11/08/2018 -- Acworth, Georgia -- Actor Mike Pniewski sits for a portrait at his house in Acworth, Thursday, November 8, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Atlanta character actor Mike Pniewski: the guy who was in that thing...

Originally posted Friday, December 21, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

It’s a gray November morning at Daddy D’z BBQ Joynt in Atlanta, the sweetly acrid smell of smoky ribs wafting in the air. Actor Mike Pniewski, in a booth, is staring intently into the eyes of fellow actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner of “Cosby Show” fame while shooting Fox’s medical drama “The Resident.”

Pniewski’s surgeon character Abe Benedict, as mentor to Jamal-Warner’s Dr. AJ “The Raptor” Austin, is imparting advice to his arrogant colleague:

“You’re great but you’re not invincible. My advice? Learn humility. Make a mistake. Own it. It makes you a better doctor.”

Malcolm Jamal-Warner with Mike Pniewski on the set of "The Resident" November 12, 2018. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

It’s a life lesson Pniewski himself takes to heart as an actor who has lasted in show business for nearly 35 years.

The long-time Acworth resident has more than 160 movie and TV credits to his name spanning groundbreaking dramas (“Hill Street Blues,” “The Sopranos”), comedic hits (“Beverly Hills Cop,” “Roseanne”), inspirational films (“Remember the Titans,” “We are Marshall”) and many, many TV movies even he has tried to forget (e.g. “My Fake Fiancé,” “My Future Boyfriend,” “My Son, the Matchmaker.”)

He has worked with everyone from Eddie Murphy to Gene Hackman, from Sandra Bullock to Denzel Washington, from Matthew McConaughey to Morgan Freeman.

In other words, practically any American who has watched any amount of TV or film over the years has seen Pniewski on screen, perhaps as a cop, a general, a football coach or a defense attorney. But he is no household name - except in his own household. He falls in the category of “Isn’t he that guy who was in that thing...?”

Mike Pniewski on the set of "The Resident" in early November, 2018. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

"I see people come up to him all the time wondering if they know him," said his daughter Hannah. "The few times he's owned up to being an actor, they'd say something like, 'No, no, no. Did you teach second grade in Spartanburg in 1993?' "

For many actors seeking Oscar-level fame and mansion-style fortune, this level of semi-anonymity would be the apex of frustration. Not Pniewski. He found his place in the Hollywood machinery as a character actor, excelling in roles that help A-list actors shine. 

“Being a character actor made Mike sensible,” said Brian Reise, a veteran Los Angeles-based acting coach who taught Pniewksi in his early years and has trained stars ranging from George Clooney to Tiffany Haddish.  “He has never been driven by celebrity. He’s driven by the work. I wish more people had that level of clarity.” 

Pniewski does not linger in the darker crevices of his mind. He focuses on the positive.

“There are guys who would give a limb for what I have. I am tremendously grateful,” said Pniewski recently in the living room of his comfortable suburban alcove in Acworth. “I’m never going to complain where I am.”

And at age 57, his career is more robust than ever. He’s currently simultaneously juggling part-time roles on three shows: CBS All Access legal drama “The Good Fight,” CBS political drama “Madam Secretary and “The Resident.”

What makes Pniewski especially unusual is he did the opposite of what most actors do. An Orange County native, he spent 10 years in Hollywood, then moved to Atlanta in 1994, long before Georgia became a tax-credit haven drawing hundreds of shows and movies to the state.

Married with a daughter and a second on the way, he knew Atlanta had a significantly lower cost of living than Burbank, where he and his wife Jaye lived in a modest but expensive town home with homeless on the sidewalk outside. 

“It wasn’t about business,” Pniewski said. “It was about quality of life.”

So they moved to Acworth, where his wife - a hair and makeup artist - grew up. They soon purchased a four-bedroom home for $116,000, which they are still living in more than two decades later.

While Pniewski isn’t sure this necessarily benefited his career, it made him much happier, more grounded.

And even during times when TV and film roles were slow to come, he scrambled. He booked commercials. He taught acting classes. He did motivational speaking. He became president of the local chapter of SAG-AFTRA, the actor’s union.

His patience paid off. When Georgia began offering tax credits to production companies to come here, he was able to get more work in the state such as “We are Marshall,” “Meet the Browns,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Drop Dead Diva” and “Coma.” And now he hardly ever ventures to Los Angeles, mostly finding work in New York and the Southeast.

