The Official Website of Paul Michael Glaser

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November 19, 2007

Paul Michael Glaser: What's a nice cop like Starsky doing in a panto like this?

Beating his fear of death, says Paul Michael Glaser, the most surprising of all the stars to come for Christmas

Francais Deutsch Espanol

Interview by Cole Moreton

Published:17 November 2007

Starsky in Bromley? That's just wrong. The coolest white cop of all time should be forever rolling across the bonnet of his tomato-red Ford Gran Torino and chasing perps down the streets of California ? not mooching around south London messing with people's minds. It's like finding out that the guy who works down the chip shop really is Elvis.

Outside the Churchill Theatre, a huge concrete bunker just off the shopping centre, a woman is peering at a poster for the pantomime Peter Pan. "Can't be," she says to her companion. Both are old enough to have watched Starsky & Hutch with their kids in the Seventies, when it was the biggest and funkiest crime show on telly. "No, it isn't him."

Oh yes it is. Behind her, Paul Michael Glaser is inside the building preparing to be Captain Hook. In Bromley. How did this happen? "They asked me," says the actor. The famously swoonsome long black curly hair has silvered and been cropped, but even at 64 he's still Starsky, standing there shrugging. And it's strange. We're used to seeing David Soul, his old partner Hutch, because when the series ended Soul fled to this country to rebuild his career. But Glaser kept his distance, and therefore his cool.

He disappeared from the screens into a life of intense privacy, partly to deal with the death of his wife and young daughter from Aids. Right now he could be back home in California but he's here. Why?

Glaser says nothing but shrugs again, sitting down in the empty theatre bar and tearing the lid off a pot of salad. A Shapers pack from Boots. Oh, the Hollywood glamour. Glaser is one of several American stars imported for panto by a company called First Family Entertainment, which will launch its season this week. Others include Henry Winkler, the Fonz in Happy Days , and Mickey Rooney, who was a film star before Glaser was even born. But what do any of them know about the very British tradition of pantomime? Has Glaser ever been in one before? "No." Has he even seen one? "No."

Oh. This could be tricky. He hates interviews and doesn't really do them any more. There's a clip on the internet of him reducing a soft-soaping interviewer to a near breakdown with a succession of grunts, shrugs and monosyllabic answers ? finally snapping: "You got rocks in your head!"

And it gets worse. Glaser is jet-lagged, having flown in from America a couple of days ago. He has been in rehearsals ever since for a medium he doesn't understand. He's in the middle of a divorce from his second wife, and fighting for custody of their nine-year-old daughter. He's tired and hungry, and as a member of the cast has warned me "he doesn't suffer fools". Great. I know Glaser is a writer and activist as well as an actor, and I'm sure he will talk about meaningful things if I can just ask the right question. So... er... don't you look good as Hook? Nice get-up.

"Lovely get-up," he nods, chewing chicken.

You get to swash your buckle. Or is it buckle your swash?

"I swash my buckle, I wave my sword. All that good stuff."

Henry Winkler, who is returning after doing panto for the first time last year, says he has never experienced so many people screaming at him. The thrill of that, unlike any other in theatre, is what makes the big stars come (and the money, of course. Americans have now trumped Australian soap stars at the festive box office, with many theatres finding panto the one thing that fills seats. Glaser's fee remains private, but a lesser British star was reportedly paid 400,000 for a stint). The audience participation can "knock you for six", says Joe Tracini, who plays Peter Pan in Bromley. "I'm sure it will be a jolt," says Glaser. "That's the fun of it. I've always had a whimsical side to me, a silly side."

The film version of Starsky & Hutch with Ben Stiller in the role and Glaser in a cameo was far sillier than the series but a lot of people didn't like that. "If you look closely at Starsky he's a bit of a boy-man," he says. "One one side gullible and vulnerable; on the other, concerned and more adult, with darker issues. So much of Starsky & Hutch, for me, was about the humour."

He smiles. Will they want Starsky gags? He stops smiling. "I imagine." Will they get them? "I'm here to play Hook."

And a fascinating character he is too, much more so than simpering Wendy or asexual Pan because this is a big, grown-up man playing in the dressing-up box. A boy-man, like Starsky? "I think so." So no jokes about those woolly cardigans he used to wear? He sighs. "The audience may demand it, I suppose."

