The actor shot to fame as Detective Wojciehowicz in the classic TV sitcom Barney Miller. From there, Max Gail’s varied life has taken a host of twists and turns. Recently he got a new set of knees that’s set him off on his latest adventure, which includes music, technology, and the occasional acting gig. Here he speaks with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan.
Lia Martirosyan: How’s it goin’, Max?
Max Gail: (laughs) The main thing for me right now is that my recovery from knee surgery is goin’ really well. But the doctor told me, you’ll be full of energy and then, around this time of day, you’ll start to nosedive, because there’s still a lot of healing going on. So that’s been the biggest change in my life. Also my twin sister, Mary, is in town from Berlin.
Martirosyan: A twin sister?
Gail: And there are two other sets of twin girls in my family.
Martirosyan: Are any of your other siblings in entertainment?
Gail: Mary is a singer-songwriter in the jazz-performance art realm. She also teaches. As I was saying, she lives in Berlin, where her daughter married a young German guy some years ago, and they have a family there. They’re all coming to visit. But Mary teaches at a couple of universities there and does her music. My brother is also an actor. Those were the two artists in the family. It was a surprise that I ended up in acting. I don’t know whether to call it a career or a careen. (laughter)
Martirosyan: Let’s go back to your knees. How did the pain start, and when did you realize that you would need surgery?
Gail: I played football for a long time and first injured one of my knees in high school. During my college days, having your knee operated on was sort of a warrior’s badge. In those days, they just took out the cartilage if it was torn. They weren’t really thinking down the road. And so there’s some mystery to the whole thing with my knee, whether it’s just arthritis or some kind of autoimmune issue. But over time, I just got more and more bow-legged, and I’ve been going without cartilage in my knees for a long time.
I had these knobby old legs, and I was calculating every trip to the john, or how long I’d be standing if I went to the market. Finally I found a doctor I trusted, and he said, “I can tell you that after surgery your legs will be straight, and they won’t hurt,” and that’s true. The experience also gave me a chance to empathize with people who have greater challenges. I feel very fortunate that I’m where I am now, because I feel like the next 10 years are going to be more fun.
Martirosyan: I hope so. Pain is something that goes under the radar in most people’s psyches, but it’s a big deal.
Gail: For the most part, we have amnesia around pain once it goes away, otherwise mothers would never have second children.
Martirosyan: How’s the pain now? Are you walking around much?
Gail: I am, and I have more range of motion than I had when I went into surgery, so if I do my yoga practice I should be able to get the flexibility to squat all the way down. I’ve also had back issues. But it’s all coming along.
Martirosyan: Have you started physical therapy?
Gail: I had a great home physical therapist, but now I can go out to therapy. You met one of my therapists in the hospital; all of her main work is in energy. But for 16 years she did hands-on bodywork. She even spent a couple of years studying cadavers, so she knows the physical body, as well as the energy body. Between the two therapists, I’ve had great support. They say I’m ahead of the curve, and all I had to do was keep getting up, moving and being thankful.
Martirosyan: When we saw you at the hospital, you weren’t sure exactly what they had done. Were you able to check out the x-rays and figure it out?
Gail: I came across an animation on knee replacements, but I had put off looking at it. It’s pretty amazing. I tend to pooh-pooh modern medicine in a way because there’s so many things that they don’t know, and my life has been touched by people dealing with cancer and other things. They had things they could try for cancer, but they weren’t really solutions. So it’s pretty amazing when they open up your knee, push parts of it off to the side, do some cutting, drilling, add some plates, and then line everything up with computers. It’s a problem with a solution.
Martirosyan: Have you missed any auditions in the process?
Gail: I missed a couple, but I’ve been out for several situation comedies, where I went, wagged my tail, and read. But at the same time they weren’t series that I was comfortable with as an actor. And so far, I haven’t gotten any of them. But I’ve seen a lot of actors I’ve known over the years out auditioning, and there aren’t many parts for those of us in our 70s. The sitcoms are all written by people around 30.
