At 70, Paul Michael Glaser’s exchanged the Ford Gran Torino for a horse and cart, and real-life trauma has taught him a profound lesson for everyman
BACK in the 1970s the highlight of Saturday nights was Starsky & Hutch, two undercover cops bent on cleaning up crime in California. Starsky was all dark curly hair and sparkling blue eyes and wisecracks. Hutch was tall and blond and cerebral. Through 93 episodes, from 1975 to 1979, they ignored police procedure to crash through cardboard boxes in their red Ford Gran Torino, engage in shootouts, have romantic interludes that always failed to break up the bromance and touch each other just slightly too often.
I was a fan, with pictures of them torn out of Jackie stuck on my bedroom wall and would happily have traded my Wrangler flares to date either of them, but Starsky always had the edge. So when Paul Michael Glaser appears, running late after getting lost on his way to the Southampton theatre, where he’s kicking off an eight-month UK tour of Fiddler On The Roof that night, I’m slightly thrown. The distractingly bright blue eyes still sparkle, the grey in his thick curly hair merely adds gravitas, the chambray shirt, jeans and trainers package a physique fit from running. As he rolls up his sleeves to reveal leather thongs and a bangle, and tucks into a healthy salad, he’s every inch the southern Californian.
Yet Glaser is 70, and to play the leading role of Tevye he’s grown a bushy white beard and allowed tarantula eyebrows to climb up his forehead. To slightly misquote the musical, I don’t remember growing older, when did he?
Time is an issue today, with hovering PRs reminding us that PMG’s schedule is packed. This interview is going to be a bit of a car chase. I want to know about Starsky & Hutch, how he coped with his wife and child dying of Aids, his Jewish heritage and playing the archetypal father figure of Tevye, his recent drugs bust, his children’s books, and did he live the life in the 1970s – all big hair and jacuzzis? But it’s immediately apparent that Glaser gives long, thoughtful answers that will not allow for a glib, “so did David Soul hurt his bum when he crash-landed on the bonnet of the red Torino during the opening credits?”. No matter, because allow Glaser to talk and he’ll get round to what you were going to ask him anyway.
He famously isn’t that keen on Starsky & Hutch chat, so we kick off with Fiddler On The Roof, the musical set in a pre-revolutionary Russian shtetl where Tevye struggles to marry off his daughters against a backdrop of the approaching pogroms. Directed by Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Horwood, it presented Glaser with the chance to play a role he couldn’t resist. Back in 1971 he was cast as the young Marxist Perchik in the film that won three Oscars, but this time he’s the lead. How does he feel about going back?
“I haven’t much thought about that, but it’s interesting. I have always looked at Tevye as a great role to play and that’s why when I was offered this I jumped at it. It’s almost an iconic role in the theatre. He’s an everyman. He speaks to a lot of things in all of us. He’s got many levels, he’s dealing with change. That’s universal. The idea of dealing with children, the universality of those relationships. The issues Fiddler On The Roof deals with, and the way it deals with them, speaks to the everyman in all of us.”
Glaser always wanted to act and still loves the immediacy of the theatre. Why else would a 70-year-old be embarking on a 21-venue tour that sees him on stage for almost three hours every night? Singing, dancing and playing the guitar and double bass along with an ensemble cast, many of whom could be his grandchildren?
“Theatre is the actor’s medium. When the curtain goes up it’s you the audience respond to. Film is the director’s medium and TV is the producer’s medium,” he says.
It was only the opportunity to direct and tweak the script that kept Glaser on board with Starsky & Hutch. Being a TV tec paid the bills, and fame was fun for a while, but it wasn’t what he had originally intended to do. Eventually he hung up his chunky-knit cardie and went on to direct TV and films and also returned to acting in theatre, while partner David Soul launched his musical career.
“I had very mixed feelings about the whole Starsky & Hutch thing. Acting in TV, there’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” he says. “There’s a lot of zero to 60 seconds, but only ten times a day. There’s very little control in it, not like the stage, and the attitude that the company had on Starsky & Hutch was ‘Well, if you make two good shows out of 23 you’re lucky’. David [Soul] and I thought, ‘Well, you’ve got that back to front’, and we were always fighting with producers.”
“I’m part of what we did, but at the time I had to make an adjustment in terms of being able to honour my contract, in that I decided I would learn to direct. So Starsky & Hutch allowed me to learn to direct.”
Once released from the cop drama, Glaser put the experience to good use and made the switch to the other side of the camera, directing episodes of Miami Vice and the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi film The Running Man.
“Because I’d learned on Starsky & Hutch how to direct I was offered it and turned it down. Then they fired the director and asked again, so I took over because it was the chance to do a film. It was a brutal lesson in the responsibility of being a director, but a fantastic experience.”
More directing followed with the 1992 romcom The Cutting Edge and his acting credits include television soaps, with a return to film in 2003 in Something’s Gotta Give with Diane Keaton. He reconciled himself with Starsky & Hutch by doing a brief cameo along with Soul in the 2004 spoof film version starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson and more recent outings have seen him embrace with gusto the British panto tradition.
