Michael Des Barres has made a career out of being a rock star, in roles on television and in movies … and as a real one onstage.
American viewers may remember him from his first TV appearance in 1978 on “WKRP in Cincinnati” as Dog, leader of the rock group Scum of the Earth. Coming full circle last month in an episode of NBC’s “Providence,” he played an aging glam-rocker, and now the talented British-born actor will portray a former one-hit wonder in the new WB sitcom, “A Young Person’s Guide to Being a Rock Star,” which debuts in March.
It’s an image Des Barres can’t shake, but he’s proud of his long, multifaceted career, which began in his teens when he was cast alongside Sidney Poitier and Lulu in the 1967 classic film, “To Sir, With Love.”
In a recent interview, Des Barres comments on his career highlights, which includes a few stints fronting rock bands:
“TO SIR, WITH LOVE” – “The most charismatic man I’ve ever met, Sidney Poitier. It was amazing, because it was 1967 and London was the most extraordinary place to be; there was so much creativity. Every taxi driver was a pop star; every cop was a fashion designer. It was madness. There was this incredible hybrid of hashish and Hendrix. I had been in boarding school for eight years. My father was an aristocrat and put me in these arch-conservative schools. I got out and went to drama school; within two weeks, I was put in the movie. What an amazing feeling. Also, being part of a seminal movie like that was very satisfying. People go, ‘My god, there he is in leather pants and bangs; things don’t change!’ We’re talking 1967; geez, Kurt Cobain’s dad probably hadn’t been born yet, that was so long ago. I still see Sidney every now and then at functions, and I see Lulu. She’s one of the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. She’s so underrated.”
DETECTIVE – After leading the metal-glam band, Silverhead, in the early 1970s, Des Barres formed this English rock quartet with Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye. Signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records, the group charted two albums in America, “Detective” (1977) and “Takes One to Know One” (1978).
“It’s a difficult thing when your boss is Jimmy Page. Imagine that. But that was an odd time for me, what I call my ‘substance-challenged years.’ I don’t remember much of it. I’ll see a photo from those days and go, ‘Oh, yeah, now I remember.’ “
“WKRP IN CINCINNATI”: “It’s funny, more people remember me from that one episode than anything I’ve ever done, including all my years (as the evil Murdock) on ‘MacGyver.’ It was such a blast. And, of course, they had us as these scraggily, leathered-up punk-rock stars who were rebelling against the world. I suggested that they have us wearing suits, which would really make a statement, and they went along with it. We ended up singing a few Detective songs.”
CHEQUERED PAST – After Detective disbanded, Des Barres teamed with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, former Blondie members Clem Burke (drums) and Nigel Harrison (bass) and guitarist Tony Sales (of Utopia and Tin Machine). Their self-titled EMI America debut album charted briefly in the fall of 1984.
“Again, playing alongside an amazing guitar player like Steve Jones was a wonderful experience, but by then I was sober and here I was with someone doing cocaine on one side of me and the other doing heroin, and the rhythm section was drunk. I was there in the middle going ‘You see, there’s this wonderful 12-step program …’ and, of course, no one was listening to me.”
THE POWER STATION – When Robert Palmer decided he didn’t want to tour, this short-lived supergroup turned to Des Barres at a critical moment: just days away from performing at Live Aid.
“Literally, 10 days before that show, I got a call from Nile (Rodgers), who told me to fly to New York because he had this gig for me. He didn’t even tell me what group it was; he just said, ‘Believe me, it’s huge.’ I got there and learned all their songs, and the next thing I know I’m onstage, playing in front of a huge audience in Philadelphia and a TV audience of 2 billion worldwide. Talk about pressure, but I loved every minute of it. I recently saw a few pictures of myself at Live Aid and in each one, I was grinning from ear to ear. I was having the time of my life.”
Soon after The Power Station toured America opening for Duran Duran, the group disbanded.
“MACGYVER” – “That came up shortly after Power Station and around that time I was itching to get back into acting. It was a great role. I got to wear lots of fabulous disguises.”
“SEINFELD” – Des Barres played a snooty restauranteur in the April 1993 episode titled “The Smelly Car,” in which a valet’s body odor stinks up Jerry’s car and invades all the passengers. At the end of the show, Des Barres’ character agrees to smell the car, but Jerry and George trap him inside until he agrees to pay for damages.
“I got in there right at the height of their fame. They were like the Beatles. I loved working with Jerry. Like many of the great comedians I’ve worked with, like Steve Martin and Roseanne Barr, Jerry has this incredible calmness about him.”
“THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS” – In this new film, showcased at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, Des Barres stars with Mick Jagger and Andy Garcia as male escorts. The movie also features James Coburn, Julianna Marguiles, Anjelica Huston and Olivia Williams.
“Wow, what a great opportunity to work with Mick Jagger and Andy Garcia, who are total opposites. We play these male whores, at my age no less. And Mick’s just incredible. Andy’s this classic methodical actor, while Mick acts purely by instinct.”
“A YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO BEING A ROCK STAR” – “Johnny Rotten had been cast as the father in the pilot, but it didn’t work out, so they called me. And I’m grateful for that. Working with Shannon Tweed and Oliver Hudson, Kate’s brother, is great. My character really resents his kid for having success with his music career, which of course he only saw a glimpse of on his own. But he wants his son to avoid all the pitfalls he suffered. This is for The WB, which has a limited viewership, but I think people will really enjoy the show.”
MICHAEL DES BARRES ON THE WEB: michaeldesbarres.com.
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