It's quite a shock to meet Michael Chiklis.
One expects a roly-poly guy in his late 30s. After all, that's what he plays on ABC's "The Commish." Chiklis stars in the detective series as Tony Scali, a warmhearted New York police commissioner with two kids who is losing his hair and could stand to shed a few pounds.
The fact of the matter is, the blue-eyed Massachussetts native is just 29. Chiklis has lost 40 pounds by working out at the gym and eliminating fat from his diet. After the first season of "The Commish," Chiklis says, he made up his mind to lose the excess poundage.
"It's just part of the work," he explains over a cup of coffee in his publicist's office. "I really want to move on and just play a lot of different things, even though 'The Commish' is hopefully going to go on for a while."
Chiklis, who came to fame five years ago as John Belushi in the ill-fated, controversial "Wired," admits he "wasn't making the day" overweight. "They had me gain weight to play 'The Commish,' " Chiklis says. "I'm in every scene. If you do that grueling schedule of 14 or 16 hours a day, every day for eight months, when you get into the 12th hour, you really start to lose focus."
He thought the lack of focus was affecting his performance. "I said to the guys after the first year, 'Look, you have established the character, now do you mind if over the second year, slowly and healthily, I lose the weight?' They didn't have a problem with it. So 'The Commish' is going to have a bit of a new look this year."
Chiklis has been eager to get back into shape since he put on some 40 pounds at age 24 to play the gluttonous Belushi. A star athlete in high school, Chiklis excelled at baseball and ice hockey. He also was captain of the football team. Colleges offered him athletic scholarships, but he turned them down to pursue drama at Boston University.
"For years I had to gain weight to play characters because that is where the work was for me," he says. "I gained about 40 pounds for 'Wired,' and no sooner did I lose it all, I had to put it back on for this. At this point, I am finally old enough, and I think my look is matured enough, that I can lose the weight and keep it off. Hopefully, the work will still be there."
Chiklis hopes that losing weight will keep him from being typecast. "I started this (series) at 27 and I am playing a 40-year-old commissioner from Brooklyn. I intend to go on. I guess the fear as an actor is that you will be typed into a situation, especially when you have your own series and you are the title role. But I'm confident I can break out of it."
He's eager and ready to work with the A-list film directors. "I think I have been able to assimilate what I know as a stage actor onto the screen and onto a working set," Chiklis says. "Finally, I'm comfortable on screen. Last year, the second year of my series, being there 12 and 14 hours a day, I really started to feel like I did on stage, which is at home and in control and in my own habitat. Now I feel like with the 'A' directors, I am putty in their hands."
Initially, Chiklis didn't want to do a TV series. "I'm a theater actor," he says. "I'm used to going from role to role."
He changed his mind when he read "The Commish." "The reason why I wanted do to this is because I thought it was a role I could live comfortably with for quite a few years. We are going into our third year and I am finding it challenging."
Though "The Commish" rarely makes the Top 30, it has carved out a niche for itself Saturdays at 10 p.m. Chiklis believes the show has clicked because Scali is a nice "little Italian" guy. "You have got to like him. He is there for right and good. I think the reason the show is working is right now in the light of the Rodney King incident, people are refreshed by the idea of police officers or a police commissioner who likes to think and talk rather than shoot and hit."
Police officers, he says, write to thank him for his portrayal. "Across the board, they love the fact the show is fused deeply with humor and understanding."
Chiklis hopes he can parlay the visibility he's gained from "The Commish" into solid projects. Because the series has given him so much visibility, he believes he can be choosy about future projects. That wasn't always the case. "I had to do some things in the last couple of years. ... I had to pay the rent," he says. "I was on my own, too. I didn't have my wife's discerning eye looking out for me. She is amazing that way. She is a wonderful actress, but I think she is going to make her mark as a producer." Chiklis and Michelle Epstein married last summer.
Chiklis beams as announces that he and his wife are becoming parents for the first time in mid-October. "So many things are coming together," Chiklis says warmly. "It's really been a roller-coaster ride since the onset of my film and television career. Now, finally, I feel like I'm sitting at ease at the old bench. I am happy in a real quiet, kind of solid way. I feel good. I feel like everything is in front of me."
"The Commish" airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.