Bad cop/bad cop: Michael Chiklis flexes his acting muscles to play conflicted officer on ‘The Shield’

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When “The Shield” debuted to record ratings for Fox’s FX cable channel in March, it was a sweet victory for 38-year-old actor Michael Chiklis, who stars as rogue detective Vic Mackey, leader of the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite Strike Team unit.
“I had hit a wall in my life when “Daddio” came to a close,” said Mr. Chiklis of the short-lived NBC comedy series. “I had done that show largely for my children, and when it ended I really needed to do something to get back to my acting roots, something smart and adult and impactful. I was really looking for something to turn me on as an artist.”
Mr. Chiklis had started to develop a feature film script about a rogue cop in Miami when the pilot for “The Shield” landed on his doorstep. “The similarities were shocking,” he recalled. “When I read it, I told my wife, `This is it’-only a thousand times better than I could have written it.”
His agents at the time were opposed to his going after a role on FX (“I didn’t even know what it was at the time,” he admits), especially after having starred in two network series, the other being the “The Commish,” which ran on ABC from 1991-96. Moreover, he wasn’t being offered the Mackey role outright. He had to audition for it.
The actor was realistic about having to read for the character. “Based on my body of work, I knew no one perceived me that way. But I knew I could do it. And it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
It was not the first time Mr. Chiklis has gone after a role that cast him in a different light. The character of Tony Scali on “The Commish” was based on an actual New York state police commissioner and called for a much older man than Mr. Chiklis, who was only 27 at the time. But he managed to bring heft and maturity in transforming himself into Commissioner Scali.
In preparing to play Vic Mackey, Mr. Chiklis changed his appearance, embarking on a bodybuilding regime and shaving his head. Getting into Vic Mackey’s complex mind-set, however, is his biggest challenge, one that requires constant fine-tuning from week to week. Working with the show’s creator, Shawn Ryan, Mr. Chiklis said, “Our BS meters are on at all times for things that don’t ring true.”
Taking a cue from HBO’s “The Sopranos,” Mr. Chiklis and Mr. Ryan delve into aspects of human behavior that are far from black and white. “Tony Soprano paved the way for this show and others like it. It’s an interesting phenomenon. For thousands of years, since Greek theater, we’ve had the same formula of good vanquishing evil, and there’s still a place for that. But audiences are sophisticated now. They want something more-to delve into the duality of man. To show that people possess both good and evil and that [the drama] becomes about choices.”
Mr. Chiklis tries to steer clear of making judgments about the character. “From a personal standpoint, I don’t know that I’d want to have Vic Mackey over for dinner,” he admits. “But we try to remain true to the way he functions. Anyone who grew up in a big city knew a cop and the things he sometimes had to do that you didn’t particularly want to know about. At the same time he lived in your neighborhood and did great things. It’s a tricky line, but always fascinating, always challenging.”
The raw style of “The Shield” contributes to that reality, and Mr. Chiklis credits director Clark Johnson’s docudrama approach for setting the show’s tone in the pilot and other early episodes.
While complimenting FX for its staunch support of the show, he also credits the cable channel with allowing the production to deliver only 13 episodes per season. “If you want to keep the bar at a certain level, you can’t take the writers to that extent. Thirteen episodes makes sense; 22 is ridiculous.”
He is also pleased that FX repeats the show two or three times a week, making it viewer friendly and allowing “The Shield” to achieve as large a cumulative audience (he estimates it at 7 million to 10 million) as a network drama.
“The Shield” pilot was shot last June, before the debut of the film “Training Day,” for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar for portraying another LAPD rogue cop with a questionable moral agenda. Since then, at least one more new show with a similar focus, “RHD/LA” starring Tom Sizemore, has been picked up-it’ll be on CBS this fall.
“It seems to be the year of the rogue cop,” said Mr. Chiklis. “It’s nice to have been there first.”