Michael Cudlitz had a nice long run on The Walking Dead. Not as long as he or fans would have liked, to be sure, but long nonetheless. Especially when you consider the amazing fact that in between 1993’s Beverly Hills, 90210 and 2006’s Standoff, Cudlitz guest-starred on no less than 42 different shows. 42!!!! Not only that, but his highest episode count during that stretch was a mere three for the Kiefer Sutherland Fox drama 24. (Which, coincidentally, is now being rebooted with former Walking Dead castmate Corey Hawkins.)
With that in mind, we asked Cudlitz what it was like coming onto to an established show to do a single episode or two. “The first day of school,” he says. “The first day of school, every first day of work.” Cudlitz says he took both the good and bad experiences as valuable lessons that he applied later on shows including Southland and The Walking Dead. “What it did was, it helped shape the actor I wanted to become when I had my own show because I saw really wonderful examples of how people were treated, and I saw really terrible examples of people who were the number one or the number two treating people very poorly, and I always said, ‘I don’t want to be that guy.’
“I want to be in the makeup room when the rest of the guest cast comes in. I’m going to say hi to everyone. I’m going to go out of my way to do that because it wasn’t done for me a lot of the time, and I remember thinking, this doesn’t help you. This is your show. You’re not making me feel welcome. Whose work suffers because of that? Yours! I’m leaving in eight days anyway and it’s your show. You’re staying. Why would you not welcome somebody to your place of work who’s going to come make your job easier and better, the more comfortable they feel?
“So I sort of decided who I wanted to be as an actor, and from a very sort of nuts and bolts working standpoint, doing all those guest spots helped shape who I am now as a performer on set. Not necessarily the acting itself, but how I interact with everyone on set, the producers, the guests, and the crew. I think it’s extremely, extremely important, and The Walking Dead is a great example of a group that has it right. You know, it’s a really, really cool group to be with and it makes all the other stuff easy to do.”
We then asked Cudlitz about his favorite and least favorite one-off performance. As for his number one pick: “That would be a toss-up,” he says. “Both Steven Bochco shows. Once I did an episode of NYPD Blue with Jimmy Smits.”
Wait, Cudlitz was on NYPD Blue? Did he have to show his butt? “I didn’t show my butt on that particular episode,” he says, “but David Milch wrote it and it was a wildly creative car wreck. It was awesome. And then another show I did was called Over There and was a short-lived show that Bochco did about the war over in the desert, and I did a really nice guest spot on that. They brought me in and I kind of took over the episode for a week, just had a great time.”
But Cudlitz did not always have a great time guest-starring. He also revealed his most disastrous acting gig ever, and the story is amazing. It was a little one-time appearance on ABC’s short-lived 2002 mystery drama Push, Nevada. And he says he has only himself to blame.
“I got put on avail,” Cudlitz begins the story, “which means you’ve gone in, and you’ve auditioned. They’ve checked your availability and they might be hiring you. So I went to audition for this thing, it was a cold opening in the show. It was three and a half pages, single-spaced, monologue with us starting in a quarry. I got picked up by a helicopter, came out of a helicopter, got dropped in a parking lot, went through a casino, and this whole thing, popping through these doors — everything was fast, fast, fast. So I do this audition, it goes really well. They put me on avail on like a Wednesday or a Thursday. I don’t hear anything from them. Sunday night I get a call. ‘Your call time’s 5 a.m. and we need your sizes for wardrobe.’ I was like, for what? They tell me, ‘Push, Nevada.’ I was like, What are you talking about? ‘You booked the job.’ Oh, great, awesome, but tomorrow? What are we shooting tomorrow? We’re shooting that scene.’”
But wait, it gets worse.
“Basically, we show up on set and we are ready to go. Literally we have helicopters on set. We’re in this quarry. We’re losing light because the walls of the quarry are so high. We only have a small window of time we can shoot, and I can’t remember a damn thing that I have to say. And this is all on me. It’s no one else’s fault. This is all on me, and it was a train wreck and it was terrifying.”
So terrifying that Cudlitz says, “I wrote a letter. I have a file that I call Letters That Will Never Be Sent, and I write up like how I feel about something, and I wrote an apology to the writer of the episode. But I wound up never sending it because for as terrible as I felt about what had happened, I wasn’t treated really well. But because of it, it changed how I work forever, so far as studying and getting things down, but it was a terrible experience.”
Commence your search for the lost Michael Cudlitz Push, Nevada footage now! Oh, wait, you don’t have to… because it’s right here! See Cudlitz busting out some truly awesome expository dialogue as Special Agent Derek Smith. And then imagine him desperately concentrating to remember his lines. His dramatic entrance happens at the 3:50 mark. Enjoy!