TV By Day
Mike Zaslow passed his teens some while back, but when he exclaims, "I was a teenage rebel!" it seems that he doesn't only mean past tense. Everything about him shouts the roaring teenage rebel, still holding onto "non-cop-out" values. Of course there's nothing like the same violence!
"When I was fifteen I lived with my family in a very dangerous area of New York," said Mike. "We had gang fights at church dances and I took to carrying a knife. When my parents found that out they made up their minds - we were moving back to California." The producers of CBS-TV's SEARCH FOR TOMORROW must have seen the same rebel in Mike, the old "kid with a problem" - for he was cast as Dick Hart, who is in charge of the Rec Room, a haven for teenagers and their problems.
"I feel I know the kind of problems that kids have," he says. "I've experienced a lot of them myself. My family was poor - my father was a union organizer and we moved from California to Chicago to New York before I was six. In New York I won a scholarship to a prep-type school at Ninety-fifth Street and Columbus. So there I was in a rich kids' school yet living in a poor neighborhood. The school was run by two old ladies and after lessons I'd go off and play stickball with my Negro and Puerto Rican friends - I had two very distinct sets of friends, but I didn't compromise. At fourteen I really became a rebel - and I was very taken with Elvis. That was when I started keeping a knife by me - you had to be ready for anything. Then I got to see West Side Story and I flipped over that. It was really the kind of life I was leading. Keir Dullea got me the tickets for it, by the way."
How did he know Keir Dullea at fourteen? Mike pushes back his long curly hair and laughs. As handsome off-camera as he is on the show, Mike has deep-set brown eyes that have a warm, generous glow, "You won't believe this," he says, "but Keir Dullea use to baby-sit for my parents - he's six years older than I am and our parents were both into social causes. Keir and I are great friends. When his play, Butterflies are Free opened in London, he asked me over to see it. I went and had a great time there."
What happened to him when his family moved back to California?
"We settled there," he continues. "I was sixteen and I had to get used to a new high school and another different set of friends. It was a very difficult age for me. I'd been studying piano and had decided that I wanted to be a concert pianist. But somehow all that got changed and I began to lead an outdoor type of life. I love California - camping in the desert, driving in the hills. Really you know I'm a very adventurous kind of a guy - always curious."
"In Lost Angeles I went to UCLA and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. But I found college life divorced from reality - I guess I was still a rebel - so I dropped out. I went through the 'love' bit and then decided that it was not for me. And then, for a while, I got in the drug scene."
Mike pauses for a moment, as if recollecting. His apartment, one enormous room in New York's West Forties, resounds to trucks heading for the Hudson River or up towards Times Square. On a low table a stick of incense burns, filling the air with a soft fragrance.
"When you're in that scene," says Mike, looking serious and determined not to skirt around a difficult subject, "You must have discipline. You must take the whole thing very seriously for what drugs do is loosen up your whole subconscious. I'm out of it now, but looking back I can see the dangers. I'm not concerned with grass, but kids now will take literally anything into their systems and not give a damn. I am very concerned about the whole thing. Since drugs are so dangerous, many kids have opted out of their entire lives. Friends of mine have younger brothers and sisters who are cracking up - some of them are even in insane asylums. I think the whole establishment world is copping out - and this is where TV, for example, could do so much to help. Kids are just giving up - just to take one current example, when someone in the Administration seems to care, like Hickel, who was trying to do something about the environment, and then gets fired, it has a really bad effect on the kids."
Since he mentioned TV is this an area where the soaps could help?
"They certainly can," says Mike almost explosively. "That's why I think it's such a shame that they're putting Rec Room out. The social issues go right out too and so does the valuable part of the show. I think they should have done a real job on Rec Room and put in genuine people. Real kids and blacks with Afros. They would question the motives in the script and give it reality. Rec Room should have been a real, honest part of the show. Let's do all we can to lose hate and let love in. You know Search for Tomorrow likes people and the ones they use are good. Maybe they'll change their minds and expand Rec Room." Mike's gloomy face indicates that he feels that this is unlikely. He leans across to the table and pours out wine into two tall glasses. It's a California make of course.
"Most soap operas," he says, "are just a stream of pabulum. I think that G. B. Shaw said, 'You'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public' and that's the dictum they seem to follow. They put in something good and then at the first dip of the ratings, they run scared." Mike is warming to his subject and the good California wine is helping. "Businessmen run soaps," he continues, "not artists. I think we should really try to reach these people." Mike's rebellious need is fired and he takes another draught of wine. His voice is firm and convinced and the large brown eyes are very serious.