They’re not clued into how an older person thinks. And in a way, the style of comedy and what people are going for these days is more edgy. But I saw Tommy Chong [of Cheech and Chong] the other day. He went out for a part, and didn’t get it, either. It was for a Whoopi Goldberg pilot. I want to work, and would love to bring in a little more cash, because there are some things I would like to take care of with my kids. Another aspiration is music; Chet and I came together around something called LAPS. It started out being about how to get access to computers.
Gail: Local Access Places. When I first got connected to computers, the browser had been developed by some college students, which went on to become Netscape. Then Microsoft said, “Maybe we should have done something about a browser,” and they made a browser. Now we have a whole bunch of different browsers. But that’s really what’s opened up the floodgates on the Internet. There were a lot of people who thought, “Wow, this is a way people can talk and connect with each other around social, environmental and justice issues, so we can make the world a better place.” I was enthused about that. And I saw it as a matter of getting access. We didn’t have computers in our pockets like we have with our smartphones now.
I knew a lot of people from the reservation who were going to need support getting access to computers and learn how to use them and the Internet. And I had met Chet a while before that; we made a good connection. It just hit me that it was more about changing people’s paradigms around access in the disability community. So during those years we spent a lot of time together. It seemed like a lot of our work overlapped.
Martirosyan: It’s nice that you found common ground.
Gail: Yes. In time I came to see that the biggest challenge was that it’s hard for people to simply circle up and share who they are, something that most indigenous people still do; something our ancestors did in one way or another. Their lives weren’t so busy. So that’s been a mission for me. But I learned pretty quickly that my vision was not a vision that was going to make a lot of money.
A lot of other people saw possibilities, people who knew about writing code and had other visions that led to things like Facebook, YouTube and Google. So now we have this world that’s kind of run by a small number of very, very large monopolies created by people who were fans of Ayn Rand (author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, who advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected faith and religion.) It’s a mystery to me how anybody can follow her and have sensible things to say. But nonetheless, that’s where we are now, and it’s a pretty interesting place. Life unfolds in its own way.
Martirosyan: You mentioned music as one of the other projects you had in mind. What are you doing with music?
Gail: I grew up in a musical family. My dad was a piano player, and one of the businesses that helped him raise seven kids was booking bands; the other was a small office supply company. It was my twin sister who took piano lessons. I grew up around a lot of music from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. I got into playing in junior high, and learned Rock ‘n’ Roll. In those days it was all three-chord and four-chord songs. By learning chords, I was able to get piano-bar gigs through college and graduate school. When I sidestepped into acting in San Francisco, which was for me a great time of connecting to my innermost feelings, I was more of a science geek, an economics guy. But even as I was exploring Carl Jung and psychiatry, it was acting that opened my interior and sensibilities. I started writing songs. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to write a song at this time,” it was more like rhymes would come to me easily.
Martirosyan: That must’ve been nice.
Gail: I think a lot of that was due to the fact that I grew up knowing a lot of great songs; they were written in the ‘30s and ‘40s. By the ‘50s, they’d gotten a little corny. These songs started coming to me, which were a way of integrating and bringing forward my own spiritual growth and path. That led to a connection with Buffy Saint-Marie. She invited me to be an opening act for a tour she was putting together in Australia. It didn’t happen, but through Buffy, I met all these people involved with the American Indian movement, and my main acting experience, until then, had been doing the stage play “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
I did it in San Francisco when Alcatraz (the infamous federal penitentiary) was being occupied, and I performed it in New York when Wounded Knee (the 1890 massacre of more than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota nation in South Dakota) was being talked about again. So there was, in a way, a reassertion of sovereignty rights for the American people.
Martirosyan: What effect did all of that have on you?
Gail: I began to connect with American Indian people, so they knew I wasn’t some undercover guy coming in. I began to be identified with smart humor, which is highly valued in the Indian world. The image of Indians is stoic, and they’ll get quiet if they feel like they’re some place where they aren’t understood, but within that world, humor and insightfulness are essential to finding a good path. I also was exposed to a spiritual connection that was not in conflict with anything I was raised to believe in the Episcopal Church. There are universals that all religions tap into; it’s the externals that are different. And so those songs continued to be a path for me. That was where I was headed after Barney Miller ended in 1982.
