Dark and curly hair. Brooding eyes. Gravelly voice. Women over fifty will probably recall the introspective character, Pete Cochran, from the early 1970s hit ABC series, MOD SQUAD. Michael Cole, the actor who portrayed Pete, is much different today in many ways than he was then.
Appearance-wise, however, one significant point is just as obvious. Amidst MOD SQUAD's 5-year run, Michael was in a serious car accident. His eyelid was nearly severed from his face; surgery saved it though an obvious scar remains. Girls across America sighed in relief that he was okay and dreamed anew of his weathered, but still handsome face.
Today, that face is even more weathered; the build is now medium, seesawing between middle-aged and toned; the dark hair--streaked with gray--still curly. The voice ... unchanged. He wears glasses. Those once-dreaming teens who so-heavily sighed over him many years ago are now adults with daily lives no longer centered around the fantasy of Michael Cole. He's long been aware of his drop from the heights of super-stardom.
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. His words were opening onto deeper scars. These scars were invisible to sight but obvious to a carefully listening 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 suddenly lit up as he went into an extensive dissertation on how he literally lived on the stage for many years.
"Then I went to Las Vegas. I met Paula there." Paula [Dickinson] Kelly was once a member of The Modernaires. She was a talented singer, and the woman who would become Mrs. Michael Cole.
"She was beautiful. I was shy." He gave a lopsided grin, and his squint deepened. He looked like a big kid. The mention of Paula, the woman who'd been a constant in his life for so many years, and the one who had given him his one adored child, a daughter ... Paula's name brought a softness to his voice and made his face light up.
When he spoke again, his ideas were rapid-fire. Next, he was discussing 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 he had often used as Pete Cochran. I was sure it was an unconscious Michael Cole habit. "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 toward a better life by Michael Cole, at the time a young man himself, but one who had it all. Yet even he was ready to self-destruct. What followed for him once the show was over 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?
It was that accident. He found God admist a 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 afterward, rushing to the hospital. "People were in and out of my room."
He eyed his fingers, 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 so philosophical at the time about potentially losing an eye, and his career.
After the eye was saved, and after MOD SQUAD was finished, Michael Cole's career severely floundered. He guested on episodic TV but for the most part, paid the bills by doing stage work across the country. He related one experience while on stage.
"We were in a small town. The weather was bad and we didn't know if we'd have an audience. There were three old ladies there and one was celebrating her 80th birthday." He ran a forefinger up the side of his nose--another unconscious Pete Cochran/Michael Cole gesture--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 took a deep breath. His next words were thick. "We both cried. It's still a special memory."
How could a man who cries at an old lady's party, a stranger, turn into a hard-drinking, belligerent person? "I was afraid." That was his simple explanation. "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. Despite their long history together, still she eventually had to leave him.
"She didn't do anything wrong," he was quick to assure, "it was me. She 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. They told me to go back to work but it wasn't time. I knew when it would be time."
Fast forward to today. Michael reads avidly, quotes Dylan Thomas, the Bible, and other writings that have affected him. He quit school in the 10th grade, eventually returning but he never finished college. Yet he speaks 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 into deep despair, these days he seems to have peace of mind, a spiritual understanding of his life, a great relationship with his daughter and a special friendship with his ex-wife.
He showed me a sketch he did on one of his walls--a cross with a humanistic flower object draped across it, in the way Christ had been hung on the cross. Next to the sketch, he had written, "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 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 in on his side. "Don't do that!"
I apologized, explaining I hadn't slammed the door intentionally. 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 offered me a diet soda, and then we talked. And talked. And talked. It was like a dam had burst in him.
Remember, this was my dream-come-true . Michael Cole had been my girlhood perfect guy--and here I was as an adult sitting in his home at his dining table, chatting with him as if we were long-time friends.
As we finally finished, he allowed me to take his photo in front of his drawing on the wall.
But the most amazing part, beyond everything else ... interview over, photos done--Michael Cole, the Michael Cole, wanted to cook dinner for me. He wanted me to have dinner with him--and he would be the chef. Spaghetti, as a matter of fact.
I thanked him for the offer and, for reasons I'll never, ever understand--or maybe I do understand ... I said, "No, thank you."
Can you imagine?!