BH Interview: Ken Wahl on Blue Collar Values, Tough Love and Defending Flyover Country

NOTE -- In the horrid aftermath of the Connecticut elementary school shooting, my talk with actor Ken Wahl ("Wiseguy," "The Wanderers") seems all the more poignant to me. We discuss Ken’s upbringing, how he learned his work ethic and how he was taught discipline by his parents. Discipline, respect for authority, focus, hard work, and self-restraint … virtues so distant and foreign to what seems like a chaotic and value-less culture of today.

This interview was conducted days before the tragic shooting. Ken wishes to extend the following statement re: the shooting: 

“My heart breaks for those little kids, their teachers and their parents. My prayers go out to all of them.” – Ken Wahl


This is the first in a multi-part series.

Gary Graham: How’re you guys doing?

Ken Wahl: Far as I can tell we’re doing okay?

Graham: Excellent.

Wahl: All things considered …

Graham: Speaking of PBS … and public radio …

Wahl: (laughs) No affiliation with PBS at all.

Graham: I had a buddy in college … he pumped PBS into every room of his house 24/7…we were both liberals, then later I turned right …

Wahl: Isn’t everybody [liberal] when they go to college?

Graham: I think so. I think it’s mandatory now [in college] that you smoke a bong-load and become a socialist.

Wahl: (laughs) I missed all that, I dropped out of high school.

Graham: You were a smart guy.

Wahl: I got my ‘H-S-D’ degree, my High School Drop-out. When I was younger, I used to sign my name that way.

Graham: (laughs) Ken Wahl, ‘H-S-D’?

Wahl: I’d sign my name, like you do with PhD, upper-case, lower-case, upper, case … and that’s how I’d sign my name. HsD. And nobody ever had the balls to ask me, "What the hell does that stand for?" They were always thinking, "What is he some kind of weird doctor or something?" But yeah – it stood for "High School Dropout." I used to sign my name that way.

Graham: Classic. They thought were a doctor. If you’d worn glasses, you could have been president of a college.

Wahl: Yeah … I told them I invented contact lenses, so I didn’t have to wear glasses.

Graham: So you understood early on that the way to success in Hollywood – is
bullshitting.

Wahl: Yeah.

Graham: Professor of BullShit.

Wahl: Pretty much … pretty much … And not just in Hollywood – in life! What’s the expression… "If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit."

Graham: There it is. And we end up doing a little both.

Wahl: Somewhere in the middle.

Graham: When I proposed doing and interview, you said, Hey it’s just a conversation. So I’ve got my digital recorder going, I hope that’s all right …

Wahl: Yeah … as long as it’s "digital." I don’t want any analog crap. Gotta be digital.

Graham: (laughs.) Digital can be scary. You hit the wrong key-stroke and boom, it’s tweeted.

Wahl: Ah … I don’t get into any of that.

Graham: You don’t tweet.

Wahl: I purposely stay away from all that.

Graham: Old School … good.

Wahl: I don’t know if it’s good but it is less complicated. The thing that amazes me about modern life is you have all these devices that are supposed to make your lives more enjoyable and simpler … and it’s the exact opposite. Everybody with all these devices and it’s oh I gotta tweet, I gotta Facebook, I gotta this, I gotta that … it’s like they’re crazy with all this technology.

Graham: The irony is these devices are supposed to bring people together..? I had lunch with a buddy recently … and looked around…and everyone in the restaurant sat with their heads down … working their cell phones … texting … 

Wahl: Not ever looking at each other. Faces buried in their devices.

Graham: And families … It used to be you’d take a drive with the family, Dad would say, Hey kids look at this mountain range, let me tell you about this. But the kids are working their GameBoys or iPhones

Wahl: They’ve all got headphones on! They’re all in their own little world … They might as well be on Mars. They may be in the same vehicle but they’re not together.

Graham: At this point I assume we sound like old codgers complaining and pining about yesteryear.

Wahl: Oh, I don’t mind that. I mean I do use the computer to pay my bills, for instance. But I don’t pick up all of it. You know the expression, “Necessity is the mother of Invention”? It’s gotten completely reversed. Now, it’s ‘Invention is the mother of Necessity.” Things that come out now … nobody thinks, Gee I really need that. It’s just another new thing that somebody’s invented that they gotta pick up.

