The Emmy-winning actor talks about his return to the small screen, in the crime drama series, Vegas.
Actor Michael ChiklisOriginally aired on October 19, 2012
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Michael Chiklis back to this program. The Emmy-winning star of “The Shield” and “The Commish” is back now in prime time this fall with TV’s most watched new show, “Vegas.” The series is set in the heyday of the Rat Pack in Las Vegas. It also stars Dennis Quaid. The show airs Tuesday nights at 10 on CBS. Here now a scene from “Vegas.”
Tavis: Well, I’m gonna jump ahead and come back in a second, so we’ll explain what this series is all about in just a second.
Michael Chiklis: Sure.
Tavis: But I was whispering to you while the clip was playing that you always seem to play these guys who are teetering on the line. You’re always walking this tightrope. If you’re a cop, you’re being tempted to cross the line and when you’re trying to be a good guy, there’s a Bible verse that says, “When I would do good, evil is present.”
Chiklis: Right [laugh].
Tavis: So when you try to do good, they want to pull you back in. So what is it that you love about playing these guys who are just walking this tightrope, this line?
Chiklis: Honestly, part of it, I think, is the way I look [laugh]. But, honestly, I gravitate to characters like that because they’re really interesting.
Tavis: And complex.
Chiklis: Yeah, exactly. I’ve played characters that were white-hatted, you know, and that can be great. I mean, when I did “The Commish,” he was a good guy, period. Given a choice between good and evil, he would pick good every time.
That was fun and that was lovely and it was great for my mom to watch, but in terms of just interesting and something to really delve into as an actor, I think that what we do as actors is we’re sort of behavioralists. We look at people and try to walk a mile in their shoes. It’s an interesting exercise to try to, you know, put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their perspective.
Vic Mackey, for example, from “The Shield,” I couldn’t have a more different perspective on life than this man, but it was fascinating for me to look at life through that prism and, if Vic Mackey was a man who started as an idealist and spiraled into corruption, this is a man, Vincent Savino, who started in corruption and is trying to rise from that muck and mire of corruption into legitimacy.
I think a lot of the gangsters of that era came where they were either immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants who had this American dream of becoming part of the establishment and they were willing to do things that were dark in order to set the – I was actually gonna say set the pick [laugh] for their children.
Tavis: Hanging out with the Celtics way too long.
Chiklis: Yeah, that’s right [laugh].
Tavis: You’re too big a boss to the fans.
Chiklis: Yeah, but they wanted to become sort of – and here it is, you know, two generations later and their sons and daughters are legitimately running Vegas, you know, in a corporate manner and the mob is gone.
Tavis: I want to ask in a moment, since you talked about what actors get a chance to do is to walk a mile in the shoes of others and interpret that for the rest of us on the screen. I want to come back to ask in a moment what you are learning about walking in the shoes of a wiseguy.
Before I ask that, though, since we’re already on this path, I think the precedent to that has to be explaining what the series is, and you started to do some of that. So Dennis Quaid plays this sheriff, it’s set in the ’60s. Yeah, take it away.
Chiklis: Well, he plays Ralph Lamb and we had the honor of meeting Ralph Lamb who’s really an incredible maverick of a guy. I know that word has been destroyed to a great degree [laugh], but he is a real maverick. 86 years old, I wouldn’t mess with him today. You know, he’s a real tough guy. He was a military police officer turned rancher, you know, and his family had lived in that area since the Indian Wars.
They came to him and asked him if he could help them to solve a crime and he turned out to end up taking the job as sheriff in Vegas when there was 15,000 living there. All of a sudden, from the time that he became sheriff over the next 20 years through his reign, if you will, three million-plus people moved into that little area and millions and millions and millions of dollars.
When you have that kind of influx of population and money [laugh], some stuff’s gonna happen. People are elbowing for position and vying for, you know, for power in this burgeoning place called Vegas and it exploded. And guys like my character came from – you know, Nick Pileggi said something interesting. He called it the U.N. of the mob because families from all over the country, Detroit, New York.
So what they did was they stuck their flag in the sand in the form of a hotel and casino and then they had to interact in a way that they had never had to interact before ’cause they had cities separating them, and they had to interact with the local law enforcement and the local government. And the local government was going, “What is going on here?” You know, Vegas was part of – you know, Nevada and Utah were Mormon and the center of power used to be up in Salt Lake City which it is still to a degree.
