It's dusk on a late Manhattan weekday afternoon as actor Chris Noth slides into a booth at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill in Greenwich Village. The warm, cozy restaurant will soon fill up with the dinner rush, but right now things are quiet.
"They've got great jazz here," says the 55-year-old actor, who's wearing an open-collared blue shirt under a navy blazer. "It's been around-it's got legs. It feels like the old New York, the one you don't see much anymore. I like places with a little bit of history-which must mean I'm getting old."
He laughs and relaxes under an Al Hirschfeld drawing, one of several that decorate the walls.
"You used to be able to smoke cigars in here-now you can barely do it anywhere," he says, throwing a wave of greeting at waiters, who acknowledge him as they walk by. The manager, who stops by to say hello, sends over a complimentary appetizer-a thick, gooey oval with layers of egg, sour cream and glistening black caviar surrounded by toast points.
"This is my neighborhood joint," Noth says, digging into the soft concoction in front of him with a sharp edge of toast. In fact, the restaurant is around the corner from the apartment he shares with partner Tara Wilson and their two-year-old son, Orion. "It's great because I can walk home, which is important when you're stumbling."
He chuckles again. Despite an imposing physicality that rises to a commanding 6-foot-2, Noth has a breezy presence. He may look like the hard-charging police detective Mike Logan of the "Law & Order" series or the prepossessing Mr. Big on "Sex and the City" (and its spin-off films, the second of which opens May 28) or even Peter Florrick, the humiliated (and recently paroled) politician he plays on the new hit series, "The Good Wife." But he's a very different guy.
"It might surprise people to know just how goofy Chris is," says Julianna Margulies, who plays his spouse, the title character on "The Good Wife." "He's a jokester. His character on the show is very serious-his character on ‘Law & Order' was, too-but he is a lot more lighthearted than that. He always has a joke for you."
Sarah Jessica Parker, another of his on-screen wives (as Carrie Bradshaw, she married him at the end of the first Sex and the City movie), said in an e-mail interview, "As originally written, there was a sort of wonderful conventionality about Mr. Big. Chris brought humor to him and a winking delight for Carrie."
That delight, in terms of the ongoing story of Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big, has now extended into the realm of marriage for the characters. Where the first Sex and the City movie dealt with the fallout when Big got cold feet at the altar-until he eventually came around and married Carrie in a fabulously extravagant New York wedding-the second film focuses on what happens after "happily ever after."
While the creative talent behind Sex and the City 2 are exceptionally close-mouthed about plot particulars, Noth says, "My story line is about the growing pains of a marriage. It's interesting because it's actually reversed from which of us people imagine would have a problem with being married. People expect I'd be the one to feel the pressure. I do think it will be a better movie than the first one, just in terms of my storyline. It's not as drastically dramatic.
"The first film had a different feeling from the series because it dealt more with issues that people have. In the series, the relationships were not as dramatic; there weren't as many breakups. The first one was about the things people face, the intense day-to-day reality that people face in a marriage, that they need to overcome to get closer. The second one deals with some of that. But the girls have a grand adventure and that's a big part of the movie."
Michael Patrick King, who wrote and directed both films, said in an e-mail interview, "Our journey over the years has been to keep making Mr. Big more and more real as he became more real to Carrie. And this journey continues in the new movie. I think you see even more new colors in Chris's performance, which was very exciting to me as a director. Chris has the charisma, sexuality and the humor to make the unattainable part of Mr. Big tolerable. The audience sees something in Mr. Big that they feel is worth that struggle to try to attain. And men like Mr. Big because he seems authentic to them...and a little inspirational."
While fans of the show relished the romance between Carrie and Big -in all its on-again, off-again glory-what made the show a phenomenon was the powerful sisterhood of its four female leads: "The friendship equation makes it special," Noth says. "You can't forget the bond these girls have. And the city was also a big part of it. It was New York-and the friendship of the women."
Still, King says, "The entire arc of the six years of the television series and now two films has been Carrie's effort to find happiness with John James Preston, aka Mr. Big. None of it would have worked or even been possible if Chris Noth's Mr. Big was not worth that effort. He had to be a complicated and ultimately a noble guy or Carrie would have seemed a fool. Chris is the man that audiences have loved for over 12 years. That's a major accomplishment."
Noth takes pride in being part of the show's legacy: "When you think of the things that came out of that show-the fascination with Carrie's wardrobe, with the name of shoe designers, with Cosmopolitans-I mean, fashion is a big, important industry in New York and ‘Sex and the City' helped contribute to that. It's more a part of our pop culture now.
"Hey, there are tour buses that offer the ‘Sex and the City' tour and show people where the girls shopped for shoes, things like that. That's pretty interesting. If that exists, it shows it's reached a point of no return. No one's going to start a ‘Law & Order' tour: ‘And here's where Lenny found a dead hooker.' "
With his dark good looks and deep voice, Noth would seem to be a fish out of water in the "Sex and the City" milieu: a man's man among the girliest of girls. Not so, Parker says.
"I don't think he's a man's man or a woman's man," she says. "He really enjoys the company of both sexes. He loves conversation and is certainly not muted in any environment. At this point, we have been working together for 12 or 13 years and he and I get on like a house on fire."