Graham: [A new thing] that is presented and advertised and promoted in a way such that you salivate for food you never knew existed.

Wahl: And you never knew you wanted.

Graham: Talk about mass hypnosis.

Wahl: Right, the mass-marketing. Something they make you want that you never knew you had a desire for, that you never knew existed to have a desire for. It’s different from the past where people say Oh I don’t need these new-fangled inventions, because I do embrace those that do make your lives easier. But when you start piling on all these various electronic gadgets people become overwhelmed with it all. And if all these things really did make people happier, they wouldn’t be so stressed out. You’ve got all this technology to do virtually everything for you, how come you’re so stressed out?

Graham: Right. Are the incidences of heart attack or stroke or suicide on the decline?

Wahl: Absolutely not, they’re all on the rise.

* * * 

Graham: You came from humble beginnings, Ken. You family was tight. Was that where you learned your work ethic?

Wahl: Yeah, but it wasn’t like they sat me down and said You’re gonna have a work ethic. It was by example [I learned it from them]. But I actually learned to smell the roses also. Growing up I hardly ever even saw my Dad, he worked so much. He was pretty much a workaholic. So I learned not to be that also. My thing was always "work hard, play hard." Whereas my parents pretty much just worked hard. They never played…or almost never.

Graham: Play time cut into work time?

Wahl: Yes, exactly. My parents divorced when I was 12, 13. I actually saw my Dad more after they got divorced than I did when he was living at home. Because he would leave for work before we got up to go to school and he wouldn’t come back til we were in bed for the night. I never saw the guy! I’d hear the car going, that’s what would wake us up. My Mom would work too.

Graham: My dad, too. Poor farmer’s son, couldn’t afford to buys shoes to go to school with, put himself thru college, med school, always working, hardly ever see him. Then once a year we’d go on these family vacations, and we’d try to get to know this guy we called Dad. And he tried to relax, tried to have fun, but he really couldn’t.

Wahl: And it’s not that they didn’t want to, it’s that they didn’t know how. They worked so much they’d forgotten how to have fun. I started going to work with my dad at the gas station on weekends; that’s why I saw him more after my parents got divorced. We were the bluest of the blue collar family. My dad was a free-lance non-union mechanic. He had to work 70-hour work weeks to make sure we did have shoes. We didn’t worry about our next meal, we worried about the one after that. The shoes we did have, we wore out til they were gone. 

Graham: Yeah …

Wahl: You know, my life was basically like a movie you did, one of my favorite movies, “All the Right Moves." Where you played Tom Cruise's brother …?

Graham: Workin’ in the steel mill …

Wahl: With a few things different, but that was my life – where you just wanted to get out. And that’s what I did. I worked two, three jobs, just to save up enough money to come out here and try to do this. I had this crazy dream to do this and I just thought … at least I gotta give it a shot. I at least gotta try. If I don’t try I’m gonna kick myself in the ass for the rest of my life. All I’m lookin’ for is a time at bat. I might strike out but I just want the time at bat. And that’s what I did. That’s one of my favorite movies, just because of that; it reminds me of the way I grew up.

Graham: Nice …

Wahl: Did you enjoy doing that [movie]?

Graham: I loved it. They had been in production a couple of weeks when I arrived on location and, I hit the ground running. A bit of an alien environment to me, a steel mill town back east …

Wahl: Was it in Pennsylvania?

Graham: Jonestown, Pennsylvania, mid-80s

Wahl: Where they had the Flood?

Graham: The Jonestown Flood, yeah. Mostly you saw churches, bars, and closed down steel mills. It’s was a depressed economy, but these were a proud people; they looked after their own, worked their asses off to make ends meet and they took care of each other. I heard one the cast members making fun of them and I said Bullshit -- we’re gonna go back to our cushy life in Hollywood and you dare to make fun of these guys who are just trying to scrape together a few potatoes for their dinner?