Now resident in Venice, California, he was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1943 to Dorothy and Samuel, an architect, and studied English and theatre at Tulane University, then acting and directing at Boston University. Keen to study acting further, he came to the UK and did stints at LAMDA and RADA, then it was back to Broadway, where he trod the boards and continued honing his craft. Theatre has always been his first love and he’s had more than 50 roles in regional, repertory, off-Broadway and Broadway theatre.
Glaser says Tevye is a role he always coveted, but in the early days there were other classics to which he aspired.
“I remember wanting to do Richard III, then did it for my masters degree in graduate school; and I really enjoyed playing Thomas Mendip in The Lady’s Not For Burning [Christopher Fry’s 1948 romantic verse comedy set in the Middle Ages]. It’s beautifully written. I did a terrible job and was panned mercilessly because I was so in love with the words and leaping around the stage in tights like Errol Flynn, which was not what it was about,” he laughs.
Glaser is all about telling a story, whether through theatre, film, TV, or his fantasy novel Chrystallia And The Source Of Light. Aimed at young adults, “or for everyone” as Glaser says, it’s the first of five books and is “metaphorically autobiographical”, delivering a message he wants to share with others.
The story involves a 13-year-old girl and her nine-year-old brother who find themselves in an underground medieval kingdom and are trying to get back home for their last Christmas with a dying mother. Down in a world of crystals the only way for them to move is to find the source of the light and arrive at a place of knowing.
The book covers difficult ground and is informed by his own experiences of loss and feelings of helplessness. His wife Elizabeth contracted Aids from a blood transfusion while giving birth to daughter Ariel, and both died from Aids, while his son Jake, now 28, was left infected by HIV. (Glaser also has a daughter Zoe, 15, from his second marriage to Tracy Barone, which ended in divorce in 2007.) Before Elizabeth’s death in 1994, she founded the Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric Aids Foundation which has raised millions for research and led to the virtual eradication of mother-to-child HIV infection in the US. Now Glaser works to highlight the issue of HIV and will be holding an “In Conversation With” event in aid of local charity Waverley Care when he appears in Edinburgh.
Since Elizabeth and Ariel’s deaths, Glaser has had a lot of time to think and reflect. At first full of rage and helplessness, he says he later found a peace and insight. Raised in a Jewish home, although he has described his mother as “basically agnostic”, he never practised the religion in adulthood and his spiritual conclusions are more the result of his own contemplation.
“I wanted to share what I learned about loss and helplessness in life because I’m blessed with lots of lessons,” he says.
“The book poses and answers the question: What is the purpose of fear in our lives?”
I realise he’s asking me, and suddenly it feels more like an interview with Moses than David Starsky. Fortunately he answers his own question.
“It is to put us in touch with our consciousness and the consciousness of existence. When you are in that place you are at one with everything and no longer helpless,” he explains.
For Glaser, it boils down to a fear of helplessness in the face of mortality, and by recognising this we can start a process of overcoming it.
“We give this fear different names – anger, stress – but if you identify it, you have the opportunity to make a choice and say to yourself ‘good for you for having the courage to carry on in the face of this helplessness, in the face of mortality’. You have the choice to have compassion for yourself and congratulate yourself for making this journey,” he says. “Acknowledging that fear taught me to be compassionate to myself. And, I hope, more compassionate to others.”
He’s obviously spent years thinking about this.
“Well, yes,” he says, “it’s saved my ass! Everybody reaches points in their life when they have to decide whether to be a victim or not. I was very angry after my wife died. I felt rage, helplessness, and had to work my way out of being a victim. We all have that choice.”
After a lifetime of hard knocks, his spiritual equilibrium is fascinating, but with only five minutes left I can’t possibly leave without asking about his recent arrest in Kentucky for smoking marijuana.
He laughs. “I’m from the 1960s. I’m not a drinker, I’m a doper. If I’m going to relax I’m going to relax with marijuana. I was there to promote my book and afterwards smoked a little in my room and then I thought ‘I’ll go down to the jacuzzi’. On my way, I met three people who said hello and I said hello back and they must have smelt it off me and they reported it.”
But I read he had a California prescription for legal medical marijuana? Is he in pain? Is it his back with all that dancing and being on stage for the entire three hours at a time? Or was it the Starsky years, those 93 episodes in which he never missed an opportunity to slide over a car bonnet rather than walk around it?
“Ha, no, not at all,” he says. “That’s just how we get round it in California.” n
• Fiddler On The Roof, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm, matinees Thursday and Saturday, 2.30pm; In Conversation With Paul Michael Glaser – A Life On Stage And Screen, in support of Waverley Care, Scotland’s leading charity providing care and support to people living with HIV or Hepatitis C, Friday, 3.30pm-5pm, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (www.edtheatres.com)