You know, it was sort of frowned upon. There was gambling and prostitution and stuff down there and it was frowned upon, but then with all this money, I think the folks up there went, hey, we should get our hands around this and get control over this situation. Then it made for strange bedfellows and really odd marriages of really different cultures in a way that we’d never seen before.
Tavis: Yeah. So what are you learning so far? It’s still early in the process, but what are you learning about walking in the shoes of a wiseguy trying to go good?
Chiklis: Well, it’s really an interesting perspective. All right, try to divorce yourself from me for a moment.
Chiklis: This is kind of part of my process is, you know, reading, talking to individuals, taking in information from whatever quarter I can find it. So the attitude is, not speaking for myself now, what separates me from law enforcement? Nothing. They just said they’re people with the badges, but they do things that are as corrupt and more corrupt than me. They’re fighting for theirs.
I’m here so that I can get what I need for my family, you know, not just my nuclear family, but my family. That means being the best in business, that means being, you know – these guys, like when I spoke to Joey, one of the guys who’s a consultant for us, he was telling me that 70% of what he would do was – you know, we were trying to get J-Lo tickets when we were in Vegas when we had this dinner.
He said, “You know what I’d be doing tonight if I was still working? I’d be running around trying to get you the best tickets I could get you” because they’re entrepreneurs, the guys that came in here. It was all about earning and making their place the best place for everybody to come. So ironically, a lot of what they did was about goods and services, business. The things that got in the way were any impediment to their business and that could come in a lot of different forms.
He said, “Michael, look, you can’t just go around killing people willy-nilly. Part of it is mythology. It’s the mythology we create because, you know, if your name is attached to a mythology, then you’re more likely to get the front table.” You know what I mean? It’s really kind of fascinating to look at all the ways that they were able to manipulate things in their favor without actually have to do anything.
Tavis: Did you find the J-Lo tickets?
Chiklis: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Okay, good, all right [laugh] I figured Joey might have come through [laugh]. The “consultant” came through with the tickets.
I’m not naive in asking this question, but I’m curious as to your take on this, Michael. What is it about – there are really two things. There are really two questions, but you should not ask two questions at once, but I will anyway.
Chiklis: Go ahead.
Tavis: I know you remember both of them. One is what is it about Las Vegas that makes it an endless wellspring for story lines? I mean, for as long as there has been a Vegas, there have been movies and TV shows made about Vegas. It’s like even though we’ve seen this stuff over and over and over again, it never dries up. Vegas is such a…
Chiklis: It’s a great question.
Chiklis: And the second one?
Tavis: The second question is, the ’60s nowadays seem to be the same thing. Whether it’s “Mad Men,” there are a bunch of them now. But the ’60s, again, now with some distance between now and then, seems to start to be that era that’s kicking out a bunch of new product, new content.
Chiklis: Well, let’s take the second one first. Part of it is, it’s not so far in the past that it seems like just some ancient time. You know, it’s one lifetime away and our parents grew up in it. For myself, I was a small child during the period, so you have these vague memories of grandparents dressed in this way and all of it.
But it was also a time where things were still – there was still a level of personal freedom that is somewhat lost now, so that there’s a bit of romanticizing about that, I think. We talk about it as parents all the time, how we would get on our bicycles in the morning and we wouldn’t come home until nightfall.
You know, there was this sort of personal freedom and now we worry about the fact that we cloister our children in a way that is unprecedented. We know they’re in this bubble wrap, you know, and that’s a whole different issue. But I think that feeds into it.
Something about the allure of that time was a sexy period and just the fashion. People wore suits to work, the women dressed to the nines, which must have been a pain, frankly. My wife looks at the girls. She’s like, oh, my God, can you imagine two hours, three hours a day just to walk out the door? So there’s that.
The other question, Vegas, well, it’s the adult Disneyland, I guess, right? Ironically and interestingly, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’m not a Vegas guy. I’ve been there five times. Maybe it’s because I’m a New England boy and the idea of parting with my money so quickly really disturbs me [laugh]. You know, I’m like a $5 tables guy, whatever it is. But I’ve seen people come up.
