He Knows It's Not Cagney & Lacey & Samuels
TV Guide, June 13, 1987
Though Al Waxman (Lt. Bert Samuels) would like a bigger role on the show, he is enough of a survivor to be happy with what he has.
The large moon face frowns. "They have eggs on this menu, maybe?" AJ Waxman grouses, his stubby fingers waving at the haute cuisine in a posh Beverly Hills restaurant. He knocks a bead of sweat off his forehead. He chose the restaurant, but now he does not look so sure. An unlit cigar lies between his fingers and he begins tapping it against the table, looking around furtively, his narrow-set, bulbous eyes darting from one end of their sockets to the other, moving so quickly that they seem, like a bird's, to see everything, everywhere at once, catching a glimpse of a tanned and goldchained film producer at the bar, and a phalanx of handsome silver-haired studio men in tailor-made suits strolling with blondes in .sun dresses. He says nothing immediately. His own suit fits too snugly, and his nails could not possibly have received a manicure this week. The overhead light dances teasingly on his bald pate. "Everybody in L.A. is kind of on the make. . . "he says after awhile. "Hey, you think they have the eggs?"
The eyes never stop moving, the squinty lenses of a small, stout outsider trying to get a fix on this place, to understand a world with which he would never be familiar enough. "Show me if you have eggs on this menu if you please," he says to the waiter, clearing his throat. "What kind of eggs, sir?" the waiter responds. The stubby fingers thump faster. Waxman stares at the menu, points. Thump thump, thump-thump. His nervousness, his utter lack of guile, would betray him if he was what he looks like-a wary tipster or a bookie, maybe. But he is a character actor, and -so these fingers, these eyes, this ingenuous moon face, serve him well.
"Fine choice, sir," says the waiter. "Eggs Benedict."
"Yes, OK,." says Waxman, the moon face bobbing.
"He has that wonderfully undeceiving quality that makes him great for his role, a great character actor," says co-star Martin Kove (Isbecki). Character actor: everyone describes AJ Waxman that way. His portrayal of the gruff and demanding Lt. Bert Samuels on CBS's Cagney & Lacey has prompted critics to herald the 52-year-old performer as one of television's finest character actors. But when someone asks him, "What is a character actor?" he can only smile wryly. They call you a character actor if you're short,, skinny, overweight, balding or craggy. They call you a character actor if they mean that you won't be cast as a leading man; that, if you're talented and lucky, you may get to- play a derelict, a psychopath, or a hopelessly tormented working stiff who has no prospect of getting his life together. More often than not, character actors languish in acting schools and workshops, looking for work, any work, to pay the rent and buy groceries.
At 29, AJ Waxman worked 10 minutes and a galaxy away from this Beverly Hills restaurant as a short-order cook in an establishment called Barney's Beanery. Out-of-work actors and laborers frequented the place, looking hungrily at the menu board for something that they could afford. Waxman, standing behind the grill, would clandestinely eye them, trying to figure who among the gaunt and destitute might not be eating again for a couple of days, quietly making them oversized portions of hamburger, until a manager caught him in the act one day and fired him. "Those experiences teach you about life, about all kinds of people, and what makes them lick," he says. "It must make you a better actor to understand those feelings."
After only six months, the young character actor fled Los Angeles, where he had received only a bit part in an episode of Ben Casey, and moved back to his home town of Toronto. Nearly another decade would pass before his career ascended with a part as a big-hearted Everyman in a Canadian series, King of Kensington. The show became one of Canada's biggest hits, and, though few viewers in the U.S. knew his name, influential filmmakers suddenly jockeyed to take a serious look at him. Louis Malle liked his work so much that he gave him a part as a ruthless, grinning cocaine dealer in , Atlantic City." But it took a part in Cagney & Lacey to reveal him to a large U.S. audience. Even now, after the series' fifth season, most viewers do not know his name. "On the street, they'll look and say, 'I know you, I know you, you're that guy who plays that police boss'," he confesses. It does not help that he finds himself playing opposite two of the medium's most talented and likable actresses, Sharon Glass and Tyne Daly, whom the cameras seldom leave long enough for a third star to emerge.
"Sometimes, there's Angst. . .,"he says. "Sometimes, there's this." He makes a fist and pushes it in against his fleshy stomach, like the Pillsbury Doughboy, "You feel a knot in there, like you have to do better. I have ego. But I'm working with two great actresses whom I know the stories are to be built around, which makes sense because with Tyne and Sharon, you can't go wrong, know what I mean?" Someone else says yes. His fingers thump-thump.
