CONAN’S LONG-TIME BANDLEADER;
TOUGH-GUY ACTOR MICHAEL KENNETH WILLIAMS
By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Oct. 10, 2010 — Why did bandleader Max Weinberg decide not to follow Conan O’Brien to TBS?
Blame it on the irresistible lure of the Garden State. In the final analysis, this lifelong Jersey boy says he just couldn’t pull up stakes in his home state at age 59 for a new life in La La Land, though he did follow Conan there for his short-lived stint as host of ‘The Tonight Show’ on NBC – a gig which abruptly came to an end last January.
The famed drummer – a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1974 (since Springsteen’s third album, “Born to Run”) and a fixture in late-night TV as Conan’s musical director (and sometime comic foil) for 17 years – talked about his decision to withdraw from late-night, revealing for the first time that he underwent life-saving open-heart surgery just two weeks after the demise of Conan’s ‘Tonight Show’ last winter and how this “life-changing” experience influenced his decision to stay put on the East Coast.
The occasion for the interview was the pending premiere Thursday of a new documentary about Springsteen on HBO – ‘The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town’ (9/8c). Weinberg, who appears often in the 90-minute film, shared his own memories of the lengthy process from which the ‘Darkness’ album was born – three years after ‘Born to Run’ turned Springsteen and his bandmates into international rock stars.
It was finally confirmed a week or so ago that you’re not joining Conan on his new TBS late-night show. What happened there? Will we ever see you on TV again, other than documentaries about Bruce Springsteen?
[Laughs] I’m sure you’ll see me on television again. You won’t see me on an episodic show, that’s for sure. I did my time. I loved it. It was great. Frankly, I do prefer living in New Jersey and that was one of the problems I had. I love playing in L.A., but my kids and my wife are back east, and we live part of the time in Italy, so it was hard to structure my life [and have a job in Los Angeles]. I can tell you – I can make a little news here, which I haven’t talked about to anybody, but on Feb. 8, I came to the end of a 26-year watchful, waiting odyssey that culminated in 12 hours of massively invasive open-heart surgery.
Was it a bypass?
[No] I had valve repair. I found out about this 26 years ago and I knew about it and I monitored it. At the time, there was not much they could do and it wasn’t as serious as it became. As I got older, it got worse. Fortunately, the protocols for dealing with it became much more advanced and I found a wonderful doctor in New York who specializes in repairing valves. Two years ago, it became life-threatening and I had to do something about it sooner or later. I did it two weeks after [Conan’s ‘Tonight Show’] went off the air.
I’ll tell you it was a life-changing experience emotionally and spiritually. I owe my life to these doctors. If you can remember back to how moved David Letterman was when he got back on the air [in February 2000] – he had quintuple bypass surgery. [In valve-repair surgery] they stop your heart. I was on the heart-lung bypass machine for close to seven hours. Did it play into my decision to remain where I am? Maybe. I mean I had three months of very difficult recovery. When I say it was life-changing – I’ve always been a person who smelled the roses, but everything looks a little brighter. Everything looks a little bit more manageable. Nothing is really that big a deal to me anymore. I’ve never felt better. I thought I had energy before [but] I’m a thousand percent better. I’m playing better than I ever did. I’m not looking backward. I feel wonderful about where I’m at – physically, personally, professionally.
Do you have anything to add to the story of what happened to Conan? Were you as shocked as anybody else that his ‘Tonight Show’ went south that way?
It was very dramatic. At my age, just being in this business for as long as I’ve been, nothing really surprises me, particularly in the landscape of television. [But] any abrupt ending to anything is shocking. It was very weird and awkward and, of course, I felt really bad for some of the people who moved out there – over a hundred people from New York who really took the hit, people who had purchased homes. I know of one case where the day this news broke, which I think was Jan. 5 or 6, this individual had just closed on a house and that’s a real shame.
Let’s talk about the HBO documentary about ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town.’ Why are we singling out this album for documentary treatment? What’s so special about this one?
Of course, I have a somewhat prejudiced opinion – that all of Bruce’s albums are special. This record, as the next project that was done after ‘Born to Run,’ to me, is extremely reflective of what was going on in music at the time in the late ’70s. If you contrast ‘Darkness’ and its sound with the sound of ‘Born to Run,’ it’s quite different. And I knew at the time that Bruce had begun to crystallize what it was he wanted to write about. I always viewed my role and the rest of the musicians as: We’re colors in Bruce’s palette and I can recall on that record they wanted the drums to be very austere. I think the best example of that is probably the title track, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town.’ Why ‘Darkness’ now? Well, why not? It’s 33 years later and it’s sort of like the old Orson Welles line: ‘No wine before its time.’ There was footage that was filmed, it’s steeped in history and [so many years later], there’s a deeper resonance.
The movie traces the creation of the album and it goes into detail about the painstaking length of time that it took. How do you remember it? Was it satisfying, frustrating, tedious?
I remember it as a full range of emotion – definitely not tedium. Now, I’m not the guy sitting in a room writing the songs. Prior to actually going into the studio in, I believe, June of 1977, we rehearsed everyday at Bruce’s house – from like 2 o’clock to 7 o’clock almost everyday and we’d rehearse four or five songs and get them playable. Then he’d come back the next day with four, five or six new songs. That went on for two years! Bruce had to do everything. He had to write the songs. He had to sing the songs. He had to think about what he was trying to say as he was writing it. Really, to be the boss you do have to pay the cost. And that was the cost that he did pay.
Will you watch Conan’s new show when it premieres Nov. 8 on TBS?