Panto is rooted in commedia dell'arte, and even apparently modern innovations such as having a guest star actually go back to the 1800s. Glaser earned masters degrees in drama and acting and was on Broadway before Starsky, so has he ever played anything resembling this? "Good question." At last! "I never performed in burlesque, which is related, but in the Sixties there was this thing called a happening, which asked for more audience participation. But look, all theatre is storytelling. We tell stories to reaffirm our ability to conquer our fear of death."

Ah, death. When it came to the Glaser family, at the height of his fame, it seemed to the rest of the world like an intruder in paradise. He and Elizabeth, a teacher of disabled children, were married in 1980 in the office of a rabbi, and a year later their daughter Ariel was born.

But Elizabeth needed a transfusion of seven pints of blood after labour, and the supply was infected. She didn't know it until Ariel became ill with a mystery virus at the age of four. Tests showed she was HIV positive. So was her mother, Elizabeth, who had passed on the infection through breast feeding. And so was her new-born brother, Jake. Only Paul remained clear.

By the time Ariel died in 1988 her parents were campaigning for greater clinic funding. Elizabeth died in 1994. Jake survived. "The greatest fear," said Paul Michael Glaser as the honorary chairman of the foundation formed in Elizabeth's name, "is powerless in the face of death."

So when he talks about driving that fear away with the laughter and empathy of a panto, he does so from a depth of experience few can match. No wonder the man is so intense. Raised in the Jewish faith, with an attraction to Buddhism, he says: "The teachings of our great masters ? Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad ? all address the contradiction we live with as human beings: that I can create and know so many things, my brain is amazing ? yet how is it that I have no control over my mortality? How is it that I am powerless?"

Those are the words of a man who watched his wife and child waste and die. He is leaning forward now, meeting my gaze, cutting the air with his hand. "You can choose to say: 'I don't want to face this contradiction, give me more to eat instead, more to drink, more to own ...' Or you can choose to say: 'I will face it. I will forgive myself for my powerlessness, and in doing so find compassion for my fellow man.' You need your fear to find your heart."

Californiababble? Maybe. But the ferocity in his eyes forces me to look away. Crikey. I thought we were talking about panto. "We tell stories like this ? Pan, Wendy, Hook ? and create our heroes in order to see them perform under that pressure and conquer that fear," he says. "That helps us believe we could do it too. But we also create our gods in order to eat them."

Pardon? "A lot of fans got upset when I used that phrase to describe celebrity. I mean, we want somebody heroic we can touch and have a piece of, because we need to believe we have the same ability as them. We eat the communal wafer, the Body of Christ. It's not that far removed from an autograph: the yearning is to say, 'I'm like you and you're like me. You're a god and there's a god in me.'"

He felt overwhelmed by being a prime-time American superstar. "I was given the mask of a god to wear. When it first happened I was petrified. I thought, 'Where am I in all this? This is not who I am.'"

And now? "It took me a long time to become comfortable. I try to be as gracious as I can be. I don't traffic a lot in trafficked places, where there are a lot of people around."

Staying at an apartment hotel in central London, he is driven to Bromley and back every day. The show will run from 30 November to 13 January, with 13 shows a week. "It's not any more lonely than I let it be. I write."

During the summer he filed for divorce from the producer Tracy Barone, his second wife, after 10 years of marriage. He wants custody of their daughter Zoe, but will only see her for a week during the run. "It's sad. I miss her," he says. "None of us want to get divorced. You get divorced because it's not working out. It doesn't stop the yearning for the familiar, loving experience that we all want." On his wrist there is a red, beaded bracelet that reminds him of his daughter. "We got into beading, the two of us."

That's all he wants to say. He wants a snooze before rehearsing a fight scene this afternoon but he knows he can only hope to parry interest in his personal life. "The first thing you realise when you become a celebrity is that you have made a deal with the devil."

There is a determined smile on his face. Paul Michael Glaser probably doesn't really believe in the Devil but he knows all about personal demons. They are with him even when he dresses up and acts silly. But he will bust them, one by one, like Starsky busting low-life dealers and not like Hook flailing after the Lost Boys. Oh yes he will.

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