If anything, Parker says, fans might be surprised at some of Noth's tastes in popular entertainment: "First of all, he's a great and devoted poetry fan," she says. "He loves to talk about his favorite poets and who was the most influential in his life. The second surprising thing might be that he is a massive (Stephen) Sondheim fan. He knows every song, every show."
"Oh, I've listened to Sondheim all my adult life," Noth says enthusiastically, nibbling at another bit of toast and sipping a beer. "It's interesting that a gay man was able to write the most telling song ever of what it's like for a man to be married. It's in his show, ‘Company,' called ‘Sorry/Grateful.' It's probably the most insightful song about some of the questions men have.
"I would love to play Sweeney Todd." He pauses, then tunefully rumbles a line from the dark Sondheim musical: "You are young/you will learn." He shakes his head with a sad smile: "I wish I could sing; I sing but no one wants to hear me."
Everyone, however, seems to want to write about him-at least that's how Noth feels some days. He has few kind words for the celebrity media culture he sees as taking over the world, or at least his part of the world.
Sitting in the booth at the Knickerbocker, he catches a glimpse of CNN on a TV in the nearby bar area and recalls a recent item he saw on TV: "It was on CNN, on the ticker under the picture, just recently: ‘Chris Noth hurt on set'," he says. "I couldn't believe they ran it because it wasn't true."
The story emanated, he believes, from an incident on the set of "The Good Wife" six months earlier. At a key moment in the pilot, Margulies had to slap Noth-the angry wife finally unloading on the betraying spouse.
"It was a big moment and she gave me good slaps," says Noth, himself the son of a journalist. "I think we did three takes and it left a little bit of a mark. And six months later I see it on the CNN ticker: ‘Chris Noth hurt on set.' How reliable is the news today if that's the news?
"Everyone is talking about the demise of newspapers. This is one good reason I hope it doesn't happen. I mean, it wasn't true-and it was six months later. It's so ridiculous the news that comes out. They absolutely say anything they want.
"I remember before we made the first Sex and the City movie. None of us thought it was going to happen because there were some legal issues. Someone asked me about it and I maybe said that it would be fun, if we make a movie, if we could go to Bali. The next thing I know, I'm reading that Chris Noth is holding out and holding up the Sex and the City movie until they go to Bali. It's just amazing to me, the fact that people can write anonymously, with no rules and none of the ethical considerations. I don't give a shit, except to have a laugh. But it's more of a signal that anything goes."
(A few weeks later, Noth pops up again, this time in a Huffington Post.com headline: "Snooki, Chris Noth OK After Glass Ceiling Shatters at Purim Party in NYC." To which Noth said in an e-mail: "I showed up at the behest of a couple of friends from Israel and left 10 minutes later. They call that news?")
The success of "Sex and the City"-and people's identification of Noth with his Mr. Big character-mean greater recognition on the streets. But, after 20 years in which he's been a regular TV presence in people's living rooms, Noth hasn't changed his approach to life as a New Yorker. He still rides the subway, still gets his own coffee at Starbucks, still walks the streets-more Mike Logan than Mr. Big, with no thought of holing up behind a curtain of celebrity privacy.
Yes, people recognize him, he says, but they're usually polite about it.
"People never went, ‘Hey, Mike Logan!' " he says. "But they do go, ‘Hey, Big!' They get a lot more excited about Mr. Big. I guess people are desperate for a certain kind of romance and they think I'm that guy. I'm so not invested in that world. And I'm not going to give up riding the subway because people call me ‘Big.'
"A few weeks ago, a woman started yelling at me in a Starbucks. She came up to me and demanded that I take a picture with her. When people present themselves in an offensive way, I won't do it. And sometimes you just don't feel like it. For her, I didn't. And she's yelling, ‘Why are you being such a jerk?'
"I mean, I usually do it. So I sure hope it's not true what the Indians say about having your picture taken."
Los Angeles, where he also maintains a home, is a different story: "In L.A., it's easy to know the places not to go. There are some good restaurants I won't go to because I think it's nonsense to have to enter through a gauntlet of flashbulbs. There are parks in L.A. I won't go to because of photographers. There's a way to do things out there.
"But these days everybody is a paparazzo because everybody has a camera in their phone. Everybody is taking pictures. I don't know what the hell they're doing."
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.
"When I lived in West Hollywood, there was a little cigar bar off Sunset that I used to go to, just a very small room with red leather chairs and an interesting group of guys. It was always a great occasion to relax and chat without anything particular in mind. Or I like to smoke at night, by myself with a book-or when I'm writing something, listening to a piece of music. It does relax me. It allows me to free-associate in my mind about my life and what's going on around me. It seems to be a way to sort out confusion-to step aside and take a time out with a cigar."
With a new movie due in theaters, a hit series renewed for another season and theater projects in various states of development, Noth has a sense of perspective he feels it's taken him this long to earn. His goal is to hang on to it, to apply the knowledge he's gained so far to get him to the finish line.
"One lesson I've learned as I've gotten older is that I can't go play basketball without stretching first," he says with a smile, bundling up for the winter weather. "I was taking a yoga class to stretch my aching back and the instructor said, ‘Your muscles contract.'
"Well, as you get older as an actor-and as a person-you contract emotionally and spiritually. You have to keep stretching out and not let yourself contract. And I think that's a metaphor for my life."
Contributing editor Marshall Fine's work can be found on his Web site, www.hollywoodandfine.com.