“Larger than life” is the phrase Michael Swan uses often, to refer to anything from the reasons for his fascination with the big-screen stars of yesteryear—Bogart, Flynn, Gable—to the explanation for why he so often pushes himself to the limit of actual danger in his “search for himself,” to the development of the “outrageous reputation” of one Duncan McKechnie—the Irish character Swan portrays on CBS-TV’s soap, As The World Turns.
A native Californian now planted firmly and quite happily in Suffern, New York, Michael Swan is all at once the incarnation and the antithesis of that “larger than life” phrase. He resembles a swashbuckling Errol Flynn, not as much in appearance as in persona—something that is “carefully cultivated,” he is quick to pint out. And, off-screen, his build and appearance are very little like the Herculean figure he seems to cut on screen.
Swan explains his broadcast “transformation” as being achieved the same way his silver screen heroes made themselves “larger than life”—through “excellent craft, outstanding technique and passion,” he describes. And doing so himself has been a lifelong pursuit. Swan says he always wanted to be an actor, a desire he started to put into practice when he had just only mastered walking and talking. “When I was growing up, my mother (an actress) was doing Shakespeare for Lillian Fontaine. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was my first exposure to Shakespeare. I was four. I learned her lines right along with her.”
Then came an oft-reported “wild” youth, running with the bulls in Pamplona, gambling and fighting, and a period when he “tried to do everything Errol Flynn and Ernest Hemingway did.” Michael Swan is well aware of his rebellious nature, saying, “I was a hippie. There’s something tied in with the ‘larger than life’ thing. I think psychologists now call it ‘the T factor.’ It’s the Type A personality, with an offshoot, known as the ‘T,’ which stands for ‘thrill.’ I purposely tested, pushed things to the limit.” And he still does.
And so does Duncan, his television alter ego. Michael, in the guise of Duncan McKechnie, does for television what Errol Flynn did for the movies. “He has a reputation for ‘womanizing,’ which turns out as not insincere, but just bad luck with relationships—having had about four of them in little more than two years,” Swan remarks about Duncan. “He has a bad temper, he’s very passionate . . . so maybe some of the things he does, or the ways he goes about them, seem outrageous. Other than that. . . .”
But then Michael puts perspective on this viewpoint. “Anybody that moves a castle, stone by stone, from Scotland, like William Randolph Hearst moved great objects of art to San Simeon, is a little outrageous. Duncan must be a lot richer than I think,” he adds. “But money is no object when it comes to his whims.”
While Michael Swan certainly has a lot to do with developing and projecting Duncan’s character, did the actor himself create his character’s background? “No,” he says. “What happens a lot in daytime television is that, as the actor plays an already written character, the writers watch the actor in the role. Then, every time they have a writer’s meeting, they say, ‘Did you see what he (the actor) did on the air the other day? Let’s create something in his past life to carry that through.’”
He refers to something happening with his character as illustration. “Right now, Duncan has come back to Oakdale (the soap opera’s base locale) after an absence. Before he left, he was in the ‘import/export business,’ but now we’ve refined it to where he is supplying Oakdale with wines and liquors. My personal background is wine. So, a lot of what the actor does in real life gives the writers cues for the character.”
As Swan says, wine is very much a part of his “personal background.” He has a wine cellar in his home and now, his television character is proprietor of Oakdale Wines and Spirits. Where did this interest come from? “Joseph Swan, my relative, moved to Paris as a teenager. World War II came along and he started flying, but while he lived there he became very interested in wine,” the actor-cum-oenophile explains. “When the war was over, he made lots of money and imported grapestock from the famous vineyards of Burgundy. Later, he bought a place in Sonoma County, planted ten acres of grapestock, and built a little winery in the basement where I helped him out.”
Michael pauses for a moment, searching for a yet deeper reason for his interest. “There’s something in Greek mythology,” he adds. “The god of wine and the god of theater, Bacchus and Dionysus, are the same, and so there’s a definite connection between the two, between wine and theater. I’m not exactly sure what it is intellectually, but I feel it and I’ve always had this interest. When I couldn’t get work as a young actor in San Francisco, I went into the family wine business, learned about it, and had it to fall back on.” He leans back. “It’s been a consuming passion ever since.”
