People were expecting to see Mr. Blonde, the brutal sadist who sliced off a man's ear in the film "Reservoir Dogs." So it was a bit of a shock when Mr. White Hair, the kindly older gent from the upcoming father-daughter movie "All In," came up to the microphone.
Michael Madsen, the beefy actor behind both characters, was duly apologetic. "I'd like to apologize for my hair," he said in a rasp thickened by years of smoking, carousing and making a reputation as one of Hollywood's baddest boys. "I'm shooting a picture where I play a father who goes from 35 to 65. This is the halfway point."
The surprise might have been a metaphor for Madsen himself, who's defying expectations with the publication of "The Complete Poetic Works of Michael Madsen: Volume I, 1995-2005." The 46-year-old father of five has been writing poetry since childhood but he has never advertised it. Until now. On Sunday evening, 150 of his friends and family members celebrated the book's release over dinner at the Loggia at the Highlands in Hollywood.
"I think he's going through a different phase in his life," said his Oscar-nominated sister, Virginia Madsen, who flew in for the event. "Michael has lived so much life and he's raising all these boys. His career's in line, he's much more fulfilled as a man than he's ever been. He knows who he is and he doesn't care if somebody else thinks he's this or that. I just think he's a lot more confident and maybe he's not so shy about revealing his sensitive, poetic side."
For years, Madsen had been scribbling poems on napkins and paper bags, heavily autobiographical glimpses into his testosterone-charged life. He wrote about losing his virginity and anonymous sex, about brawls and dreams, his movies and his sons, beatings given and received, jail time and family life.
In a poem Dennis Hopper wrote as the foreword to Madsen's third book, "Burning in Paradise" (1998), his friend said, "I like him better than Kerouac:/Raunchier, more poignant."
At the book party, Madsen's publisher, Michael P. Naughton, said Madsen was "a throwback to the Beats. I call him an anachronistic Beat. He's somebody who's out of step right now and while there's rap and all this other stuff going out, Michael has his own voice."
Left to his own devices, no one might have heard it. In 1994, Madsen considered using a box of his poetry as kindling for a fire in Santa Fe, but his wife, De Anna, saved him from himself. Six published books of poetry followed, but apart from a few book signings they were never publicized.
The new, 464-page compilation of poems and photographs, which has an initial print run of 3,000, is the first release for 13 Hands Publications since it launched six months ago in Beverly Hills. The small literary press will publish "Signs of Life," Madsen's first book of photography, later this year.
Madsen, who lives in Malibu, says he was inspired to explore his different sides by a biography of James Cagney he read as a boy. "He said that if you're playing an actor who's nefarious, you should find something noble in the character. And if you play someone who's honest, you should find a dark streak in that character because everyone has one. So, I guess, nobody is really all one thing. We have different shades on different days."
Madsen, who greeted guests in a gray suit, open-necked black shirt and cowboy boots, was still a shade shy at the book party organized by Randy Olsen of Celebrity Events and the actor's mother, Elaine Madsen, a writer and producer. Olsen created a Zen ambience by posting poems on the wall and decking out the venue with wooden sculptures of Buddhas and elephant gods from Tibet and Bali.
Actors Harry Dean Stanton and Peter Coyote, as well as director Mark Rydell and producer Jay Weston, mingled with guests before a leisurely dinner of lobster ravioli, duckling and baked Alaska. Earlier in the day, Food Network regular Giada De Laurentiis, granddaughter of producer Dino, toured the kitchen with Madsen for a fall Food Network show, "Behind the Bash." Afterward, "he took a bottle of wine and walked out, but we couldn't find the glasses," Di Laurentiis said.
The invitation, which promised "a night of poetry," had made Madsen nervous. He was afraid it would scare people off, but facing a full house didn't entirely squelch his fears. "If I read some stuff and you don't like it, just throw a chair at me," he told the crowd before reading half a dozen poems.
Moments before, David Carradine, Madsen's film brother in the "Kill Bill" movies, had arrived. But it was Virginia Madsen's arrival that was supposed to be the piece de resistance of the evening because her brother wasn't expecting her.