It wasn’t the sound of his wife’s screaming that panicked Michael Chiklis, or the crush of cops who quickly cordoned off the street in his California neighborhood a few years back. It wasn’t even the sight of a SWAT guy pointing an M16 out of a helicopter above his backyard. What panicked the actor – still chunky after playing a portly top cop in ABC’s The Commish from 1991 to 1995 – was how two plainclothes officers approached him in front of his home and asked his advice on a kidnapping case.
”They saluted me and said, ‘Commissioner, this is what’s happening,”’ Chiklis recalls of the local cops who apparently mistook him for his TV alter ego, Tony Scali. ”I was freaking out! I’m thinking, ‘Are they goofing on me?’ Then I remember going through the horror of realizing that they’re not goofing on me! If I say who I am, they’re going to be terribly embarrassed and they might get p – -ed. I was totally stuck. So I said, ‘Sounds good, gentlemen. Proceed.”’
Clearly, this man was born to play a cop, which might be why his new police series, FX’s The Shield, has already distinguished itself as the most-watched original drama on basic cable. An average 3.5 million viewers tune in each Tuesday night to see the chrome-domed Chiklis play Det. Vic Mackey, leader of a corrupt Strike Team that aggressively cuts crime within the fictitious L.A. precinct of Farmington. Mackey sets his own rules of engagement: If he’s not shooting an undercover cop at point-blank range or stealing cocaine from drug dealers for his own profit, then he’s roughing up a child molester or giving extra cash to a prostitute/informant to help feed her kid. And at the end of the day, he reverts to his off-the-clock role of loving husband and father to an autistic son.
Chiklis says cops are already saluting his portrayal of the morally ambiguous Mackey; one man with a badge followed the actor into a Los Angeles Starbucks early one morning just to give him a favorable citation. ”I don’t know if they’d all like to be my character, but sometimes they would with the amount of s – - they put up with,” says the buffed-up Chiklis, who shed 50 pounds for his new role after tipping the scales at 245 on The Commish. ”It really reflects urban life right now. We have very sophisticated audiences who know someone isn’t all good or all bad.”
The fact that The Shield has an audience at all is good news for FX, which already announced plans to renew the series (it ends its current run June 4). With the network barely registering on the ratings radar with the Howard Stern-produced comedy Son of the Beach and reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, FX Entertainment president Kevin Reilly needed help in giving the channel an identity, ideally one that blended some of Fox’s attitude with the envelope-pushing strategy of HBO. The script for The Shield – which came in as a writing sample from up-and-comer scribe Shawn Ryan (Angel, Nash Bridges), whom FX originally hired to create a comedy – was the answer to Reilly’s prayers.