I saw a guy once lose somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000 in four minutes on a crap table. My knees buckled because I’m real world and I think to myself, you know, from the neighborhood I grew up in, what that would translate into in terms of what you – oh, that’s a college education! Oh, and it’s gone! He didn’t even blink! Look at the guy. Wow, he’s cooler than me.
But it’s somewhere where legitimacy meets the darker side and the sinful side. You know, it’s a place where you can literally – well, I can’t let my hair down, but other people can [laugh]. Well, think about it. The slogan for the city is “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
Tavis: Stays in Vegas, yeah.
Chiklis: So there’s an allure to that.
Tavis: Speaking of cloistering children, you have a daughter who you just threw a hissy fit about because there was a chance that she might go away to school as opposed to going to be a Trojan at USC and daddy just lost his mind.
Chiklis: Well, yeah. We’re close. My family’s tight and Autumn, my oldest, just became a freshman at USC. When she got into NYU, we were like, “It’s a great school, honey. Are you gonna go?” [Laugh] You know, as it is, she’s moved out of my house, so it’s a quieter house.
Autumn’s a big presence and it led to my wife turning to me and saying, “Look, I got to do something creative. If my girl’s gonna be out of the house, I got to do something.” So she started a blog called “Carpool, Couture and Cocktails.”
Tavis: Oooh [laugh].
Chiklis: You know, the carpool being the mommy side of it, the couture is her fashion sense and lifestyle, and the cocktail is, you know, the adult side. So she’s having a blast with that and it’s incredible how popular it’s become, how quickly it’s blown up.
Tavis: So that’s how mommy is dealing with it. How’s daddy dealing with it?
Chiklis: I’m going to a lot of USC football games and showing up in her dorm room [laugh].
Tavis: What happens when you show up at the dorm? I mean, do you hear a bunch of footsteps? People start running [laugh]?
Chiklis: It’s one of the biggest upsides to having played Vic Mackey and now a guy like Savino.
Tavis: Here comes that tough guy.
Chiklis: Boys are terrified of me [laugh].
Tavis: And you like it, don’t you? Look at this. You like this [laugh].
Chiklis: It has an upside when you have daughters [laugh]. She’s a little annoyed by it. Nah, we want to spend time together and see each other.
Tavis: Speaking of navigating, how have you dealt with being the only male in that house? I have a friend of mine who has like three or four daughters and I tease him. I call him the ladies’ man ’cause he tried four times and he could not produce a boy [laugh]. So how do you do this every day?
Chiklis: I always joke that I was raised in a testosterone house ’cause it was me and my brother and all-male cousins and my dad and everything. My poor mother. Now I live in estrogen house. It’s me and my wife and my two daughters and even two female dogs. So sensitivity has been beaten into me. I love it actually. You know, in a way, I’ve learned a lot through raising daughters.
Women are highly complex. Again, I joke with them. I go, “You have all these feelings! There’s just feelings everywhere!” You know, men are very simple and I’m a simple guy. I don’t need much. You know, give me a football game on Sunday or a baseball game during the week and I’m good, you know, and a beer and everything’s fine.
But the girls, you get into these highly philosophical, complex discussions and it’s really stimulating to raise girls in particular. To steal a quote from a famous movie, “They’ve made me a better man.”
Tavis: How have you navigated, though, raising two girls in this society and then sending them out into the world? This is a very different world.
Chiklis: Talking, talking, and listening.
Chiklis: I highly recommend listening. We have one rule in the Chiklis house and I’ve always told my kids…
Tavis: But it’s really not chickless house. Bud-ump-ump, okay [laugh].
Chiklis: If you tell me the truth, you’ll never get in trouble. It’s the only rule in my house since they were tiny.
Tavis: Whatever the truth is?
Chiklis: Yes. Tell me the truth and we’ll make it better. My job in life is to make it better.
Tavis: Mom? Mom? Did you hear that? Dad, did you hear that? Way too late now. That didn’t quite work out. You told the truth and you still got a beat-down, but I digress. Go ahead, yeah.
Chiklis: It’s worked out really well. As a consequence, my children come to me with everything and we just talk and I listen to them. Knowing their mind is a big deal. I think a lot of – you can’t help it as a parent to have the instinct to want to like offload every lesson you’ve ever learned, impart everything to your children so you end up pontificating a lot, just talking at them, and they just shut their heads off.
