Sunset, sunrise after Starsky
He was propelled to fame as the streetwise cop in the hit Seventies series, but tragedy struck when his wife and daughter died from Aids. Paul Michael Glaser opens up to Sarah Caden about his battle with grief and how he has finally made peace with his most famous role
Published 13/01/2014 | 02:30
As things happened, Paul Michael Glaser brought it up first. It was only a few minutes into the conversation and then he said the magic word. Starsky. For anyone over 40, that's who Glaser will always be, but you can never be sure how people feel about the roles by which other people define them. Some take the hump at mere mention of a TV or film character that brought them fame, some will talk about anything but that which seems most important to everyone else, and then some, like Glaser, have made their peace with it. For years, he admits that Starsky was a millstone around his neck, but the swiftness with which he raises the spectre of Starsky today suggests that now, at the age of 70 -- I know, it would put years on you -- Glaser is over being irritated.
Today, sitting in the quiet lounge of the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin, there's not much of a look of Starsky about Glaser. In fact, with the bushy beard and thick, wavy salt-and-pepper hair he has grown into something of a mane for the lead role of Tevye in the stage production of Fiddler on the Roof , he has a very strong look of Saul from Homeland.
He is mellow, and given to long, meandering philosophical musings on life that speak of a man at peace with himself. It is a peace that is hard-earned, and, he admits, a long time coming. It's both a professional and a personal peace, and, funnily enough, has a lot to do with how a person comes to terms with those things that define them. For if the role of Starsky defines Glaser as an actor, the deaths of his daughter and wife from Aids in the 1980s defined him personally. He can live with both definitions now, however.
"Tevye is one of these roles that fits like a glove. He can be funny, silly, dumb, angry, clever, wise. He's an everyman. He's an everyman that people have been able to relate to for 50 years now. And I think," says Glaser, "that the last time I played a role that allowed me so many colours, so many levels, was Starsky."
Curiously, back in the early Seventies, Fiddler on the Roof and Starsky entered Boston-born Glaser's life at the same time. He was, at that point, a fledgling actor living in New York, when director Norman Jewison cast him as the student radical, Perchik, in the 1971 film of Fiddler on the Roof. At the same time, 20th Century Fox asked him to fly out to California to screen test for a TV pilot episode.
"I was in New York, drinking my unemployment cheque with other unemployed actors and we'd sit around and say, 'Oh, I'd go to Hollywood and do a gig, but I wouldn't move there. I'm a serious actor,'" recalls Glaser, with a smile at the arrogance of youth. "The first thing I did before I got on that plane was I went and bought myself a pair of white loafers.
"I didn't realise the significance of that, that a part of me wanted the glamorous thing, until the series became a hit. Then I went, 'Whoa, I've been fooling myself all of this time. There was a bit of me that wanted this.'"
With the benefit of hindsight, Glaser sees that while he enjoyed the first fame of Starsky and Hutch, he was embarrassed by his enjoyment of it. And maybe a remnant of that is in how he strives to make it clear that he and co-star David Soul worked hard to make it more than just a bog-standard cop show with two hunks centre stage. They wanted less violence, he says, more character development, higher standards all round. But they had fun, right? They were two young men adored by millions, all over the world. It wasn't all just the craft and the art, surely?
"Oh," he laughs. "I had fun. I didn't have as much fun as people might like to think. But I had fun. I did."
"I never got why kids liked it," he adds. "I never watched the show for years. I can now. I can see what's good and what's horrible. But clearly David and I did something, individually and together, that connected with people, and you can't say no to that. It's a compliment. And so I've come to find peace with the whole thing."
Did that take a long time? "Yes," he answers, emphatically. "But maybe that's age. You accept that things aren't perfect, but they're still part of your story. Yes, and then you see that they are perfect. Everything's perfect. It is what it is. But it might just happen that it's not in sync with what we think is supposed to happen, or how we think things are supposed to be."
