From The Commish to Coyote: The roles of Michael Chiklis
For many of his early years in Hollywood, Michael Chiklis says he was typecast as the "roly poly affable guy" in roles that helped to build his resume but kept him wanting more. Once he embodied the role of antihero Vic Mackey in FX's The Shield, a whole new world opened for the Emmy-winning actor. "I've had a pretty interesting and amazing time in this business," says Chiklis, who debuts this month in the CBS All Access drama Coyote. "I'm 57 but I feel like my best work is in front of me. I'm excited about it, and I'm grateful that I'm still here."
For a kid just out of college, playing the iconic role of John Belushi in the biographical movie adapted from Bob Woodward's bestseller was a dream come true. But the same forces who called the book exploitive ended up boycotting the movie — which became a commercial failure as a result. (Wired was never released on DVD or Blu-ray). "I was a theater rat from Boston. I was living in New York," says Chiklis. "I didn't know the Hollywood set. I didn't know anyone had that kind of power. As certainly never meant any offense to his family or anything. As far as I was concerned, it was an homage."
B.L. Stryker (1989)
Chiklis credits Burt Reynolds — who played a sexy detectives in the ABC telefilms — for casting him as a baddo in the midst of the negative publicity surrounding Wired. "When Burt hired me, he said he grew up during the McCarthy era and a lot of his friends were blacklisted for no reason. He said he got an early directors cut of [Wired] and he thought I was terrific so he'd like to offer me the role of the villain. It was just an incredible moment. The doors opened for me again."
Chiklis was brought on to play another villain named Carlo Spoletta in the CBS crime drama. "I played, you know, a wise guy!" Chiklis says, laughing. "I was one of the henchmen under Chazz Palminteri's character. It was a four or five show arc up in Vancouver. I was living in Brooklyn at the time so when I came back, I got some local hero street cred."
The Commish (1991-1996)
While doing the arc on Wiseguy, Chiklis was approached by one of the writers about doing a true story about a young police commissioner in a small upstate New York town. The family-friendly show from Stephen Kronish was first developed for CBS — where the then-entertainment topper thought Chiklis was too young to play Tony Scali — before it was picked up by ABC a year or so later. "One door closes and another one opens. It's just the twists and turns of this business. I always cite the lyrics of the great [Frank] Sinatra classic 'That's Life.' It's the theme song of my life and actors' lives in general."
The Three Stooges (2000)
Chiklis, who by then was knee-deep in his "roly poly affable guy" phase, was cast as Curly in this ABC movie directed by James Frawley. "I had an incredible experience making that movie in Australia with those friends of mine, Paul Ben-Victor and Evan Handler," recalls Chiklis. "I was a huge Stooges fan as a child. From where I'm from in Massachusetts, you knew it was a good day after school if Curly was on Three Stooges that day. Boys, we loved the Stooges. It was silliness."
Chiklis tried his luck in situational comedy by playing a former restaurant supply salesman who decides to become a stay-at-home dad. The show didn't make it past 18 episodes. "We got killed because they moved us. It was a tough one," says Chiklis. "That's when I hit the wall. I needed to do something other than what I had been doing. My wife said this brilliant line I'll never forget: 'It's not incumbent upon the studios to reinvent you. It's incumbent upon you to reinvent yourself. You gotta do the work and not take another role.' And I said, 'well it can be a tough road between now and then.' And she said, 'I don't care, we'll sell the house and do whatever we need to do until you get the kind of work you want to get.'
The Shield (2002-2008)
After undergoing a physical transformation by spending three hours a day at the gym, Chiklis and his wife Michelle started writing a movie about a successful Florida detective who had "more lawsuits for police brutality against him than anybody else in Dade County." As if on cue, that's when he heard from creator Shawn Ryan about playing the antihero detective Vic Mackey for the FX drama. "I don't care if you call it Kismet. We put this thing out in the world and then all of it sudden it appears in a form that was so much better than what I could have ever written. It was clearly the most life-altering career situation for me, in terms of everything coming together." Chiklis won an Emmy after his first season on the drama.
Fantastic Four franchise (2005/2007)
Chiklis got to moonlight as The Thing/Ben Grimm while working on The Shield. He loved the experience but, oh boy, did that costume test his mettle. "It's like being in your own personal torture chamber," he recalls. "I consider it one of the triumphs of my career, because I had to spend so much time marshaling my own panic, my own fear. And then to have all that latex rubber all over me and not have any control, and to be able to relinquish control and to make a comedic foil work emotionally? I'm very proud of the fact you can see and feel the emotions that The Thing was feeling through 60 pounds of latex rubber."
No Ordinary Family (2010-11)
ABC tried its hand in the superhero genre with this Greg Berlanti confection about a family with special powers. Chiklis, as Jim Powell Sr., had super strength (natch). The show didn't make it past one season. "I was raising kids, I had two daughters. I wanted to do something they could watch. I liked to move back and forth between adult and family fare," he recalls."But again, things have to align, the politics of studios and relationships between people in the studio. All those things are parts of what drive the success or failure of a series. It's not just what is put on the screen. There's a lot that goes into the making of a TV series. All I can say is, I loved working with Greg and that team of people."
Chiklis was recruited to play Nathaniel Barnes, a former captain of the Gotham Police Department who, ahem, takes a particularly dark turn. "It was a way of telling a parable of someone who believes so strictly in law and order that he can become a villain ... a judge, jury and executioner. It was a nod to due process and how the self righteous can become villains because they fancy themselves better than others. It was fun to be on something that I wasn't No. 1 on. I didn't have any pressure on me. It was a fun gig in a great place with great people."
In this CBS All Access series, Chiklis plays a border patrol agent who ends up working for the very people he spent a career trying to keep out of the U.S. "People who enjoyed The Shield will definitely enjoy this," he promises. "He is absolutely not Vic Mackey. He's a very different character for sure. But I don't really call him a hero, either. This is a guy who is essentially trying to rewrite his own epitaph. He's made some horrible decisions and mistakes in his life and he knows it." The drama, originally developed for Paramount, was in the midst of shooting its seventh episode in Mexico when the pandemic forced production to shut down. "We weren't able to go back so it was decided this is what we have to go with for the first season, which I'm extremely proud of," says Chiklis. "Hopefully people will feel the same way about it and we'll be able to do some more."