He’s not explicit. At no point does he say it outright. But Paul Michael Glaser leaves me in no doubt that he’s underwhelmed by the enduring appeal of Starsky & Hutch.
When I ask him if he’s proud, he’s quick to find a different word, a more appropriate word, a word that reflects his critical sensibilities.
He doesn’t like the word proud, because ‘proud’ implies he thought the series was of high quality, in the way that the Royal Shakespeare Company is ‘good’. ‘Proud’ suggests artistic merit – and Starsky and Hutch had as much of that as a tin of cat food.
Glaser is honoured by the timeless appeal of ABC’s great seventies cop series. He’s flattered, for sure. He loves the fact that he got a better life after playing a Southern Californian policeman, alongside the intellectual David Soul – or, Kenneth ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson. The series opened up the door to a life of fame and reasonable fortune. It also afforded creative opportunities to work as a director and writer than he might not otherwise have enjoyed.
But Paul’s no mug. He won’t pretend Starsky & Hutch was the best piece of TV ever, no matter how hard I prompt him. Besides, Starsky & Hutch was a double-edged sword. Cool as it was to drive a red car with a long white strip along the side, enjoyable as it was to rub shoulders with Huggy Bear and wear cardigans that remain cool to this day; it also sent his life into a tailspin. Glaser handled his new-found celebrity badly. It took a while to adjust. And, even in recent years, it has made unwelcome intrusions into his life. Just two years ago he had to seek a restraining order against a stalker who emailed him 500 times and followed him to the UK where he was playing in Peter Pan so that she could watch the same performance on 23 different nights.
“I have had many feelings about the show in the past. I’ve come to accept that it was what it was and I enjoyed it. There are parts of it that I really enjoyed and parts that were a bit more difficult.”
It’s easy to read between the lines. ‘A bit more difficult’ hides years of angst. ‘It was what it was’, from the mouth of one of its central characters, says more than any poison-pen critic ever could.
“It was a good experience. It was terrific working with a film crew and the people I worked with like David, my partner, David Soul; that was good fun. It was fun playing a cop, I wanted to play a cop the way I’d never seen it before. I was able to play a lot of different things. We had a lot of creative freedom, David and I decided that we needed to take it and run with it. I had the freedom to develop the character of Starsky with the seasons.Give him his sense of humor and fantasy.”
Glaser was surprised when the show became a hit. He was pleased people liked it. But he didn’t enjoy the madness that comes with success, he didn’t want to become a ‘celebrity’. Being an acclaimed actor who was respected for his work would have been fine. But being a ‘star’, like a talent show winner, left him cold.
“First of all, I never thought it would take off, then when it took off all of a sudden I was deemed a celebrity, in all honesty it was a very difficult time for me. I wasn’t that comfortable with celebrity. I think that, you know, the celebrity was uncomfortable.
“I never felt like what I was doing on the series warranted that kind of attention, but I was wrong. Celebrity took a while for me to understand. I had to mature. I had to understand that being a celebrity was my new reality, I couldn’t avoid it. It gets easier over time, you get to a point where you know, in retrospect . . .” he trails off, no doubt imagining the uncomfortable encounters, the requests from fans, the intrusions into his private life.
But he’s sanguine. He’s grateful. He’s humbled by the affection that people have for him and he rallies: “I guess what I did seemed to affect a lot of people and I’m proud that I was able to connect. It is impossible to say why so many people have felt connected with the series. I take it as a blessing.
“It is important to understand the importance of television in people’s lives. Why is TV so important? Because there are millions and millions of people who watch it. Then you have this extraordinary intimacy with the viewer. Live television in every home. Previously, people had the same intimate relationship with the radio. You remember when Orson Welles did War of the Worlds? “People have so many thought they looked out the window expecting to see the invaders landed. For decades, television is part of people’s lives. When they watch, they have this intimacy with a particular character as to have the feeling that this person is part of their lives. It is easy, therefore, to identify with the characters.”
The thing is, though, Starsky & Hutch was only a small part of Glaser’s life. It was four years out of 70. It was five per cent. It’s a fraction, a drop in the ocean. And yet it’s come to define him. It dominates the view that others have of him.
He doesn’t dodge any questions. He’s happy to talk about it. But he’s answered the same old questions year in, year out for 48 years. And though he understands why people ask him about that and not, say, his directorial work on The Running Man, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, his work on series like Miami Vice or Judging Amy, his photography, his poetry or his children’s novels, or, more importantly, his remarkable work for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, he’d be grateful if they understood that he’s a multi-dimensional man. He wished people realised there’s more to Paul Michael Glaser than Starsky.
