This interview was done in the early 1990s. It was my wildest dream, an answered dream, even as a professional reporter.
Dark curly hair. Brooding eyes. Gravelly voice.
Women over thirty will probably recall introspective Pete Cochran of the early seventies hit ABC series MOD SQUAD. Michael Cole, the actor who portrayed Pete, is much different spiritually today than he was then.
Appearance-wise, however, one significant point is just as obvious. Amidst MOD SQUAD‘s five year run, Michael was in a serious car accident. His eyelid was nearly severed from his face; surgery saved it but an obvious scar remained. Girls across America sighed in relief and dreamed anew of his weathered face.
Today, the face is even more weathered; the build medium, seesawing between middle-aged and toned; the dark hair – streaked with gray – still curly. The voice is unchanged. He wears glasses.
Those once-dreaming teens who sighed over him are now adults with lives no longer centered around the fantasy of Michael Cole, and he’s long been aware of that.
“I got into trouble [afterward],” he admitted. “It was unreal to have nothing, then say, ‘I want that house,’ and be able to buy it.” The squint to his eye became more obvious as got into his thoughts. Now, however, his words opened on deeper scars, invisible to sight but obvious to the ear. “Everything bad was my fault. I blame no one else.
“I started in acting school working in plays. The stage was my bedroom.” He laughed, and his eyes lit up as he went into a long dissertation on how he literally lived on the stage for many years. “Then I went to Las Vegas. I met Paula there.” Paula Kelly was once a member of The Modernaires, a talented singer, and the woman who become Mrs. Michael Cole.
“She was beautiful. I was shy.” His grin was lopsided; his squint deepened. He looked like a big kid. The mention of Paula, the woman he married, the mother of his adored daughter, brought a softness to his voice and made his face light up.
His ideas moved so fast. Next, he was discussing his stardom. “MOD SQUAD was a groundbreaker. There were always mailbags in the hall outside Aaron Spelling’s office.” He leaned over the table to stare at his hands. His forefingers and thumbs made a triangle, the rest spread evenly – a thinking gesture. “It changed lives. I remember a letter from a girl on drugs, she was a hooker. Because of our show, she became a social worker.” So many years later, the thought still made him emotional.
A faceless kid helped towards a better life by Michael Cole, at the time a young man who had it all. Yet he was ready to self-destruct. What followed were years of anger, confusion, and much drinking and senseless indulgence. How is it that he now owns a spacious hilltop home? Speaks often and liberally of spirituality and Christ’s meaning in his life?
The accident. He found God amidst his car accident. “It was on a slick spot on Laurel Canyon Freeway; we [he and Paula] hit the mountain. I went through the windshield twice.” That reminded him of the moments directly after, rushing to the hospital. “People were in and out of my room.”
He eyed his fingers, once again splayed. “After everyone left one night, I checked the mirror and knew it might be over.” He looked up with a slow grin. “Then I did this,” he showed how he covered the eye with one hand. “Thought maybe it’d be an interesting image.” He probably wasn’t really all that philosophical about losing an eye and his career. After the eye was saved, after MOD SQUAD, he floundered, guesting on episodic TV and doing plays across the country. He related one experience.
“We were in a small town at one time. The weather was bad, we didn’t know if we’d have an audience. But three old ladies were there, one celebrating her 80th birthday.” He ran a forefinger up the side of his nose, then readjusted his glasses. “At intermission, I had a stagehand get a dozen red roses. After the play, we had a party.” He stopped talking and breathed deep. His next words were thick. “We both cried. It’s still a special memory.”
How could a man who cries at a stranger’s party become hard-drinking and belligerent? “I was afraid. I remember waking in the middle of one night. Something real gripped me. Paula held me and it went away.” Love notwithstanding, Paula could only handle so much amidst such powerful emotions, and she eventually left him.
“She didn’t do anything wrong,” he was quick to assure, “it was me. She just couldn’t take anymore.”
Then came a long period where he did nothing. “Absolutely nothing. People started dying around me…my manager, my mother. Other people were worried, told me to go back to work, but it wasn’t time. I knew when it would be time.”
Michael reads avidly, quotes Dylan Thomas, the Bible, and other writings that have affected him. He quit school in the 10th grade, eventually returned but never finished college; yet he can speak with a scholar’s insight. For someone who did nothing for so long, his thoughts and words speak of a healthy spiritual life.
It’s been many years since each of the mentioned milestones happened in Michael Cole’s life. Despite everything that has tried to bring him down and pull him into despair, today he has peace of mind, a spiritual understanding of his life, and friendship with his ex-wife.
He showed me a sketch he had done on his wall, a cross with a humanistic flower object draped across it as Christ had been hung on the cross. Next to his sketch, he wrote, “This time, Father, they know what they do.”
“Yes,” he smiled as our interview came to a close, “all in God’s time, not ours. God gave me a gift, I wasted it for awhile, but no longer. I’m ready to begin to use it again.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was one of my favorite of all interviews. Michael picked me up at a 7-Eleven at the foot of the long, winding road that went up to his beautiful, large home in the California foothills. He handed me into his dark-green, very expensive car and, as I closed the door, it got away from me and slammed.
“Hey!” he exclaimed as he got into his side. “Don’t do that!”
I apologized, explaining that it hadn’t been done on purpose. He was clearly very careful with his vehicle.
We arrived at his home, and he led me into the house, where we sat together at his dining table. He got me a diet soda, and then we talked. And talked. And talked. It was like a dam had burst.
Remember, this was a dream-come-true for me. Michael Cole had been my young girlhood perfect guy – and here I was as an adult, at his dining table, in his home, chatting with him as if we were long-time friends. Amazing!
When we finally finished talking, he allowed me to take his photo in front of his drawing on his wall.
But the most amazing part, really, beyond everything else…interview over, photos done – Michael Cole, the Michael Cole, wanted to cook me dinner. Yes, he wanted me to have dinner with him – and he was going to be the chef. Spaghetti, as a matter of fact. I thanked him for the offer and, for reasons I’ll never understand…I said, “No, thank you.”
Can you imagine?!