"I think the time has come to stop underestimating the intelligence of our audiences and give them the real stuff. But how do we go about it? The press is so conservative. The real human stories in the press only get sensational treatment with no reasons why these things happened. That's a great problem with the media. Who believes in the soaps, for example? Just what do they have to do with life? I think there's a room for a real soap opera." Mike leans back in his chair and for the first time in a while smiles. "I'd like to liberate the cameras!"
Mike is anything but a violent person. He's committed towards peace and nonviolent methods. With some other friends in the world of entertainment, notably Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, he's attempted to do something to help people understand the attitude of the Black Panthers. "None of the Panthers want violence," he states. "We have violence in all of us but that's no way to work. Logical concerned people don't want it. But people in power are running so scared they don't see that their best interests lie in helping the poor." Once again Mike's eyes are flashing with that rebellious look.
"I want to wake America," he says pensively. "I feel as if I could do that through the songs I write and as an actor and as a writer. That's how I express myself best." What sort of music is he most fond of? "I like jazz, rock and folk music," he replies. He also plays the guitar, besides the piano. A large grand piano takes up a corner of the room and he obviously plays it often.
The big apartment is very conducive to reading and study and Mike has gone through a lot of books there, reading a whole range of authors. He's had a lot of time to read and loaf around lately since Mike has been living the life of a bachelor. He is married to Joan Dorian (of ONE LIFE TO LIVE) but at the moment is separated from his wife. Mike is a private sort of person and he is careful not to hurt others. He describes himself, in fact, as an underground personality.
He likes people - and his dream is to take off somewhere someday, sailing perhaps, with several tried and true friends. "I'm crazy about sailing," he says. "I'd like to go off and explore islands. I'm not a single person at heart," he explains. "In fact I team up very nicely with the ladies!" Mike's grin is wide and not a little wicked.
Mike is a photography nut and he likes to make short films. He also enjoys putting on light shows for the benefit of his friends. "I'm a curious mixture as a person," he says. "Scorpio with Virgo rising. That's an odd combination, you know. Orderly Virgo and disorganized Scorpio!"
How did he first start in the world of show business? "I really started acting when we first lived in New York," he recalls. "Improvisational acting at Greenwich House - sort of a fantasy life. But my first experience was at the Chicago Lyric Opera - I was a child actor in "Pagliacci" at 4 years old. I upstaged everyone by deciding I wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of a scene - I just went off and didn't care. There were lots of titters in the audience and ever since that time the sole desire of my parents has been to keep me off the stage! Seriously though, they're both very proud of my work. They are in California still and they watch the show all the time.
Mike has been writing music for as long as he has been playing the piano. He and Mary Stuart, star of SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, exchange their songs and often get together to play and sing. "I wrote a song for Butterflies Are Free for Keir to sing," says Mike. "It came second in the running. Keir told me that he was disappointed. Would you like to hear it?"
Mike picks up his guitar with gentle hands and sits on the sofa. He tunes it carefully and launches into a verse. He has a warm, flowing voice with strange-sad cadences. "I changed all my failings into funny little faded dreams," he sings. Encouraged, he sings and plays a little more, including a gentle number, a song that relates to his wife, called "Because It Hurts Too Much." At the piano he also plays music for several of his other lyrics, some of them just fragments he hasn't yet completed. One such fragment goes: "Love has dashed my stormy head against the stars again/I howl in the night at the waves breaking over my mind."
"I'm very interested in making an album," he admits. "But I'm very hard on myself as a songwriter. I couldn't bear to put up with something that I wasn't quite happy with."
"I've got to get really big with discipline in 1971," says Mike firmly. "I care about acting, and singing. I care about relating. Right now you could say that the rebel is keeping still. I'm lying back and growing strong - I don't know for what exactly. The quietness is helping the creativity. This is a difficult time for all mankind, I think. Man has survived till now, but now we must change to survive. We must treat each other like brothers and develop trust between one another - we have the sensitivity, but we have to nurture it. I can't see myself living unless I'm addressing myself to the problem."
If the real meaning of being a rebel is being someone who cares - then that's Mike Zaslow all the way down the line.