On Sunday night one of TV's hottest shows, "The Walking Dead," returns to AMC for its midseason premiere, the first of eight episodes to close out season five. As many as 17 million people have tuned in at one time to watch the gripping post-apocalyptic show, which features a talented cast battling for survival in a world overrun by the undead.
Michael Cudlitz, a cigar-loving actor who plays the character Abraham Ford, joined the show in season four.
"I was a fan of the show before I was on it," Cudlitz told Cigar Aficionado last week while puffing an Arturo Fuente Hemingway during a phone interview. "Every waking moment of every day, the stakes are life and death. That makes it easier to play. Your motivation is clear."
In "The Walking Dead," where the scrambling survivors embark on a constant fight for shelter and food in a world gone mad, there's no time for most of life's pleasures, including cigars. Cudlitz, who turned 50 in December, has yet to light up on screen in this series. He came to cigars in a previous job, playing Denver "Bull" Randleman in the classic HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," which aired in 2001. Randleman seemed to have a cigar clamped in his jaws in every scene.
"I had never smoked before that," Cudlitz says. But he quickly showed the makings of a budding aficionado when he puffed on the cigars bought by the prop department, cheap machine-made smokes that didn't appeal to him. Hoping for something better, he took matters into his own hands, traveling to a high-end cigar store in England (where the show was filmed) and asking for guidance.
He bought Cuban Churchills, cut each one into thirds, and used the stubs as props for the show. He smoked the way a soldier in the field would in the days of World War II, stealing time for a puff here or there and making the remnant last as long as possible.
"I would light the ends, let it go out, and one of those things could last me up to a week and a half," he says. "Cigars were so integral to [Randleman's] life. They were important in his portrayal."
Those Cuban cigar stubs lit a fire and grew into a deep-found appreciation for fine cigars that Cudlitz carries to this day.
"It's my little haven," Cudlitz says of cigar smoking. He counts Olivas and Fuentes among his favorites, which he tends to pair with a good whiskey, such as Woodford Reserve, Blanton's Bourbon, or Bulleit rye. He enjoys a cigar, he says, a few times a week, and he even made it to the Big Smoke Las Vegas back in 2002.
Cudlitz takes his acting craft seriously, especially the work on "Band of Brothers." "There is nothing more important, work-wise, than what I did with 'Band of Brothers,' " he says. He met Randleman and spent time with the man he portrayed before his death in 2003. "Denver was an amazing man," he says, speaking with reverence about the veterans he and others brought to life on screen. "What they did," he says, "was amazing."
Cudlitz is mum about what lies in store over the next two months for Abraham Ford and the rest of "The Walking Dead" cast. Unlike his character, who spends each day walking through a living hell struggling to survive, Cudlitz is counting his blessings.
"I just keep hitting the lottery," he says of his roles.