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Out of Character : The Politics of Al Waxman Go Beyond Acting

March 22, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For six seasons, Al Waxman played Lt. Bert Samuels, the gruff but understanding boss of New York detectives Chris Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey on CBS' Emmy-winning "Cagney & Lacey."

But Waxman isn't the typical character actor who hit it big on a series after toiling for years in the business. There's more to the Toronto-based actor than meets the eye. A lot more. In fact, Waxman, 57, wears more hats than the Mad Hatter.

In Tuesday's CBS thriller, "Quiet Death," Waxman wears his familiar actor's hat. He plays the mayor of New York who, in the midst of a political convention and a garbage strike, discovers there's a deadly outbreak of pneumonic plague spreading throughout the Big Apple.

"It's a modern day allegory," he said. "I don't know any major city in North America that isn't plagued with problems--AIDS, gangs, morale, unemployment. In many respects, every North American city will relate to this story and the problems in it."

Waxman's mayor is caught in a dilemma. "On one hand he has to protect his citizens and on the other hand, he doesn't want to lose business that's coming into the city," he said. "I tried to play him as a person with a realistic problem. I think when you are standing in (politicians') shoes and behind their desks, you can appreciate what they might do from an objective point of view, a stupid or not-so wise thing."

In real life, Waxman is something of a political animal himself.

More than a year ago, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered Waxman the post of Canadian Counsel General of Los Angeles. It was an offer Waxman decided to refuse.

"It's hard to say 'no' to your prime minister or your president," said Waxman, who was jet-lagged and bleary-eyed during the interview, having just flown in from Toronto. "It is deeply flattering. It would have been the third-highest diplomatic post in the United States. (Los Angeles) is a city that has over a million Canadians in it. Canada is also a place where a lot of people want to come to. It would have been an important job."

Waxman said he wasn't ready for the job. "Maybe in 10 years," he said. "I don't mean to disparage counsel generals around the world but there was something about it that made me feel like going out to pasture. I was too young for that."

He also has been asked to throw his hat into the Canadian political ring three different times. "I was asked to run for mayor in Toronto once," Waxman said matter-of-factly. "I was asked to run for the provincial parliament and I was asked to run for federal government, which would be like your Senate. I have always been deeply interested in politics. It fascinates me. But it's somehow most interesting from the sidelines."

Waxman, who also wears another hat as chairman of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, didn't want to give up his career. "I thought I was serving my country more by doing the kind of work that I do," he said. "I love acting and I love directing and I love directing more and more."

Directing isn't just a hobby for Waxman. He become enthralled with directing some 30 years ago while in London filming Carl Foreman's rugged World War II drama, "The Victors."

In 1975, though, he began acting full time, starring in the Canadian sitcom "King of Kensington."

After five seasons in one of Canada's first successful sitcoms, he was itching to get behind the camera again and left the series. A year later, his friend and director, Ted Post, and producer Barney Rosenzweig approached him about playing Samuels on "Cagney & Lacey."

"I remember Teddy Post saying you can get the same going for you in the U.S. as you have in Canada if you do this."

Waxman began directing episodes of "Cagney & Lacey" during the series' third season. "We had trouble the first couple of years ... we were canceled," Waxman said. "We didn't finally have secure waters to sail in until about the third year. Every year thereafter I did a few episodes a year."

Though he has been acting since "Cagney" left the airwaves in 1988, Waxman has been concentrating on directing episodic television in the U.S. and Canada.

He received an Emmy nomination for the 1989 CBS Afterschool Special, "Maggie's Secret," which focused on alcohol abuse within a family.

Waxman was taking the redeye back to Toronto the next evening to edit his latest directorial effort, the USA caper flick "Diamond Fleece," starring Kate Nelligan, Brian Dennehy and Ben Cross." In a few weeks, he was jetting off to Israel to direct an episode of the CBS late-night series "Sweating Bullets."

"Acting is such a joy for me," Waxman reflected. "I think I find more satisfaction in directing. One of the joys of directing is you can bring a point of view (to the project)."

"Quiet Death" airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. CBS. Repeats of "Cagney & Lacey" airs weeknights at 6 p.m on KTTY in San Diego.

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