiklis ever wanted was to hurt the Belushi family.  

"'For my part, it was an homage,'" Chiklis told him. "'I was an actor who had an opportunity to play a hero of mine. And I did that gig out of love, respect and homage. And if I caused you and your family any pain, I am so sorry, because that's not what I ever intended.'"  

Chiklis stares into a glass of red wine while recalling the story more than a year later. "We ended up almost coming to tears and he ended up giving me a hug, saying, 'Let's let it go.'  

"So I feel like that chapter of my life is officially closed," he says. "I didn't really care about anyone else. The people in the business who didn't take meetings with me because of it, that's their whole gig. I don't have to answer to them. Jim I cared about, because he was John's family."  

On this cool summer evening, Chiklis--or "Chiky" to friends--has returned to the scene of that tale, the Grand Havana, to unwind after a long day of narrating the Showtime movie Body and Soul, one of four films he made in the past year and a half. A quiet table on the terrace. A soothing jazz riff spilling softly into the air. The glass of red wine. And two cherished Fuente Fuente OpusXs next to his plate.  

"It's shocking that they even have an OpusX, because there are waiting lists," he says with a grin, gazing at them the way some of us undress a Toblerone. They're so rare at the moment that the Havana Room is allowing only two per member. "People wait months and months to get them."  

Chiklis knows all about the slow build. He acted professionally for nine years before hitting the big time in Wired at 24, endured nearly two years weathering the professional repercussions of its controversy, and spent five years gaining acceptance for his portrayal of a 40-year-old police commissioner--only to find himself at present trying to convince Hollywood that he is just 36. Not only that, but the 5-foot, 9-inch Chiklis--who purposely gained 40 pounds for his roles in Wired and "The Commish"--is working on a physical makeover, meticulously dieting and exercising to return to his athlete's build of 185 pounds.  

"One of the ironies of 'The Commish' was trying to show the community my acting range by playing a heavyset, 40-year-old man at 27. Sometimes you can do too good of a job," he says with a laugh. "Now, every interview I have with people who don't know me say, 'Oh my gosh, you're like a young guy.' They're expecting an alta caca to walk into the room."  

Of all the ways to be typecast, a conservative police commissioner is about as far as you can get from Chiklis's boisterous, larger-than-life personality. While most established actors are looking for that meaty character role, Chiklis is focusing on simply playing characters his age.  

In a six-month run in 1997 in Rob Becker's Defending the Caveman, he was a guy with savvy insight into the female psyche; in Warner Bros.' 1998 sci-fi action movie Soldier, starring fellow cigar maven Ken Russell, he was a space colonist with a heart; in this year's Body and Soul, he was a boxing manager. Then there're his turns as a likable Russian mobster and recovering alcoholic, respectively, in the independent films Taxman, starring Chiklis's buddy and Le Grand Havana Room co-founder Joe Pantoliano, and Carlo's Wake, a comedy with Rita Moreno and Martin Landau. Taxman was due out in August and Carlo's Wake has yet to be released.  

Taxman finally gave Chiklis a chance to work with Pantoliano for the first time since they met in the early '90s at a play that Pantoliano was doing in a Santa Monica warehouse. "Joey Pants is the one who made me a member of the Havana Room," says Chiklis. "I love him. He's one of those characters who make you really happy to be in this business."  

"He's a good guy with a big heart," counters Pantoliano. "When I did the opening for the Grand Havana, Michael and his wife, Michelle, came to the party dressed completely wrong. When they saw me standing outside in a suit, they immediately ducked into a fancy store and dropped $5,000 on new outfits they had tailored on the spot. In an hour."  

Any special reason for their friendship?  

Pantoliano thinks carefully. "He gives out really good cigars."  

The pair hung out a lot during "The Commish" days, smoking cigars in the bar at Vancouver's Sutton Place Hotel with celebrities, such as Tom Selleck, who were in the city for various productions. After five years there, Chiklis was known as the Pope of Vancouver for hooking up visiting actors with the best restaurants and clubs.  

Coming off that kind of career high, his current flurry of work is especially sweet, considering the naysayers who emerged after his series ended in 1995. "If there was any intimidation before, after Wired, 'The Commish' and the one-man show on Broadway, I'm not intimidated by anything anymore," he says. "What's more, my confidence is through the roof. You need conga balls to open on Broadway in a one-man show. Giant, swinging conga balls. And if I can stand in front of 1,000 New Yorkers and make them scream with laughter, I can go into almost any audition, for two people for two minutes."  

Chiklis got his acting talent from his mother, Kate; his toughness from his brother Peter, two years older, a real estate salesman who prepped him for rejection with typical sibling rough-ups; and his flamboyance from his father, Charlie, a macho second-generation Greek-American who runs a hair salon in the Boston suburb of Lowell, where Chiklis was born.  