A bulletin board of keepsakes Mike Pniewski has in his basement office in his Acworth home. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

As a child in the 1960s and early 1970s, Pniewski set his eyes on the stars, just not the ones on the red carpet.

“I was the one that would wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to watch Apollo launches live,” he said. “I remember writing to NASA and received an autographed photo from an Apollo 8 astronaut.”

He lived 40 miles from the glitz of Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills with two younger brothers in Santa Ana, Calif.. His parents were decidedly middle class, his dad a former Marine who worked in electronics manufacturing. His mom worked in the Orange County library system.

He caught the acting bug more by accident. As senior at his Catholic school, he joined “Fiddler on the Roof” not because he thought he could become the next Paul Newman. Rather, he saw it as a bonding experience with his classmates.

To his surprise, he ended up getting the lead role of Tevye, the poor Jewish milkman who sang the classic song “If I Were a Rich Man.”

“To this day, it’s still one of the most impactful things I’ve ever done,” Pniewski said. “It was the one thing nobody had to push me to do. In fact, I remember chasing the director down on a day when rehearsal had been cancelled.” The teacher had to calm him down, told him they still had plenty of time to prepare.

From performance day, he recalls the audience reaction.  

“I’m the last one out ,” he said. “I walk out and there’s this big roar. It literally shook me. That really kind of crystallized things. ‘Wow! This is something!’”

But he said he was supposed to be the responsible one in the family. “The idea of going into the freelance world as an artist was considered crazy, nuts,” he said. “You need to get a paycheck, be regular and dependable. I never thought I’d make a career out of acting.”

So Pniewski in 1979 received a full scholarship to UCLA to study sports medicine. “This was a hot new profession in the late 1970s,” he said.

Problem: he found the partying scene far more fun than studying kinesiology and nutrition. His first quarter GPA was an “Animal House”-level 1.0.

He soon made a decision: pursue what he loved, not just a profession to get a job. He thought of his dad and how he loved fixing cars but opted for a more practical career.

So he chose acting, the memory of that “Fiddler on the Roof” moment embedded in his head. “The power to think you can move people like that,” he said. “That’s kind of a drug. It’s intoxicating.”

Fortunately, he happened to be at UCLA, which has minted many a Hollywood mogul, producer, director, casting director and actor over the years. He had to also get his grades up to a 3.0 to make it into the theater program. By junior year, he gave up his sports medicine scholarship, reached the GPA threshold for the theater program and never looked back.

“I know I scared my parents,” he said. “They probably thought they’d be supporting me the rest of my life.” The statistics for actors have never been encouraging. A vast majority of SAG-AFTRA members need second jobs to survive.

“How are you going to live?” he recalled his mom asking him.

He said he just knew he’d be an exception.“It’s not arrogance or conceit,” he told her. “I’m not fooling myself. I just believed this is where I belong. As you know, I am never afraid to do the work.’”

Indeed, he persevered, as did many of his future famous UCLA classmates: Tim Robbins (“Shawshank Redemption”), Shane Black (“Predator”), Mariska Hargitay (“Law & Order: SVU”), Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson on “The Simpsons”) and Jack Black (“School of Rock”). The first play he did at UCLA was written by Robbins about a man readjusting to civilian life after the Vietnam War.

Right out of school, he got an agent and began auditioning. In 1984, he nabbed his first speaking role on the ABC action series “Hardcastle & McCormick.” And he played a cop, something he’d have to get used to. If anything, he resembled Kelsey Grammer.

Mike Pniewski's first speaking role on a TV show in 1984: "Hardcastle and McCormick" on ABC.

“I come across as credible, dependable, honest,” Pniewski said. “I haven’t played a lot of bad guys though I’ve played guys I didn’t think were bad though others thought were bad. So I’ve settled into playing cops, which was fine with me.”

What was unusual about Pniewski is he understood his place in the acting pecking order early on. He knew he wasn’t leading man material. He was a little hefty and prematurely balding.

“I was going to be the every man next door guy,” he said. “I was comfortable with that. Still am. It’s been pretty good to me.”

Mike Pniewski with Henry Winkler in the mid-1980s.