If the character of Bert Samuels has gone without a spotlight, at least there has been an evolution in his social attitudes, Waxman notes, particularly those pertaining to the role of women in his work place. "Samuels was your basic chauvinist in the beginning," says Waxman. "He still has one foot in yesteryear, but he…is evenhanded now. I think the change in his behavior serves as a kind of a barometer for how well the male population has been doing (relating to women in the office. Maybe Samuels has even enlightened some men."
He talks of his dreams, for his character, the series, his future, drumming his fingers on his forearm, a nervous tic, it seems, and one wonders whether this is something that comes with 30 years of show-business anxiety, 30 years of wondering whether you'll get work in a profession where most character actors don't. That is part of Hollywood, too, the part that you don't see, never will, the part inhabited by an invisible four-fifths who don't work, impoverished men and women with acting-guild cards who ride buses because their last role was, say, a Gunsmoke in the late '60s. Al Waxman has made it, but he seems keenly aware of the fate he avoided, the luck involved, the hard times that shaped him. "I've been a waiter, I've been a bouncer,, I've been with work and without work and it's all part of me," he says.
"When I married AJ in 1968, he was an out-of-work actor, writer and director," recalls his wife, Sara. "But I thought he had a certain something. Nothing was going to stand in his way." Then 33, Waxman believed he might be running out of time. "I told my wife when we married that my career came before everything else," he remembers. "She just nodded. But a funny thing happened then. Not a lot was clicking for me for a while but the marriage became so good that it was soon more important than anything, even my career. I think my career benefited by virtue of being placed second. I relaxed. Things happened."
What happened immediately was not auspicious. Having already written and directed a short but profitable film about a Jewish would-be model, entitled .'Twiggy," Waxman wrote, produced and directed a humble cinematic disaster, "The Crowd Inside," which closed only a few weeks after it opened. Film and TV offers stopped coming. With a wife and a child to support, he considered quitting the business. Sara urged him to hang tough.
The offer to play Larry King, the lovable lug of King of Kensington, brought him back to acting. After five seasons and 111 half-hour episodes, Waxman announced that he wanted to leave. "We'd done it all," he remembers. "And with something like that there's always a lot of work and stress. The longer you go, the harder it gets," he says softly, sounding a little surprised that the employed and heralded suffered anxieties, too, as if this had not been something he considered in the days when he received no entertainment work at all. In the final season of King, he had blown up just before a taping, after complaining all week about the script and suddenly being given 25 new pages. He threw a stage manager's table into the air and kicked a microphone dolly while crew and costars scattered. On Cagney, he has been known to raise his voice. "I get a little angry at abuses," he admits.
"If some director or someb6dy shows a lack of respect for anybody on the set," Martin Kove says, "Al will put the guy in his place right there. He can be tough. Actually, I'd love to see him direct a little more."
Waxman has directed five Cagney episodes, two just this past season, and two the previous season in which Kove and Carl Lumbly (Petrie) had prominent parts and offered to work longer for Waxman so that he could tailor their scenes to his liking. "There is a real advantage in being directed by someone that close to you," says Kove. "If Al watches you, nods and says, 'That's on line, what you just did;' you trust his choice because you know him and feel so secure with him. If a moment is a little weak he doesn't let the pressures of time get to him like some directors. He's a fine actor, but even more than that he's an actor's director. A lot of people just don't realize that side of him."
That he labors in obscurity seldom bothers AJ Waxman any longer. "I got kind of resigned to it," he says. What complaints he has generally center around his private life: he wishes that he had more time to see his wife and two children in Toronto. Sara Waxman writes a food and restaurant column for a Toronto newspaper, and sees her husband at least two weekends a month during Cagney's production season. "It was terribly difficult during the first year he was away," Sara says. "He'd feel pressure when he came home, because he isn't a guy who's cold and so absorbed with his work, like the character he plays. But this isn't forever. And this was what he was after during those years when he worked so hard and little happened. We call each other several times a day now. I know he's loving it out there."
In the Golden Land, the former short order cook, waiter and bouncer plays tennis with Hollywood friends on his days off. In the Beverly Hills restaurant, he pauses between bites of his eggs, the eyes on the move as always, and waves to a studio friend. "You know, for all its compulsion with ambition," he observes, "the thing I like about L.A. is the aura of . . ." He frowns, looking for the word. .1 . . . Possibilities. Yeah, possibilities. I mean, at my age, anywhere else, my career might have seemed like it was at a dead end. But here? . . . " He stops and shrugs, the fingers thumping With a consciousness of their own, not wanting to make too much of this point, the old cook remembering Barney's Beanery with a chuckle. "I didn't last a year in L.A., the first time," he says, grinning. "That's sure changed, hasn't it?" He is a character actor who has survived, which is quite enough for now.
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