Michael Chiklis says he was "flabbergasted" at winning a best actor Emmy last September as the star of FX's gritty crime drama The Shield. But his triumph comes as no surprise to critics who have been raving since last March, when the show premiered, about Chiklis's riveting portrayal of corrupt yet charismatic Vic Mackey, the lean, mean, LAPD cop from hell.

Just how mean was evident from Chiklis's first audition in July 2001, when he did a scene in which Mackey hauls back to punch a suspected child molester in the throat. There being no other actor in the room, Chiklis aimed his fist and make-believe fury at the casting assistant taping the tryout, who "screamed and dropped the camera," says John Solberg, an FX executive.

As for lean, Chiklis, 39, previously best-known as the pudgy police commissioner on ABC's The Commish from 1991 to 1995, gives full credit for his physical transformation to his wife of 10 years, Michelle. Two years ago, when the only job offers he was getting were for what Chiklis calls "fat guy" roles, he wound up sulking around the couple's six-bedroom San Fernando Valley house. Watching him, "I was frustrated," says Michelle, 39, a former actress who'd quit to raise their daughters, Autumn, 9, and Odessa Rose, 3. "I knew his potential [to play action heroes], but he looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy. I told him to get off his fat ass and get down to the gym."

"She fired me up; she challenged me," says Chiklis, who began taking spinning classes and pumping iron. He also switched to a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. In six months, the 5'9" actor dropped 55 lbs. and now weighs a sleek 190. "The athlete I once was came back to me," says Chiklis, who played football at Andover (Mass.) High School. "I was feeling good about myself. I was confident."

The younger of two sons of Charlie, a beauty salon owner, and Katherine, a hospital administrative aide, both 65, Chiklis had confidence to burn growing up. "He was always the guy daring you," says classmate Bob Pascarella, now 39 and a music producer. Chiklis went on to major in acting at Boston University. After graduating with a B.EA. in 1986, he headed for New York City, where he tended bar at comedy clubs.

His big break came—sort of—with 1989's Wired, in which he was cast as John Belushi, the Saturday Night Live pioneer who died of a drug overdose in 1982. Chiklis thinks the film's harsh portrayal of the popular comic's decline hurt his own career. "Six to eight months after Wired wrapped, I couldn't get an audition," he says. Still, there is no hard evidence he was blackballed, and the fact that Wired tanked at the box office and Chiklis was still a relative unknown may at least partly account for his frustrating dry spell.

It ended after Burt Reynolds gave Chiklis a guest shot on his private-eye series B.L. Stryker. He began getting offers for TV pilots, including, in 1991, The Commish. A year later he proposed to his girlfriend, Michelle Epstein, a then-aspiring actress who, he says, had "dropped her whole life for me and moved lock, stock and barrel to Vancouver," where The Commish was shot. Nine years and two kids later, Michelle tipped off her now-buff husband that a friend's producer-husband was casting for The Shield.

Chiklis's indelibly teddy-bearish turn as The Commish almost wrecked his chances. "Too warm and fuzzy—and jowly," FX Entertainment president Kevin O'Reilly recalls thinking when the actor's name came up. But after seeing the audition tape, O'Reilly recanted. Chiklis "was scary," he says. "There are a lot of guys like that, but he was also likable."

Now the nice guy/bad cop (who recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for best actor) is considering offers for feature films. "I'm shying away from playing villains," he says. "I'd rather the audience like me." He may be overworrying. "This was an actor who was chubby and funny, looked at himself in the mirror and made a change," says castmate CCH Pounder. "He is a very sweet guy, and I am proud of him."

Michael A. Upton
Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles

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  • Frank Swertlow.