Michael T. Weiss

Michael T. Weiss "The Pretender" was no longer deemed cost-effective after four seasons (1996-2000) by the NBC network and relegated to the huge video scrap heap in the sky littered with thousands of failed TV series.

It unleashed a fire storm of protest as 40,000 unhappy fans registered their unhappiness on the Internet by firing off extremely testy e-mail missives to the show`s producers, NBC Studios and 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. Before Michael T. Weiss` tears dried on the cancellation notice, two two-hour "Pretender" telefilms were sealed, signed and delivered.

"I think the bottom line is that the audience wanted to see more `Pretenders` and the network executives were simply out of touch," says Weiss, 38, the strapping 6-foot-2, heavily muscled 190-pound actor who stars as Jarod Russell - the genius impostor dedicated to helping those who cannot help themselves. "It`s a perfect example of the Internet`s purpose, which is to provide a direct link between the people and creative sources by cutting out the middleman."

Vox populi has yielded "The Pretender 2001" (Mon., Jan. 22, 8-10 p.m., TNT), the first of two movies designed to pick up where the original series ended with the additional twists of solving some long-standing questions and inviting more mysteries surrounding the show`s mythology. As usual, the Centre escapee will be chased by Miss Parker (Andrea Parker), Sydney (Patrick Bauchau) and Broots (Jon Gries).

Both TV movies were shot in Toronto, as was "The Pretender`s" pilot, with other cast stalwarts including Mr. Lyle (Jamie Denton), Mr. Raines (Richard Marcus), Mr. Parker (Harve Presnell) and Ethan (Tyler Christopher).

"I wasn`t quite ready to put Jarod to sleep," says Weiss, "because it has been an incredibly creative process working with talented writers and a great tight cast."

The second "Pretender" film - which takes place in Scotland - is already in the can and scheduled for broadcast in March or April, according to Weiss.

"It deals with ancient secrets leading back to the Centre and has a very different tone from the current movie. Jarod will continue to grow up before the audience, but I can`t reveal more than that. Beyond that, I have absolutely no idea about what is going to happen to the show as a series or movies."

A stark realist, Weiss is not sitting around waiting for "The Pretender" to be resurrected. Since leaving the show, he has kept busy providing the voice of Tarzan in the Disney animated TV series and finished principal photography on a New Line feature film scheduled for October release titled "Bones" with Snoop Dogg and Pam Grier.

"It`s a tongue-in-cheek gangsta rapper-horror film," he laughs, "where I play a 350-pound evil, bad cop. I`m sort of skinny, so it was quite a challenge to transform me with five hours of prosthetic makeup per day. And they had to age me at the same time to look like a cross between Jimmy Hoffa and John Gotti. The story starts in the `70s with my character wanting to bring crack to Snoop`s neighborhood. He is murdered, then comes back 20 years later as a ghost to avenge his death. It`s really cool."

From a Chicago suburb, Weiss and his two sisters (one is a Hollywood makeup artist; the other is an advertising executive) grew up in a warm, solid environment provided by his steel-industry employee father and a housewife mother. A talent agent, a friend of his mother, paved the way into show business by putting him in a TV commercial at the age of 12. Weiss did another half-dozen commercials while a kid, but didn`t take acting all that seriously until he was a student at Glenbrook High School and became involved with campus plays.

At 16, he appeared in "Ordinary People" (1980) - which earned Robert Redford an Oscar for Best Director - as a background extra paid the princely sum of $30 for a day`s work. The two finally met for a laugh 20 years later when Weiss` "Freeway" with Reese Witherspoon and Keifer Sutherland was entered at the Sundance Film Festival.

He still isn`t sure why he became an actor, but suspects it was a calling of some sort.

"I felt like Moses when (acting) picked me," grumbles Weiss. "My immediate reply was, `I don`t want to.` But it didn`t make any difference - it`s like what I do. It`s a crazy way to make a living, and certainly not the healthiest way to make a living, but here I am."

Throwing mental health to the wind, Weiss sought training while still in high school with Chicago`s Second City improvisational workshop. Looking for adventure, he enrolled at the University of Southern California School of Drama in Los Angeles along with Anthony Edwards, Ally Sheedy, Eric Stoltz and Forrest Whitaker. He earned a very expensive Bachelor of Fine Arts degree - which nobody has ever asked to see - in 1984.

It took another year before Weiss could make a living as an actor, which meant he stayed alive with a series of odd jobs ranging from flipping hamburgers to physical fitness trainer for the rich (Beverly Hills housewives) and famous (Pierce Brosnan). Not anxious to welcome competition in an already crowded field, none of the celebrities extended a helping hand to the would-be thespian. Weiss didn`t expect it to turn out any other way.

"If you want to be an actor, you pay your dues," he says. "It`s very hard to climb that ladder to success one rung at the time. You have to learn from your successes and failures. You learn when you suck. You learn when you get fired. You learn even when you`re the worst actor in the world."

Just before he became a professional fitness trainer, Weiss was cast as Dr. Mike Horton on the daytime soap opera "Days of Our Lives" (1985-90). What was supposed to be a few weeks work stretched into five invaluable years of experience. He left to give prime time a whirl, hooking up with "Dark Shadows" (1991) and "2000 Malibu Road" (1992) for short stints before "The Pretender" stayed around long enough to provide financial security.

A certified scuba diver who studies martial arts and can wiggle his ears, Weiss makes his home - apparently alone - in Los Angeles surrounded by a large group of close friends from the Chicago area both inside and outside show business.

"I`m single in theory, by technicality, and never divorced," he says cryptically. "Anything beyond that is part of that nebulous wonder world of personal life."

(c) Copley News Service

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