But Pniewski did have a moment where his ego briefly overtook good sense.

“I got another audition for one of those nice guy buddy best friend things,” he said. “I had this brilliant idea. I can give the guy a little attitude. I was going to reinvent the genre! I did the audition and felt really good about it.”

Then his agent called and said, exasperated: “What the hell were you thinking?” She said he had developed a reputation for doing this role reliably. Then he threw the producers for a loop. Keep showboating, she said, and he won’t get more work. Worse, he made her look bad.

So he learned a lesson: “Don’t be cute. Be comfortable in your own skin. Embrace where you fit in. Do it well and enjoy the ride. You’ll work for a long time.”

Pniewski has followed that philosophy ever since, working hard to be reliable, agreeable and prepared. And while it has allowed him to get plenty of work, he’s never gotten what many actors aspire for: a regular role on a TV series, which guarantees a steady paycheck, especially if said series becomes, say, “ER” or “NCIS.”

“It takes a lot of good fortune and there are a lot of good actors out there,” he mused. “Also, as I get older, there aren’t as many spots for regular roles for actors in their 50s and 60s. The sweet spot is your 20s and 30s.”

And for those regular roles set aside for older actors, producers tend to opt for better-known names like Tim Daly on his show “Madam Secretary” or Christine Baranski on “The Good Fight.” “They need to make the shows marketable,” he said. “I get it.”

But he still aspires to become a regular. 

“I don’t say this to brag but for a number of years, especially the last ten, I have consistently been delivering really high quality work. I’ve been doing my best work on really good projects.”

Mike Pniewski as Gordon Becker on CBS's "Madam Secretary."

Barbara Hall, creator of "Madam Secretary," has given Pniewski his biggest role to date as Secretary of Defense Gordon Becker, a foil to Tea Leoni's Secretary of State character Elizabeth McCord. He appears in about half the episodes. "He brings a real sense of believability, a sense of reality that doesn't turn his role into a bad guy," Hall said. 

During the season finale in May, Pniewski's Becker is on the links with President Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine) when they hear the Russians had released nuclear missiles coming straight at America. "Mike's an avid golfer and it comes through in that scene," Hall said. "He is so comfortable in that environment." 

And during an episode this past December 9, Becker enters McCord's home unannounced in his pajamas and not in his right mind. "He found this moment in that scene where he goes and picks up a Christmas ornament in a way that makes you realize, 'Oh my God! There's really something wrong!'" Hall said. "He did things in a way that we weren't necessarily expecting but made his character more believable."

Even a week before Christmas, he was still plugging away, doing auditions, typically from his studio basement office, seeking the best work he can find. And he never gets hung up when he doesn't get a role. Rejection comes with the territory. 

“I’ve been working professionally since 1984. I’m still in the game, still working at the highest levels of the business with some of the best people in the craft. I’ve been able to support my family and live a nice life and put two kids through college." [He has a third one who is in high school.]

One of those kids, his oldest daughter Hannah, now 27, saw her dad travel a lot out of town for his work as an actor and struggle at times. But that didn't deter her from entering the same field. 

And now - purely coincidentally - she and her dad will be in the same episode of "The Resident" set to air in February.
"We're not in the same scene," Hannah said, "but my character definitely influences what happens to his character in an indirect way." She said her dad is pretty low key except when it comes to his kids. "He got very emotional about this," she said. "And I couldn't be more excited about it." 

Mike Pniewski playing Abe Benedict on "The Resident" through a screen on set at Daddy D'z BBQ Joynt in Atlanta November 12, 2018. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

****


Notable memories from various shows and films Pniewski did over the years:

“Hardcastle & McCormick” (1984) “This was my first job. It was also the beginning of me playing cops. I played a lot of law enforcement over the years.” 

Mike Pniewski plays a file clerk in "Beverly Hills Cop."

“Beverly Hills Cop” (1984) “I played a clerk. I was a little intimidated. Eddie Murphy was so big at the time. I was just this young kid trying to get started. I tried really hard not to be star struck.”

George Clooney gets lifted by Mike Pniewski during an episode of "The Facts of Life" from 1986.

“The Facts of Life” (1986) “It was a high school reunion. George Clooney and I both played football. I remember he made some crack about a girl from high school and I had to say it was my wife. I don’t remember why I picked him up that way.” 