Wahl: Funny you mention that – when I would be around other Hollywood people and they’d talk about they’re flying out to the coast and they gotta go over "flyover country"… and I’d always say, Hey man if it weren’t for "fly-over country" you wouldn’t have a career. So you oughta appreciate those people a little more. Those are the guys who work their asses off so they can go to the movies on Friday or Saturday night or watch you on television. Those are the people who give us our jobs, our livelihood. And I can’t stand it when people put them down, like ‘fly-over country’ like there’s New York and L.A. and everything else doesn’t matter.

Graham: And I get lumped into [the insult] being a Republican … a "Red Stater" …

Wahl: Which is just ridiculous. That’s just the close-mindedness of the Liberals … who are supposed to be so open-minded. If they’re so open-minded, they should be able to accept these people who don’t come from Los Angeles or New York. It’s a big country out there, not just those two towns, which, don’t get me wrong, I love New York and L.A …. but there’s a whole big country out there that shouldn’t be discounted.

* * * 

Graham: You think kids today are spoiled?

Wahl: Rotten.

Graham: Rotten?

Wahl: Rotten. Not my kids, but… yeah, kids in general.

Graham: And if your kid hangs out with spoiled kids … if you put a rotten tomato in with the good, the whole barrel turns rotten.

Wahl: You get the thing of, “Well Josh’s parent let him do this…” “Oh really, well go live with Josh’s parents, there’s the door.”

Actor Ken Wahl

Graham: So you’d let him go?

Wahl: And lock the door behind him.

Graham: And then change the locks…? So cold, so cold … (laughs)

Wahl: My grandparents taught me, “You don’t raise children, you raise adults.” They don’t stay children forever. You’re not raising them to be children, you’re raising them to be adults. I was never excessively rough – I think I spanked my kids 2 or 3 times, just on the behind, never hit them in the face or anything like that. But most of the time I didn’t have to. They knew -- and I didn’t even yell. I’d just give them The Look. They knew that when they were doing something bad, whenever they went to far, all I had to do was shoot ‘em The Look. And they knew that if they kept messing around, after I give them that Look … then they were gonna get whacked. And they only got whacked once or twice their whole lives.

Graham: Kids have good memories.

Wahl: Yeah they do. I know I do. My Dad was great. I love my dad, and am very close to him – but when I got out of line … I was scared to death of him. Because I knew he wasn’t gonna mess around.

Graham: Like you say – not in the face, and not abusive, but when you got it coming, that smack across the butt, that switch on the bare legs … oh man… 

Wahl: When you hear that buckle rattle as that belt is coming off… ohh!

Graham: Ohhh…yeah… chilling stuff (laughs)

Wahl: The fear of God goes through you…

Graham: And ya know? Thank God for it, too. Thank God for it. I remember those scary moments… when you’ve been bad and you got a whuppin coming … but man did that set parameters in your life or what! Fences … kids need fences.

Wahl: Of course. You need that. And kids are spoiled rotten, but in fairness – they did not spoil themselves. Our generation of parents is the worse generation of parents there ever was. Now I understand, you know, back in the old days, when the pendulum may have swung too far the other way where kids were supposed to be seen and not heard. And I think that generation grew up and said, Well I’m not going to be like that when I’m a parent … but they went too far the other way, where they let their kids get away with murder. And then they become spoiled – and you’re not helping out the kid any, they just become miserable adults. And my kids aren’t perfect, but they are relatively well- adjusted. They’re not spoiled, and they very well could have been. They know that they gotta pull their own weight.

Visit Big Hollywood tomorrow for Part 2 of Gary Graham's interview with actor Ken Wahl

***The tragic shooting in Connecticut sickened and horrified us all. I posted the following on my Facebook page: “The answer to the ‘WHY?’ is that EVIL exists in this world. There is no 'sense' to be made of EVIL. Please PRAY for the victims, pray for the families, pray for the citizens of this town, and comfort those in pain and grief. And pray for our nation… that we may once again VALUE LIFE…. and teach that in our schools and in our homes. Pray that we once again teach LOVE to our children… and that LIFE is a precious gift from GOD ALMIGHTY.”

– G. Graham


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