"My father is sort of like an Archie Bunker of the '90s," Chiklis says. "He always says his philosophy was formed by 'twirling curls and listening to broads all day.' He has a tremendous amount of insight about people."  

Cigars came from Grandpa Peter, Charlie's father, who was never without a smoke in his mouth. "I come from the kind of family where my grandmother would sit me down at the table and somehow massage my head and shoulders the entire time she was cooking something for me to eat," Chiklis says. "My grandfather would tell me how the world works. And after being rubbed, petted, loved and fed, he would give me the $20 handshake and I would be on my way."  

His first attempt at cigar smoking was a disaster. "I snuck one in my grandfather's garage and turned green. I inhaled, that was the problem. Who knew? I wouldn't suggest it for people who are five years old. I really picked it up in college, when I was playing a character in You Can't Take It with You that smoked cigars. I stayed with them ever since, although my taste got more refined over time. Now, I have a routine. An OpusX is a perfect smoke for a game of golf, because it's a daytime smoke. It's milder than my favorite cigar, the Montecristo No. 2, a very powerful cigar, which I only smoke after a full dinner with an after-dinner drink, like a Bas-Armagnac.  

"Of course, a good cigar after sex is always great--much better than a cigarette," he says with a laugh. "Those, you want to be like sex: long, long lasting and very powerful. So, again, the Montecristo No. 2, and the Cohiba Esplendidos."  

So what does that suggest about ring gauge?  

Chiklis rolls his eyes. "Oh it's gonna be that kind of interview."  

A natural-born ham, Chiklis got his first professional acting gig at age 13 in a regional theater production of Romeo and Juliet. He spent his adolescence juggling school, sports and professional acting, eventually turning down college football and hockey scholarships to study drama at Boston University's demanding School of Fine Arts. Of 80 freshmen chosen from 2,500 candidates, Chiklis was one of only 18 to graduate.  

Chiklis's early professional experience was ultimately a godsend, because no amount of schooling could have prepared him for the bizarre professional roller coaster he would encounter as an adult. Chiklis was 24 and living in New York City when he shot to national attention--and vilification--by landing in Wired as John Belushi, the "Saturday Night Live" and Blues Brothers icon who died of a drug overdose in 1982. The film and the Bob Woodward novel it was adapted from were panned by critics and lambasted by Belushi's family and friends, who felt that the comedian was unfairly portrayed as a drug addict. But Chiklis, who had been toiling in the anonymity of Off-Broadway and regional theater and who had weathered 12 auditions over three years for the role, saw it only as a career-launching opportunity--or so he thought.  

For 18 months--from the time he was cast to six months after the film's release in 1989--Chiklis could not get called in to read for parts. "After Wired, everyone was afraid to touch me for fear of reprisal," he says. "It was a bittersweet situation. All of a sudden, I was starring in a major motion picture and the next thing you know, I'm being asked by reporters, 'Do you think you'll be blackballed?' I literally went from appearing at the Cannes Film Festival, with the whole international press corps asking me questions, to being alone in my one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with the phone not ringing. All the dreams and aspirations I'd ever had in my life were in question. It was a humbling, scary experience."  

Eventually, Chiklis found work in episodic television--"Miami Vice," "B.L. Stryker," "L.A. Law," "Murphy Brown"--crisscrossing the country before finally relocating to Los Angeles in 1991. It was during four episodes of "Wise Guy" that one of its writer-producers, Steve Kronish, noticed Chiklis's potential for a pilot he was writing called "The Commish," then slated for CBS.  

As if the Wired saga wasn't enough, this second big break has its own tale of angst. Chiklis was all but cast until then-network chief Jeff Sagansky found out how young he was and nixed him. It was the last time Chiklis ever saw Sagansky. The show was shelved and was optioned by ABC later that year. But it wasn't until ABC suits spotted him in "Maverick Square," an ABC pilot that aired but never became a series, that they realized they had found the star of "The Commish."

"When my manager told me, I thought he was busting my chops," says Chiklis. "It took me a minute before I realized he was serious."  

It was the second of two monumental changes in fortune for Chiklis within a short time. A few months before, Chiklis's buddies had dragged him to a party. The actor was on painkillers, recovering from a torn Achilles tendon from a basketball game gone bad and in no mood to party. A pretty actress named Michelle Epstein was dragged by her friends to the same party.  

Chiklis was in his usual state--holding court--when Michelle spotted him. "He was the most electric person I'd ever seen in my life," she recalls. "I thought, 'Wow, who is that guy? I have to know him; and I'm going to marry him.' "  

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.

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