And, as a self-taught gourmet cook, Michael sees wine as a natural addition to a perfect meal. But, as a bachelor, he doesn’t do much cooking of gourmet meals to eat alone, except “sometimes when I really have a taste for something. What I’ll do then is go down to this great Rockland supermarket with a separate butcher who has very fine meats. I’ll go in—he’s got porterhouse steaks two inches thick—and I’ll say, ‘Let me have that one.’ Then I’ll go over to the wine shop, or into my own cellar, and pick out a nice bottle of red wine. Then I’ll go home and fire up the grill.”
A man who projects the persona of an Errol Flynn probably isn’t dining by himself all the time. And, he must have discovered several favorite haunts around his new home, as well.
“There’s a wonderful restaurant in Ramsey called The Café Panache,” he comments, “and some beautiful parks around here. Suffern is very beautiful. I’ve traveled a lot around upstate New Jersey, Rockland County, and Westchester. I don’t think I could find a prettier, more accessible area with the same proximity to New York City for commuting. It’s thirty-five minutes, the way I drive.”
And “the way I drive” could be a phrase for Michael Swan to use to describe his professional pursuits. In the last seventeen years, he has, as he puts it, “appeared on virtually every prime time adventure show around,” and garnered parts on a few television show pilots that never made it to serious status.
He was also the original Richard Channing on Falcon Crest. “There was an entirely different cast at the beginning, but that was during the writers’ strike. After that they wanted to recast, and we were all let go. David Selby became Richard Channing—who was a very different character than when I had the role. Richard was a mercenary, very hard-nosed, who had come back from the wars in Africa to help Angela fight family wars.”
Now Swan has a successful, ongoing role in what is often considered the most secure area of the acting business-daytime television. “I don’t know if I want to go back to prime time work,” he muses. “Episodic television is not really too healthy. This is an excellent job for an actor. I think I would go back if it were for a movie-of-the-week or a miniseries—something long term. Television is simply a risky business. If you do a pilot, and the pilot sells, they’ll do maybe six episodes and then sometimes pull the plug on the other six. Then, an actor, having done a series that went in the dumper, is considered poison. So, it’s very risky. I’ve been living at risk for twenty years. Now, I like security.”
And he also likes the comfort of his own home away from the noise of the city, having an ongoing, regular job in an otherwise insecure industry, as well as a personal interest upon which he could always fall back on to provide a living if the need arose. In fact, in short, at forty-one, Michael Swan does indeed seem to be settling down.
Maybe not entirely, however. Once named as one of the world’s “Most Watchable Men” by Man Watchers, Inc., a group of West Coast women (“I don’t know how they arrive at their decisions,” states Michael; “I believe it’s totally arbitrary”), he has recently been featured on the cover and as the centerfold of Playgirl Magazine. “That came about because my publicist sent in a photo of me and they liked it and used it,” he describes. “They then expressed interest in having me do a layout. They wanted full frontal nudity for which they offered me $3,000. I said, ‘No thank you’ to that, but I would be interested in something without frontal nudity. I figure at my age, having to work hard enough as it is to be in good shape, this would probably be my last shot at something like that . . . knowing my fondness for fatty foods.”
That fondness could also extend to wine, women and song. Michael Swan is a professionally trained singer. He’s in a group of eleven soap opera star singers—an up-and-coming phenomenon on daytime television—who are on a college tour, which started with Hofstra University on Long Island in November. Swan has also made regular appearances at The Whaler Bar in New York City, a spot which has become home for soap opera stars showing off their musical abilities.
Michael Swan is clearly a man who lets little pass by him untried. And, despite the claim of “settling down” and preferring security to risk, he still continuously looks for more thrills to add to his list. Yet, “You know, people ask me when I’m going to learn to fly,” he says, shaking his head. “No way, uh uh. The thrill factor isn’t that great. ‘Don’t you want to jump out of an airplane?’ they ask. ‘No thank you,’ I say.”
For a man whose catch phrase is “larger than life,” it’s possible that he’ll settle down, but clearly he’ll never settle for a lesser existence.