I recorded an album of songs in conjunction with good musicians, who were interested in playing with me; I also got married and had a kid, and soon found out that my wife had cancer. So the music got put on the back burner. Now the kids are all grown, and I’m finding myself interested in playing more. My life partner now Chris, whom you met, is into percussion, including congas. So music is something I want to do more of.
Martirosyan: That’s great. You’re surrounded by music. I remember a clip of you from a video of an ABILITY House build; you were playing piano.
Gail: Yeah, I did a couple of songs at a benefit. What interested me was what I saw Chet doing, the way he had created this magazine. He had a really interesting entrepreneurial background, and decided to focus it on something that had meaning. He was doing it in a way that brought the policy stories together with the personal stories, to create a magazine that focused on abilities. It came from the standpoint that everybody’s going be disabled at some point. Chet approached everything with a persistent humor and openness that was incredible. So when he invited me to participate in a lot of the conferences, I got involved with community access, community technology centers, and community networks. In the Department of Commerce and Department of Labor at that time, there were different policies and practices that were supportive, but Washington politics being what they are, things changed.
I remember going back to a HUD conference in Atlanta one year, when Chet talked with the folks at Habitat for Humanity. They were starting to get pressure to build accessible houses. But they were saying, “Come on, we do a lot of good.” They were caught up in the notion that it was going to cost a lot more money to build accessible homes. And Chet showed them that it doesn’t cost more to include a ramp or design counters that you can roll a chair under when you’re building a house from the ground up. It was even harder for him to get them to take on people with disabilities as volunteers; they’re always thought of as being on the needing end, and yet have a lot to offer. I think that raised even more red flags; people worried that somebody might fall off a roof and get hurt.
Martirosyan: So what happened with that?
Gail: Chet was able to persuade them to give it a shot, and it was immediately successful. The first one down in Birmingham, AL—the energy and spirit around that build was fantastic. I remember one of the engineers who worked for Habitat for Humanity saying, “We should be filming this right now, and streaming it on the Internet!” That was my feeling, too. But we never did get the green light to shoot video or stream it on the Internet.
And then the next builds near Washington, and another in Hawaii, which was also in conjunction with a big benefit that Chet helped organize around the Pacific Rim conference on disabilities, was quite something. The guys who were building the house had a small, hard-core group of Habitat volunteers, who were used to getting houses built, and were not very excited about a bunch of volunteers showing up who didn’t have full ability or experience in the trade. But they came around. That was a wonderful build, too.
Martirosyan: What happened next on this long and winding road or yours?
Gail: I reached a time where I had burned through all my stash—what was left of it after my wife’s terminal illness. I was taking care of my children, and not working for a few years. I was trying to figure out what was happening; what to do next; and how to survive. So a carrot and a stick brought me back to California and to Hollywood. I began to work a bit as an actor, and to connect with this gathering of people from the media, entertainment and technology realms, which are not far apart from each other. Media is the news; entertainment is movies and TV; and technology is computers. Now they’re all totally mixed in with one another. So a lot of this has been how to survive and what’s going happen; everything’s been up in the air.
Martirosyan: I was just thinking how those were some great memories you brought up about the ABILITY House.
Gail: I would like to say that I do think that when Chet and I first met, I was thinking that ABILITY could have been a place-based TV sitcom, like Barney Miller (police department) or Cheers (bar), and you could use that form to create the television part of LAPs. And it could then become interactive with community technology centers.
Martirosyan: Didn’t you guys come up with something on the web?
Gail: There were different times when we put different things up. Certainly there were LAPs that we ran in parks and recreation departments. It turns out people really getting into a circle and talking to each other about what’s in their LAPs—their domains of care and responsibility, sharing who they are—leads to meaningful dialogue. It can happen sometimes with people who’ve been working together for years, but never had that kind of conversation with each other. Their meetings are all about getting to the practical outcome or something. But at the time, TV networks were starting to hemorrhage their audience to cable, so they were struggling. But I was dealing with an illness in my family, and becoming a single parent. And whatever fairy dust I had on me right after Barney Miller had long been washed off. They had started putting out offers to movie stars and others to create half-hour shows that would draw an audience. Most of those failed, and by then they had changed the laws so that networks were allowed to own shows, and were getting their hands into it. In the days that Barney Miller was on, the networks couldn’t own the show, so independent producers like Norman Lear and Danny Ailes had a certain amount of control and last say over what their stories were going to be, and how their characters were going to develop. So the idea of me having the know how and the energy to create not only a sitcom, but a new kind that was actually interactive was a big idea. What I learned was that being ahead of your time is not that different from being wrong.