So we talk about other stuff and slowly, but surely, he becomes more animated. When another interviewer calls his New York apartment, 20 minutes into our chat, he puts them off. And when a further call is made, a little while later, he again tells them he’s busy. He’s glad to be talking about his work. He’s glad that somebody’s taking an interest in his extraordinary story.
Though his career has been characterised by work on populist series – Starksy & Hutch, Miami Vice, The Rockford Files, The Waltons et al – he cut his teeth watching the titans of the stage. Back in 1964, Glaser flew to the UK to study drama.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in England. I’ve been to and from England since 1964. I came over to study. I did drama classes at LAMDA and RADA, I learned a hell of a lot. I’ve always loved English theatre. Being in England at that time was fantastic. You’d got Sir Laurence Olivier doing Othello and great productions opening. I got to Stratford, saw Dame Peggy Ashcroft, saw great actors, really great actors doing Richard II. It was a really exciting time. I didn’t get so involved with music, The Beatles or The Stones, I loved theatre.”
He trod the boards on Broadway. “The stage is where each actor learns his trade. No matter what, then, if you work for television or film, you will establish and gain some discipline.”
His breakthrough came in 1971, when he appeared in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof as Perchik.
“I was asked if I’d be interested in playing the part and the answer was yes. He’s one of the better characters in musicals, he’s an iconic character, he’s just a marvellously complex everyman. It was my first feature film and I guess you could say that it put me on the map a little bit. It was an amazing experience and we shot it at Pinewood, in England, and in Yugoslavia.”
It very nearly did for Glaser’s career, too. He hadn’t been prepared for the amount of ‘downtime’, off-set, and when the film had been shot he thought he might quit. “I was disillusioned with the whole process. I ended up going to Rome for a while, to write. Film is a director’s medium, theatre is the actor’s medium. I felt like there was something else I wanted to do, I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I knew I needed to do more.”
He returned to the States and took plenty of TV jobs, working in a number of big shows. And then came Starsky & Hutch and his life changed forever more.
“When I was doing the series, one of the ways that I got through it was by learning to direct. I directed a bunch of shows. When I finished the series I pursued a directing career.”
His directorial work took him to bigger and better roles. He directed the 1987 movie, The Running Man, starring Arnie, which grossed around $38 million. Other pieces followed, including Miami Vice. “Directing is fun,” says Glaser. “Well, some pieces are fun to direct. But you know what they say, directing TV is like being a traffic cop. Miami Vice was memorable. We were shooting out in Miami, Flordia, and we had a lot of fun on that.
“You can really only bring a couple of things to TV. You can only bring your eye, your sense of style and you can try to help the actors be as specific as possible when they play a role.
“The Running Man was a strange project. I initially turned it down because I didn’t feel there was enough time to prepare. They hired another director, but then he left it. So they came back to me. You know, there were a lot of problems to solve. I learned how to think on my feet. In the beginning, the film was in disarray, but we made it.”
He’s lived an incredible life away from the screen. Following the death of his first wife, Elizabeth, he helped lead the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. His wife had tragically contracted HIV through a blood transfusion while giving birth to the couple’s first child. Glaser became chairman and continues to serve the organisation. “The issue was that people had started to become a little complacent. The relevancy of continuing HIV research became the subject of the day. We made some inroads and still do. As you know, research money is the hardest money to get and we’ve done a pretty good job of getting that.”
He’s written volumes of poetry, is an avid photographer and writes books for children. “I think that throughout my career, I’ve viewed myself as a story teller. Whether I act, write or direct. I never really felt fulfilled by celebrity, I don’t think it has the capacity to do that. I know some people enjoy it, but I’m not one of them.”
Glaser’s career will come full circle later this year when he stars at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre in Fiddler On The Roof from October 15-19. It is being directed by Craig Revel Horwood.
"We've chatted on the phone and he sounds a lovely guy," says Paul. "I'm looking forward to working with a cast of actor/musicians. Craig has found a means of doing the show that way.
“For one thing, it has an amazing score. For another, it’s a universal story which everyone can understand. It’s about the everyday problems which we all have and how we manage to deal with them, how we achieve a certain sense of well-being. But it also means a great deal to Jewish people in particular.
“It's a tale told by Tevye the milkman, a story that reflects Jewish history in a very poignant way, in particular about the Jewish diaspora, the scattering of the Jews around the world. But it also celebrates the spirit of mankind and the desire to identify with one particular group. Tevye is a gigantic part and at this stage, a couple of months before we start rehearsals, I'm really enjoying getting into training to play the role. It's also given me an excuse to grow a beard.”
Starsky would be proud.