Between 1987 and 1992 I did a substantial amount of television work and appeared regularly on the TV-series “Wiseguy,” as the criminal master-mind Mel Profitt, who had an incestuous relationship with his sister. It was a rather shocking series of story-lines, but at the time the network wasn’t really paying attention, so we got away with murder!
The process of getting the part on “Wiseguy” was somewhat convoluted. I hadn’t acted much on television at that time, and considered myself a serious New York theater actor, so I was very reluctant to go to LA to start looking for work. I argued with my agents about this, but finally agreed to travel to LA, not to look for a job, but just to go to some meetings. It was my plan to spend a week there and then retreat back to Manhattan as soon as I could!
I flew to LA on a Thursday, traveling with my black Labrador, Slaight. I rented a car and swung by the William Morris Agency. While I collected a couple of scripts, my agent asked me what I was doing in an hour. It turned out that a role on “Wiseguy” had suddenly become available, because the actor scheduled to play the part of Mel Profitt had withdrawn. I headed over to casting director, Vicki Huff’s, office. I was tired from the flight, had my large Labrador with me and quickly read a scene or two, not caring much about how it went. This proved to be a winning combination (I guess not caring helps you relax and do your best work)! Huff asked if I could come back later that day to meet with the creatives and producers of the show. I was completely uninterested but turned up several hours later, and to my surprise found out that the meeting was in Stephen Cannell’s office on Hollywood Boulevard. The meeting was held in a room with 13 people – producers, writers, network executives and, of course, Stephen Cannell himself (one of the most prolific television writer/producers of all time). They all seemed very excited about my reading but I didn’t know what was going on until I got a phone call at 7 o’clock to say that they were offering me the part. As I had never watched the series, I knew nothing about it. I also hadn’t come out to LA to get a job, or to do a series, so I turned it down! Everyone thought I was crazy – including my agent and manager.
Cannell called me back personally because he wanted to speak to me about my concerns. He also wanted to show me some of the previous episodes, starring Ray Sharkey. I consented and ended up having a terrific meeting with Cannell and David Burke, the head writer. They took me to a screening room and showed me 40 minutes of the Sunny Stealgrave storyline which surprised and impressed me with its powerful acting and terrific writing. Unfortunately, however, I was still so tired from traveling that I actually fell asleep at some point sitting next to Cannell. He thought I hated it and, as I only learned later, was very surprised when I decided to accept the role!
Before I took the role, however, I called Jack Lemmon. I was nervous about working in television and wanted his advice. I asked Jack why the 1950s were referred to as the “golden age of television,” so Lemmon explained that TV back then was a brand new medium. No one knew what was going to work, and because of this shows weren’t driven by ratings, or by commercials, making it a great place to try out new things, and to take chances. He then said that it was a place where you could approach your work with “total abandon.” This was not a phrase that I would normally have associated with television, but it stuck with me. I decided I would accept the offer to appear on “Wiseguy” and approached the whole experience keeping this phrase in mind.
Two days later I flew to Vancouver and promptly rented SCARFACE and THE GODFATHER. This would be the only research I would do for my part before starting to shoot the first of seven episodes shortly after.
I owe a lot to my days on “Wiseguy.” The experience opened a lot of doors for me. Without question this was the first performance that people started recognizing me for. If it hadn’t been for this character, the directors or the excellent writing, I don’t believe I would have had the career that I have been lucky enough to enjoy.
In fact, the creators of THE USUAL SUSPECTS, Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie, were inspired by Mel Profitt when creating the character Verbal Kint. They wrote it specifically for me on the basis of the work that they saw me do on “Wiseguy.”