Glaser was 32 years of age when the hit TV show began and was 36 when it ended in 1979, by which time he had decided he wanted to move his career behind the camera. He was seriously involved, romantically, with his future wife Elizabeth Meyer, whom he married in 1980. It was a time to shift away from teen heart-throb, perhaps, into being a proper grown-up.
In 1981, Elizabeth had their daughter, Ariel, followed by the birth of their son, Jake, in 1984. The following year, Elizabeth discovered that she was HIV-positive, as result of a blood transfusion during Ariel's birth, and that both children were, too. It was a very different time, the mid-Eighties, when that diagnosis was a death sentence and, let's not forget, when people worried that even the slightest physical contact could spread it.
That diagnosis made pariahs of people at that time and the high-profile manner in which the Glaser family managed their tragic situation made a big difference, though it didn't change the end result for them. In 1988, little Ariel died. Elizabeth, who co-founded the Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric Aids Foundation, died in 1994. Jake is alive and well today, and while his father could easily have drowned in his grief, no doubt it was partly for his son's sake that he did not.
"I did everything," he says of how he got through that time. "And I experienced everything: the rage, the depression, the getting stoned, the getting drunk, all of it. In the end, I also experienced a great deal of fortune, because I ended up with some really good teaching.
"Because the journey you go through when you experience a lot of loss is an experience of helplessness in a very intense way. And it's so intense that it sensitises you to the whole notion of helplessness. And you begin to realise how helplessness pervades your whole existence. So we pretend that it's not in our lives."
Now, it should be said that Glaser continues on this theme for quite some time. By his own admission, in fact, after many minutes of it, he admits that he's gone way off point. He is, however, very interesting on how we talk about "feeling the fear and doing it anyway", how we treat fear as something to be surmounted, rather than embraced. He also explains that this whole theme is key to his book for children, Crystallia and the Source of Light.
"It's very entertaining, very lovely," he says, adding in an aside that he's looking for a publisher this side of the Atlantic. "Kids adore it, but some adults have trouble with it, because as adults we don't want to deal with fear."
Glaser says that he had two choices after the deaths of his wife and daughter: he could become a victim of the tragedy or he could survive. It was partly "genes and ancestors" that dictated survival. Glaser has said that he continues to talk to Elizabeth and Ariel, to tell them that he loves them. He has also admitted that there's no way of knowing if he and Elizabeth would have lasted in their marriage or what other course life would have taken. Which is to say, he makes a saint of no one, including himself. In 1996, he married Tracy Barone, but they divorced 11 years later. They had a daughter, Zoe, who is now in her mid-teens.
Though Glaser acted occasionally over the decades, he sees himself as primarily a director -- mostly in TV, Third Watch, Judging Amy, Miami Vice -- and regards more recent acting work as a return to his original career. He has appeared on Criminal Minds, The Mentalist, Ray Donovan and the 2004 Starsky and Hutch movie, not to mention a turn as a pantomime Captain Hook in Bromley in 2007. He'd never sung before doing panto, Glaser notes, and it was that experience that gave him the confidence to give Fiddler on the Roof a whirl.
The touring aspect of a musical is tough going, says Glaser -- who went to LA for that pilot audition and stayed 45 years -- but it's in keeping with where he's at in life.
"I had boiled everything down in my life after my wife and daughter died, but then I got married again," he says. "Then I divorced, and I moved from having a very nice house to a very small apartment. But that was fine with me, I'd boiled things down before, so I gave away a lot of stuff. And then, suddenly, I'm coming away to do this gig, so I throw away more, put more in storage, sell my car, give up my apartment and now I live nowhere."
He's trying out the world, Glaser agrees with a laugh, seeking a new definition for a new decade of his life. "It sound great," he says, continuing to smile, "but it's very scary. I don't have the answer. But I'm not complaining. I'm just owning that it's frightening. Why not?"
Paul Michael Glaser will appear in Fiddler on the Roof at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from 18-22 February. Tickets from €20 are on sale now and for more see www.bordgasienergytheatre.ie