‘Vegas’ star Michael Chiklis on playing a ’60s wiseguy

CBS’ upcoming drama “Vegas” (it debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m.) is notable for a few reasons. One, it’s the first regular TV job for Dennis Quaid, who plays legendary real-life Las Vegas sheriff Ralph Lamb. Two, it’s a period piece, starting off in 1960 as the city begins its transformation from frontier town to the Vegas we know today. And three, it co-stars Michael Chiklis as Lamb’s opposite number, mobster Vincent Savino. After trying out a more heroic persona with the short-lived “No Ordinary Family,” this is Chiklis in a part much closer to his iconic role from “The Shield” as dirty cop Vic Mackey, and he’s excellent.
I spoke with Chiklis about how CBS president Nina Tassler helped make the job more appealing, about working with Quaid and producers Nicholas Pileggi and Greg Walker, and about what he thinks Vic is up to these days.
I’m trying to think. Have you played a wiseguy before this?
Michael Chiklis:       Only once, and it really was a minor, minor role in “Wiseguy” many years ago – a five show arc just playing muscle.
Who was the main villain in that one?
Michael Chiklis:       Chazz Palminteri.
And that was the job that led Cannell to offer you (“The Commish” character) Tony Scali.
Michael Chiklis:       Yeah, that was ’89, so that’s a long time ago and I was a kid, about 25, something like that.
Why did you want to do this? What about Savino appealed to you?
Michael Chiklis:       Well, there’s the pedigree of the project itself – you’re talking about Nick Pileggi and all the different folks that are involved. And I have to say Nina Tassler has put together the most incredible group that I’ve ever been involved with. There is like 2,000 years of collective experience on the set. Everybody is a seasoned pro on this set. Also, we all grew up with enjoying some of the great performances in film and television history by the likes of Brando and Pacino and all the way back to Lee J. Cobb and those guys and all the way up to Gandolfini. I’m definitely walking on the shoulders of all those past performances, so it’s a challenge to cut my own sort of groove, if you will, and create somebody who has a unique point of view or maybe a point of view that we’ve not seen.
What would you say is distinct about his point of view?
Michael Chiklis:       The intent of most of these men, aside from becoming wealthy, was a quest for legitimacy. That’s not unique in itself, but we do know the outcome in Vegas to a great degree and the fact of the matter is Vegas would not have evolved in the way that it did if these guys just killed people willy-nilly. That’s movie stuff and I think that they were a lot more sophisticated, a lot more savvy than people give them credit for.
There is a scene in the pilot where you see a waiter has been beaten and that’s just not acceptable to you. That’s not how you want to do business.
Michael Chiklis:       Right, well, it doesn’t help that cause at all. As a matter of fact, that scene was written differently. In the original incarnation of this, it was written that I come in, continue the beating, get the information that they don’t get and then I kill him. And I said no. I had my meeting with Nick Pileggi and Greg Walker, and we discussed it, and I said,  “This guy should come in and see what’s happening and object to it, deal gently with this guy, get what he wants with honey, then tune up his own guy and thus, it’s a win/win all the way around.” And that’s exactly what they wrote. They listened and got what I was going for and delivered it on script. We want to create a guy who is atypical, who is not going to think like a common thug.
Nina was onstage before and saying that in the very early development of this, the one note she gave Nick was, “Look, we need more of Savino; this is very much a Ralph Lamb-centric kind of story.
Michael Chiklis:       That’s right. Obviously, I was not interested in playing a peripheral character, and Nina, to her credit, said, “You have to come in; we have to talk about this.” So I did, and in discussing it, she laid out exactly what she wanted and the way she saw this show, and by the time I left her office, I said to her, “Well, Nina, if that’s what you’re talking about, then I’m in.” Then the next step was to go and talk to Greg and Nick and James Mangold, and that series of meetings went incredibly well because they are pretty amazing. Then I just thought, “Okay, this is a great group of people and we’re all looking in the same direction.” And now I’m really excited because honestly, the second episode is better than the pilot because there is no exposition. There is no picks to set. We’re just storytelling and it will only get better.
What kind of research did you wind up doing into the period?
Michael Chiklis:       Arthur Sarkissian, who is one of the executive producers, who has the relationship with Ralph Lamb, brought Ralph to set and we had a series of meals with Ralph and discussed a lot of different things. He told us a ton of stories that were just unbelievable. You have to think about 1960 Vegas and he was the sheriff from ’60 to ’80 I believe or ’81. That’s the biggest growth period in the history of the world in terms of a single city, even faster than Rome, London, New York. No city grew as fast in a 20 year period as Vegas because there was such a tremendous influx of money and people, and here is the guy at the center of this in law enforcement and the guys that were coming into that town at the time, my guy in particular, Cuba was falling apart, so everything went to Vegas and mainly because Vegas gambling and prostitution were legal, period.
And how helpful is that to have a primary source like Ralph there to talk to?
Michael Chiklis:       It’s tremendously helpful because not only do you hear the stories at face value, you get an insight into the attitude of the men and why they did what they did, and I think that as an actor you have to be simpatico with your own character. You have to have an understanding of his perspective and these guys again, they wanted to go corporate. They wanted to be legitimate businessmen. They wanted respect and that meant a great deal to them and they didn’t want to be hounded by the police, but they’re great at creating mythology around themselves to get what they want, as opposed to actually having to do things that bring the Feds down on them.