But interestingly now we’re at a time where more and more people are saying, “What are people doing on the web? Maybe we’ll go to them?” And other people say, “I’ve got a new idea. I want to try this out on the web and see if we can find an audience or a group of people to participate with it.” And then when the network comes to me, I can say, “Yeah, I’ll do a show, but I’m in control; we’re in control. This is what we’re doing, not something that’s going to change after the first week.”
It is the time to be able to do that, and many people are world-weary of a media that breaks everything down to a debate. Every issue gets divided into two sides on the lowest common denominator. What can the argument be? It’s become so much silliness and very destructive and paralyzing. So my own feeling is that this is a time where we’re just facilitating and giving people a model for a simple way to circle up, share who they are, and keep the conversation moving as a way to do something different. So I feel kind of enthused about this particular time, and my only question is: What is my own personal energy level. I’m in my early 70s, and I’m just not running around like I did once.
Martirosyan: You’ve got some new knees, though.
Gail: I’ve got new knees.
Martirosyan: What’s your favorite movie?
Gail: Boy, I don’t know.
Martirosyan: You’re supposed to say 42.
Gail: Well, I did like 42, and I was really glad to be a part of it, because it had a whole bunch of people really working to make a good movie, working in a really good way. And it was a good movie.
Martirosyan: How did it feel for you stepping back into that time where there was so much—I don’t like to use the H-word—but hatred towards a group of people who were different?
Gail: I had had some experience with it. For a few years our family used to drive down from Michigan to Florida, and I would spend the second semester of my school year there. So in sixth and seventh grade, I encountered white towns and “colored” towns, and whites-only drinking fountains. Detroit was a fairly segregated world. There were black communities and white communities. We shot 42 down in Birmingham, and Chattanooga, TN, and a couple of places in Georgia, because they have a lot of old ballparks that are still part of the minor baseball league, and were easy to retrofit and use as stadiums.
I think what struck me when we were down there was that they had a certain number of paid extras and a lot of volunteer extras, who were dressed in the wool clothing of the ‘40s. And those were long, hot days in the sun. And the sequence that involved the manager of Philadelphia, I think it was, with all the name-calling and taunting of Jackie Robinson took three days to shoot. It was an amazing sequence where everyone came together to honor that time, knowing that things are different today. But not totally different, as we look at what’s been going on.
Martirosyan: That was an intense scene.
Gail: Yes. It was a great experience to be a part of a company that helped to keep the connection. And there were several African-American production assistants. They were college kids who were outspoken and smart.
There was a time when Sammy Davis, Jr., was seen as kind of an “oreo,” black on the outside and white on the inside, during the Civil Rights Movement because he went along with the Rat Pack. There were those who felt that Jackie Robinson hadn’t been as outspoken as he should have been, that he kind of kowtowed. But those productions assistant didn’t really know him. And they didn’t know much about what had actually happened in those earlier times.
And they, in a way, got on Chadwick Boseman’s case. He was magnificent in the way he dealt with it. He was just enough older than they were, and had been through just enough of his own experiences as an actor and in his own life. That was the most heated anything got, that conversation. It was heated, and at the same time animated. There are still people who are very caught up in old ways of thinking about how the world should be. So I would say 42 is my favorite movie. (laughter) It’s certainly the movie I’m proudest to be a part of.
I did The Frontier, a low-budget small film that premiered at South by Southwest last year, and made the festival circuit. It’ll be on pay-for-play, and it’s just me and two young people. One played my estranged son and the other a young gal who helped us reconnect. I had the lead; it was Matt Rabinowitz’s first movie. He was co-writer and director. I’ve known him since he was in preschool with my daughter, India. I have a lot of affection for that film and for that experience, too.
Martirosyan: It’s won a lot of awards, including one for you, for best actor. We’re really looking forward to seeing it.