I’m not saying I’m a perfect parent by any stretch of the imagination, but I think the one thing my wife and I got right was being engaged, attentive, listening as well as talking, and being philosophical with the kids from a very young age and being truthful with them.
Tavis: The testosterone and the estrogen distinction notwithstanding, has there been trepidation about growing up in that community, that neighborhood that you grew up in back in New England, versus trying to raise kids in this environment and particularly in your environment of Hollywood with a father who’s a star?
Chiklis: Well, sure, and it poses challenges, especially like my Autumn is the apple, the proverbial apple. She’s studying theater and she wants to be an actress. Education is very important and that’s why I insisted that she not go right into the pool right away, that she get an education.
Of course, there is a lot of temptations and everything, but I think it’s the same anywhere. You want to arm your children with everything that you can, impart every lesson that you can to them, talk to them and then have a level of trust in them that they’ve learned their lessons well, they’re gonna make mistakes and you let go and let them do their thing.
I think that’s the truth anywhere you are in the country. Hollywood might have some different challenges and there might be a certain level of difference, but I think it’s the same anywhere. I think that kids can get into trouble anywhere.
Tavis: So you told Autumn when she said to you that she wanted to be an actress that she had to get an education, so she’s doing that now at SC. That’s what you told her. Deep, deep, deep on the inside, just between the two of us…
Chiklis: [Laugh] – and everybody watching.
Tavis: How did you process your daughter telling you that she wanted to go into the business that you are in, knowing all that you know about this business?
Chiklis: When I was 35, my dad and I were having a talk and I turned to my father, who’s a really like a grounded, earthen, Greek American guy from the Boston area, and I said, “Dad, how’s it possible that you not only sent me to college, but sent me to college to become an actor? How did that happen?”
He fixed me with that look that he gives me and he said, “Michael, do you think if I didn’t know it was who you were I would have allowed it?” That’s quite a profundity from a working class guy, you know. It made me cry, actually, ’cause a lot of other friends of mine who were actors didn’t have that kind of support from their family. They pushed them out of it or said, “Oh, you got to get a real job. It’s not a real profession.”
But my father recognized somehow that this is who I was and I think the same is true. As nervous and worried as I am for her, I’ve seen her. I’ve seen her work. I’ve seen her flourish in it and it’s just who she is. So I can’t stand in front of that. I have to support her.
Tavis: Yeah. So how you feel about this new project, “Vegas?” You got a few good years out of “The Shield,” you got a few good years out of “The Commish.” A few is an understatement, of course, seven years, yeah. You’ve had two lifetimes just on those two series in this business, which is rare.
Chiklis: Honestly, I think it could be one of the best things I’ve ever done, if not the best thing. And the reason I say that, and I don’t take that lightly, especially having done “The Shield,” because of the people involved. This is an outstanding group of people from the executive producer down to the best boy.
I have to give praise particularly to a couple of our producers, Arthur Sarkissian and Cathy Konrad, for being so exacting and precise about the way they produce and the people they’ve put in place.
This is the first time I’ve ever walked on the set of a show and found that every department knew what they were doing. They must have put like 3,000 years worth of collective experience on this set. Usually when you first start a television series, this guy’s a little lame and someone’s got to – you know what I mean? There’s people who…
Tavis: Yeah, I know.
Chiklis: There’s the weak…
Tavis: No, just teasing, just teasing [laugh].
Chiklis: There’s always some weak links, you know, that you have to work through the kinks. But this was the smoothest running set I’ve ever seen from the get and there’s this sort of collective excitement that we’re doing something special.
I’d say the least sort of inspired part of the show is the title, frankly, but it’s appropriate. I mean, it’s Vegas, baby, so we went with “Vegas.”
Tavis: We had one of these before. Robert Ulrich was in this one.
Chiklis: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: That worked for a while.
Chiklis: It sure did.
Tavis: I used to love that show.
Chiklis: Yeah, but this is a different one.
Tavis: It is, and I love your work and I’m glad you’re back on.
Chiklis: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: The show is called “Vegas,” as you just heard, starring Michael Chiklis on CBS. Good to have you on and I’m sure you’ll be back here again as you roll out another seven-year hit. Good to see you, man.
Chiklis: It’s great to see you.
Tavis: Take care. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. As always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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