Larry Cohen, Law & Order and composing symphonies: A chat with Michael Moriarty

Michael MoriartyI recently had the honour of having a chat with veteran actor and composer Michael Moriarty, and am pleased to present my interview with him. Michael is a Detroit native, who has moved up to my home province of British Columbia recently, and is loving it here. He has appeared in countless films, including Along Came A Spider, Courage Under Fire, Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, The Shiloh films, Who’ll Stop The Rain, And the film’s of Larry Cohen. He’s also shown up in many television series, such as The 4400, Taken, Masters Of Horror, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Holocaust where he excellently played sadistic Eric Dorf, and a legendary near one hundred episode run on Law & Order as A.D.A Ben Stone. I proudly present my chat with a true talent, Michael Moriarty:
Nate: At what age did you know that you wanted to be an actor? What made you want to be? Can you name some films and actors that have inspired you in life, to choose this craft?
Michael: Most frankly, my first and greatest love, for as long as I can remember, has always been music.


Symphonies actually.


I was raised on my father’s record collection in Detroit, Michigan. The very best of both classical and jazz.


I had, however, the most terrible time learning how to read music fluently.


I can now write it at the speed I enjoy but I’ve never been a decent sight-reader of music.


I had all these symphonic sounds in my head and in my heart but, being drawn to the freedom of jazz initially, I jumped to the shorthand of chord changes.


That, however, didn’t shrink the size of my ambitions.


Meanwhile and along the way, in the last year of grade school, I appeared in a class play and, as they say, “I got all the laughs.”


“Gee,” I thought, “This is much easier than learning how to read music.”


So, while slogging away at the technicalities of music, I kept doing classplays from grade school into high school and then finally into a drama major at Dartmouth College.


Because I wasn’t born either a white Art Tatum or a young Vladimir Horowitz, my father was not impressed with either my talent nor the intensity of my love for music.


In short, he either ignored, listened contemptuously to or criticized all of my musical efforts.


So, while acting was the easy way out, I never gave up on my music, playing and composing with increasing expertise and maturity.


As for favourite actors?


They are mostly born stars such as Simone Signoret, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Marlon Brando, Gary Cooper and my earliest influence: James Dean.


And, of course, on the stage particularly, the great Paul Scofield and Laurence Olivier.


Nate: You have frequently appeared in horror maestro Larry Cohen’s movies. How did the working relationship between you and him form?


Michael: Larry came to me with the script for WINGED SERPENT and I fell in love with the role of Jimmy Quinn.


My agent warned me against doing a Larry Cohen film because his work is not held in high respect.


As Larry himself labels it, “Shock Shlock!”


I didn’t care.


I knew I could give one of my best performances as Quinn in that film and I did.


Rex Reed, in a television interview with the producer of Katherine Hepburn’s version of The Glass Menagerie – God bless Katherine Hepburn, Rex Reed and David Susskind – Rex Reed said that if WINGED SERPENThadn’t been so bad, I should have been nominated for an Academy Award.


After that, I kept trying to bring some of that magic back by working in many more Larry Cohen films. It was increasingly touch-and-go and, well, I never felt quite as victorious as I did in WINGED SERPENT.


Nate: One of my favourite childhood film series was Shiloh, which you starred in (the first two). How was your experience working on that film, with the dogs, the young actors, and Scott Wilson, another favourite of mine, Scott Wilson?


Michael: It was fun and Scott Wilson is always a pleasure to work with.


Nate: You have an epic, near one hundred episode run on Law & Order. How was it for you to play a character in a televised show that lasted for years and years, as opposed to a role in one movie that maybe takes a month to shoot? Did you find that the work takes on a life of its own, a second nature, if you will, after playing the same role for that long?


Michael: Yes.


And with Producer Dick Wolf’s request that I simply play myself, it was the loveliest and longest period of steady, rolling-off-a-log work I had ever experienced in my life.


I’m proud of my four years with Law and Order yet very much at peace with my reasons for leaving that series.


I left and publically said I would leave months before NBC claimed they fired me.


I advertised in both the Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter, both of which printed my ads, that I was not only leaving Law and Order, I was leaving America.


All at least weeks before NBC announced my “firing”.


As you know, I did leave America and came to Canada.




Because of the lack of support I received from everyone in New York and California for my having gone up against the Clinton Administration and their crazed Attorney General, Janet Reno. She was attempting to blackmail dramatic television with threats of government censorship.


Nate: A very unique film of yours I enjoy is ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’. It’s a distinctive piece. Did you enjoy working on that one?


Michael: Not really.


I enjoyed working with Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld and playing four hand piano with Tuesday’s husband, the eternally witty Dudley Moore.


And, aside from that, I have no further comment.


Nate: You have successfully avoided typecasting in your lengthy career, portraying a wide range of characters, from Military higher ups, to fathers, family men, a cowboy and even a psychopath (you were excellent in that Masters Of Horror episode by the way). What has been your favourite type of characters to play, that you identify with the most?


Michael: Ben Stone of Law and Order.


Ironically, despite the fact that I am, as you suggest, a character actor, I felt most at home in what eventually became a kind of leading man, Ben Stone.


And, MOST ironically, the producer Dick Wolf just said, “Don’t create a character, Michael. Just play yourself.”


And I did.


I will always be grateful to Dick Wolf for that request.


I never knew that earning such good money could be that easy.


Nate: Do you have any projects coming up that you are excited for or that you want to mention?


I’ve started composing my 5th Symphony, while at the same time finishing up my 4th and beginning my adventure into the extraordinary world of opera.


My first work for the opera house, PRELUDE, is at least a year and half away from completion.


I have never been happier and, with the music site – 77gelsomina youtube – which my wife Irene started quite awhile ago, containing decades of composing, both jazz and symphonic, I now have all the work which I’m most thrilled by, sitting and growing and maturing before both my eyes and my ears.


Nate: You have spent a lot of time in my hometown of Vancouver, as well as the surrounding area. How do you like it here?


Michael: I’ve never been happier! British Columbia is the most breathtaking corner of the entire world, much of which I have already seen, and Vancouver is the loveliest young city existing in the world today, a profoundly healthier version of America’s San Francisco.


This 7th decade of mine contains the happiest years of my life.


I am exclusively doing what I’ve always wanted to do in the first place.




You may not know this, however: eight years ago I had heart failure and almost died. The doctors gave me six months to live.


I haven’t acted since then and don’t intend to.


I am most happily retired from all that.


However, after quitting both smoking and drinking, I have lived another eight years and, God willing, look forward to at least another ten years in which to compose more music.


Overall, I have been very, very blessed.
Nate: Thank you for sharing that, Michael. I’m beyond happy for you in your composing work, and hope to explore some of your pieces, and get the same enjoyment that I do from your acting work. Thank you for speaking with me, it’s an honour.

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