Absolutely. I hope they do wonderfully well. I’m sure they will. I put a lot of time and effort into creating our little world over there, you know, with the band and the musical direction and what the band contributed, and I trust and I hope that the band retains the profile they had. [Conan] is a brilliant, hard worker. I’ve been fortunate to have people like Bruce and Conan – you don’t run into guys like that very often.
You know him as “Omar,” the toughest thug in Baltimore on “The Wire,” and now, he’s a crime figure of a different sort in “Boardwalk Empire,” HBO’s new series about Atlantic City gangsters at the dawn of the Roaring ’20s. Meet Michael Kenneth Williams, HBO’s Chalky White.
CHALK UP ANOTHER ONE: Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White in “Boardwalk Empire.” Photo: Craig Blankenhorn
Chalk up another one for Michael Kenneth Williams.
He’s the Brooklyn-born actor who riveted audiences for five seasons on ‘The Wire’ in the role of Omar Little, the most-feared of all the thugs, gangsters and street toughs on that hallowed Baltimore-based HBO series.
And now, Williams is back on HBO in a series that’s shaping up to be an even bigger hit than ‘The Wire.’ It’s ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ the sprawling series from executive producers Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese about Prohibition Era gangsters in Atlantic City, N.J, at the dawn of the Roaring ’20s. The series stars Steve Buscemi as the town’s all-powerful political boss and Williams plays dapper Chalky White, also a key local figure whose power stems from his ability to marshal the African-American vote for the city’s white political machine.
In this Sunday’s episode (9 p.m.8c on HBO), Chalky has his most important scene yet, and Williams gets to deliver an unusually long monologue that reveals a harrowing and tragic episode from Chalky’s past.
Williams, 43, talked about the scene, about Chalky, about Omar Little, and how the actor came to receive the facial scar that, for better or worse, has helped define the characters he plays.
That’s a long speech they gave you in this Sunday’s episode of ‘Boardwalk’. How many pages of material is that?
Williams: That was actually three pages. That was the longest speech I’ve had in my career thus far. There was someone I’d seen do a speech [and] I always admired her performance and it was Epatha Merkerson and she did this speech in this film we did together called “Lackawanna Blues.” And I always remember saying, God, if I had the chance to rock a speech [like that] – just the way she embodied that spirit and the character in that scene, it just blew my mind.
What was the effect you were trying to achieve in the scene, particularly as it pertains to the other participant in the scene, a Ku Klux Klan leader tied to a chair and at the mercy of your character?
It’s 1920. It’s a whole different era. You know, for a black man to be in a white man’s face with that type of confidence, it was a rarity. It wasn’t like a cockiness. It was from pain, ancestral pain, if you will. I wanted that hardcore pain to come across in that scene.
Tell us more about the character of Chalky. Is he a stone-cold gangster?
He’s not a stone-cold gangster. He’s a businessman first. But he had to learn how to have a tough skin in order to [obtain] the finer things in life. He wanted the American dream and he had to learn how to deal in the water filled with sharks and he had to kind of become like that to achieve it. He’s like Omar, in a sense. He has a sense of code, he’s loyal, he’s not a backstabber – you’ll see that come out.
You pointed out how Chalky and Omar are similar. How are they different?
You know, Omar was in it for the thrill of the hunt. He didn’t care about the money or the fortune or the fancy house and the jewelry and the cars. He just did it for the love of the hunt. Chalky ain’t in it for the hunt, as long as you bring good business by his way, you ain’t got no problems outta him. But you gonna cut him in whether you like it or not. He’d rather just do business and keep the peace, where Omar just liked to stir the pot.
How did you come to get cast on ‘Boardwalk’?
I had worked with Martin [Scorsese] – Marty, as good friends call him [he laughs] – back in ’98 on a film called “Bring Out the Dead” with Nic Cage and Marc Anthony. So there was a familiarity there. I’m quite sure that everybody and their father was going up for this role so [there was] a lot of competition – but I think that [producer/director] Tim Van Patten was my ace in the hole.
When all was said and done, the seemingly invincible Omar Little was fatally shot by a child while Omar was purchasing a pack of cigarettes in a convenience store. What did you think of the ending they wrote for the character?
I mourned Omar like I lost a best friend. He was a part of me. It was definitely a surprise that no one expected, and it spoke to [the one weakness of] Omar, his Achilles heel. Everybody who was trying to kill him couldn’t get to him and it took a little kid to catch him completely off guard.
How important is ‘The Wire’ to you?
‘The Wire’ changed my life, personally and professionally. It opened me up [to a greater awareness of society’s problems]. It made me more aware of the social issues. You know, me comin’ from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, I was exposed to just my ’hood, but there’s a “wire” in every city in this country, it opened my eyes up to that.
Would you tell us the story behind your scar?
I was 25 – my 25th birthday. I was in Queens, N.Y. I had been drinking. I had that liquid courage in me and so some words got exchanged with some other guys and, you know, normally something I would have ignored, and I got jumped and one of the guys had a razor in his mouth, a straight razor in his mouth like they do in jail, and he pulled it out and he started slicin’ me.
Well, it doesn’t seem to have stopped you in the pursuit of your career. You just did a fashion spread in the October issue of GQ (posing on the Atlantic City boardwalk in a series of designer suits.
I don’t take too much credit for anything. I’m just pretty fortunate. There’s tons of talent walking around here on the streets of New York. It wasn’t like I did anything great. I’m just truly fortunate and grateful for my opportunities.
Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org