You started your career out playing John Belushi. You were a very young man and a very raw actor at the time, but the only reason I’m bringing it up is to ask whether playing a real person changes your approach in any way, versus playing an invention like Mackey or Ben Grimm or whomever?
Michael Chiklis:       Not really. If anything, when we play someone who is a real person you’re actually fortunate because you have someone to draw from, but it’s very important that your key thing is not getting caught into an imitation and playing ideas. You have to make it visceral. You have to make it your own.
Did you know Quaid before this?
Michael Chiklis:       I had met him briefly years ago. But I do know him now and I think he’s fantastic. He’s a terrific guy and a lot of fun and he flashes that Cheshire cat grin and it’s just it’s infectious. You can’t help but like the guy.
When “The Shield” started, you talked a lot to me and to others about having a very strong sense of your career and what is going to help it – that if you had done another “Commish” movie, that would have been a problem and you wanted to reshape yourself. You did that. You had this great role. Coming out of that, how much focus have you put onto how you choose your roles and what that says about who you are and where you are in your career?
Michael Chiklis:       That’s a great question. I always try to start with material and it’s material first, then pedigree, and then who is involved. And also, let’s face it, there are other things that come into your thought process in terms of why you take a job. The bottom line is it starts with material. One thing you have to understand though is that there is this notion that everybody has a guy in short shorts with a baton in one hand and a script in another running to your house everyday with the next project and it’s just not true.
It’s a shame it’s not true, though.
Michael Chiklis:       Yeah, it is. I’ve been fortunate, particularly on the television side that I have had a myriad of choices. I’ve had some choices on the film side and not nearly the kind of choices that I would have preferred frankly. My whole career I’ve had to sort of look for and try to identify diamonds in the rough, and in some cases I’ve made mountains out of molehills and in other cases I’ve made messes out of messes.
How much do you think that did change people’s image of you within the business playing Mackey?
Michael Chiklis:       A lot.
How do you think you were viewed before versus after?
Michael Chiklis:       I think in many corners, I wasn’t taken seriously at all. I think that a lot of people thought of me as a nice guy, a likable guy, an affable guy, but as an actor I don’t think anybody took me seriously as a heavyweight. That either defeats you or lights a fire under you, and in my case, it was the latter. I knew what I was capable of. I just needed the opportunity and again, that’s why I absolutely wanted to go read for it and get it because we had no idea what would happen with “The Shield.” We didn’t even know if anybody would see it, but the fact is, what we were thinking, humbly, was I just need this footage so that people can see what I’m able to do.
And that’s funny, because Shawn (Ryan) didn’t write it expecting to make it. He wrote it as a writing sample. So it’s like no one knew it would be anything.
Michael Chiklis:       No one had expectations, right. And that’s often a great formula when people go into things for all the right reasons, just to do great. I loved the piece and I just thought this is the best cop show I’ve ever read. It was the best pilot I had ever read up to that time. I want to be involved with great material and the fact of the matter is at that time in my career, if that was at any other major network, they wouldn’t have read me. They wouldn’t have seen me for it because everybody at the networks had it in their minds “This is who Chiki is and he’ll fit into this little box here,” and I get it. I understand that. I’ve even walked a mile in their shoes and thought, “Well, if I’m a guy and I’m sitting here with 250 million dollars worth of production sitting in front of me I think in terms of puzzle pieces, where it fits in here and what fits in here,” and the more streamlined you make that process the easier it is on your brain. You’re not exactly going to be thinking about whether or not Michael Chiklis can reinvent himself or not. So I understand that. So it became incumbent upon me to reinvent myself and the only way to do that was to do what I needed to do physically, emotionally, mentally and then go out and get it.
Every now and then I find myself re-watching “The Shield” finale. It’s one of the all time just great last episodes of anything and there are two scenes that you have in there. One is Vic in interrogation when Claudette lays out the photos of Shane and his family and the other is the end and both of them are basically silent. It’s just you reacting. What do you remember of playing those two scenes?
Michael Chiklis:       We were great believers in “pace, pace, pace, pace and then land,” so that you earn those moments where you land. And we weren’t afraid to let long moments go by of silence, of just living. I worked on the show for seven years and I remember from the character’s perspective, letting all of these memories flood through my head, and the way they affected me. In all honesty I did not realize, like in the second to last episode during the interrogation –
The pause before he confesses.
Michael Chiklis:       I did not know that that was that long. I didn’t realize that that was some 40 seconds or something. I didn’t know. It seemed like nothing in terms of time. I was just in the middle of it. You know what I mean. So I also felt tremendous gratitude to be able to do that kind of work.
I think a little earlier this year we reached the three year anniversary of the finale, which would be when Vic’s contract with ICE would have been up and people started on Twitter asking, “What is Vic up to?” Is that something you ever think about?
Michael Chiklis:       Yeah, t’s the single most asked question in my life: “When are we going to see Vic? What’s the deal? is there a possibility of a movie?” And look, I wanted to shut everybody up. I want to just tell them it’s not in my control. We’ve discussed a movie. There are a lot of factors that go into it. I don’t know that it will ever happen. If it were the right set of circumstances I would love to play Vic Mackey again, but right now Shawn is embroiled in a new series and I’m embroiled in this new series and this comes from a lot of different challenges. The one thing about doing a show on cable is you have the freedom and the latitude to do things that you can’t do on network television, but I believe that there is a way of making great network television that’s powerful and has the ability to tell great stories, and this gentleman has great stories.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com