Data Annex

When Pretending Pays Off

By Eirik Knutzen, copyright The Morning Call (Allentown)
February 2, 1997
Reprinted without permission

A very close friend of Michael T. Weiss' mother (a successful career homemaker) in one of Chicago's sprawling suburbs happens to be a talent agent. When Michael was 12 years old, the friend asked if he'd like to do a television commercial.

It sounded like a real goof-off to young Weiss, who was thrilled to discover that doing a television ad for Pop Tarts breakfast food also paid a healthy chunk of change. He went on to crank out a handful of national commercials, but didn't take the craft seriously until his senior year at Glenbrook North High School.

At the age of 16, he was hired for one day as "atmosphere," meaning a background extra, on "Ordinary People," the 1980 blockbuster feature that earned Robert Redford an Academy Award for best director. "I was standing way back in a scene and earned $ 30 for the effort," Weiss recalls. "It was my first and last experience as 'atmosphere,' but I have tremendous compassion for those who do it. It's a hard job."

Twenty years later, Weiss was properly introduced to Redford at the famed actor-director-producer's Sundance Film Festival, where Weiss was featured with Kiefer Sutherland and Amanda Plummer as a drug-addicted pervert in "Freeway," an independent film produced by Oliver Stone. "I didn't get to ski with Bob in Utah, but we did have a nice little chat," Weiss laughs.

Since meeting with the Sundance Kid's alter ego -- which has had zero impact on his career -- the dark and solidly built 34-year-old actor has become the star of "The Pretender," part of NBC's Saturday night chiller-trilogy. The dramatic suspense series revolves around Jarod Russell, a one-man crusader for justice while relentlessly stalked by cold-blooded agents from a clandestine U. S. government organization known only as The Centre.

Jarod Russell, a genius ripped away from his parents at an early age, spent decades in splendid isolation being tutored by Sydney (Patrick Buchau) -- a psychiatrist at the think tank-like Centre who sold the service of the boy's super-logical mind to the highest bidder. Now an adult on the loose, Russell uses his unique computer-like mind to assume the identities of doctors, airline pilots, nuclear engineers, fire chiefs and master plumbers to evade the terminally sexy Ms. Parker (Amanda Parker) and her legion of Centre operatives.

"I've been having a great run with independent feature films during the past few years, but I couldn't resist 'The Pretender' because it allows me to play several different characters every week," Weiss explains. "Jarod is the intellectual opposite of Peter Sellers' character in 'Being There,' but he is just as innocent. He has no real world experience either, but was raised on pure intellect in a totally dysfunctional environment."

The pilot for "The Pretender" was filmed in Toronto, but the subsequent episodes have all been shot in and around Los Angeles. There weere times when Weiss wished he was back in Toronto, particularly during August location work in California's vast Mojave Desert where the cast and crew braved temperatures hovering around 125 F. degrees for three days. It made the dry-witted actor appreciate his crew and extras all the more.

"It was so hot and awful that you either get cranky or forge a camaraderie under duress, leading to a kind of slap-happy atmosphere," Weiss chuckles. "I work with wonderful people so we tried to have a good time and find a local bar the moment we wrapped for the day. But I always felt sorry for the crew because I'd sit in an air-conditioned trailer, breeze in for a scene and then hurry back to my cool dressing room while they worked their butts off."

In stark contrast to his screwed-up and guilt-ridden TV character, Weiss enjoyed a solid childhood on the fringes of Chicago provided by his "loving, lovely mother" and "a dad who is pure Americana." In the steel business, his father "bends steel with his bare hands and is the coolest dad in the plant."

Close to his two siblings, he has one sister who's a makeup artist in the film industry and another, an advertising executive for the giant Sears retail chain.

Acting became "like a calling" during his teen-age years, and for no apparent reason, according to Weiss. "It' what I do," he says, uncharacteristically fumbling for words. "It's kind of a crazy way to make a living, and certainly not the healthiest way of making a living, but here I am. Everything is cool as long as I remember why I got into the business in the first place: to enjoy my work."

As resourceful as his "Pretender" character, Weiss worked with Chicago's famed Second City improvisational workshop as a prep student and subsequently enrolled in the University of Southern California's very expensive school of drama along with classmates Ally Sheedy, Forrest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards. He helped pay his exhorbitant tuition as a personal fitness trainer to the stars, including skinny "Remington Steele"-007 star Pierce Brosnan.

Weiss spent about a year in limbo after earning a bachelor of fine arts degree from USC in 1984.

His life changed suddenly when he was cast as Dr. Mike Horton on the daytime soap "Days of Our Lives." A supposedly brief stint stretched into five years. Unfulfilled, he walked off the sudser when his contract was up and stumbled into his first short-lived prime-time series "Dark Shadows" in 1991, a revival of the 1960s daytime vampire yarn.

Some 13 draining episodes later, he popped into a half-dozen episodes on Aaron Spelling's ill-fated glitz series "2000 Malibu Road" in 1992 with Drew Barrymore, Lisa Hartman and Jennifer Beals. Since then, his film credits include a strong performance in the independent feature "Jeffrey" as a promiscuous gay man totally obsessed with the title character.

Single and unwilling to disclose the name and occupation of his girlfriend, Weiss makes his home in Los Angeles while traveling to exotic locations between projects. Shortly before reporting to the set of "The Pretender," the board member for the environmentalist Earth Communications Office took an educational tour up the Amazon River to Manaus, Brazil.

"It was an amazing experience," he says in awed tones. "Without sounding like a rain forest guru, I felt the energy of the people and the earth in a vast, fertile place on Earth that's being destroyed. It's quite distressing."

Eirik Knutzen is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer on television.

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