“Home Improvement” (1993) “Tim Allen and I were in a ballroom dance class together. We were two husbands who didn’t want to be there. We sat in the back and made fun of everybody. That was a really hot show at the time. When your job is to show up and find a way to make people laugh, it’s a pretty good gig.”

“A Time to Kill” (1996) He again played a cop - of course. “It was a better role than what you see in the movie,” he said. “Most of my dialogue was cut out. I was disappointed.”

“From the Earth to the Moon” (1998) “I play a flight surgeon in one of the missions about Apollo 8. Tom Hanks [executive producer] was awesome. Buzz Aldrin was a technical advisor. What a rush! I was a kid in a candy store. I loved it!” 

Mike Pniewski played a cop in the 2000 football film "Remember the Titans," which was shot in Atlanta and set in 1971 Virginia. He pulls up to a black football player in a white neighborhood and (surprise!) compliments him for his game play.

‘Remember the Titans” (2000): The film is about integrating football players of different races together in the early 1970s. “It’s a pivotal scene. When one of the black football players goes to a white neighborhood, I pull up as a street cop. Instead of saying something racist, I told him he played the best defense I’d seen in 20 years. That was when you saw the town turning.”

“Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” (2004) “I got clocked by Malcolm McDowell. Knocked me flat on my head. He was twice my age! It was a lot of fun.”

Mike Pniewski plays law enforcement on "The Sopranos" assigned to escort Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) from prison to see his daughter's wedding.

“The Sopranos” (2006) “I played a U.S. Marshal that had to escort Johnny Sack from prison to his daughter’s wedding and back. Everybody in the cast was there. They had everyone in the holding room in the back of the church. I remember sliding off into a corner and calling my wife. ‘I’m on the [expletive] Sopranos!’ That was one of the few days I had a real fan boy experience.

Mike Pniewski as Bobby Bowden in "We Are Marshall."

“We are Marshall” (2006) “I played football coach Bobby Bowden. It was the first time I had to wear a hairpiece. I colored my hair to match it. It turned out really great. It was one long day but I remember the director McG was such a high energy, rah rah guy. I remember things were dragging at one point and I heard a booming voice from video village. ‘I wanted nobody else to play Bobby Bowden!’” That got me going!

“CSI: Miami” (2009) “For once, I played a bad guy. I was this stalker dude who molested girls. There was one shot of me through night-vision glasses. It’s me peering into this house where these reality show contestants were living. My daughter said, ‘That was really creepy! It felt real!’”

"Boom De Yah Da"--Democratic strategist Frank Landau (Mike Pniewski, center) forces Eli (Alan Cumming, right) to work with Jordan Karahalios (T.R. Knight, left) a savvy campaign manager, on THE GOOD WIFE, Sunday Jan. 6 (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Jeff Neira/CBS �©2012 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Jeffrey Neira

“The Good Wife”/“The Good Fight” (2010-present) He plays a Democratic strategist Frank Landau. It’s one of the few times someone recognized him for a specific role. “I was at a Starbucks in Buckhead and some guy leans over and says, ‘I’m a big fan of ‘The Good Wife’ and you’re a d***.’ As actors, we’re supposed to elicit an emotional response from the audience. So I’m doing my job. Frank is a d*** from my point of view!” To Pniewski, “it’s a fun role. He’s really clever and smart. He can be a hard ass and scary but he can also be charming and affable. He plays to win. Whatever it takes even if it destroys others in the process. He knows how to play the game and plays it well.”

Mike Pniewski on "Blue Bloods" with Tom Selleck. CREDIT: CBS

“Blue Bloods” (2014-2016) “I’m a U.S. Marshal and mix it up with Donnie Wahlberg’s character. My character has a personal thing against Donnie’s so we clash.” 

Mike Pniewski as Secretary of Defense Gordon Becker with "Madam Secretary" lead Teo Leoni as Elizabeth McCord. CREDIT: CBS

“Madam Secretary” (2013-present) - He’s Gordon Becker, the Secretary of Defense since the show debuted. “This is the most extensive role I’ve ever done. They keep giving me more and better stuff to do. It’s a great place to work with really nice people. Gordon is pragmatic but is not without compassion. While he takes a strong stand for what he believes in, I believe he’s ultimately a team player. That’s why the president keeps him around.”

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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