In 1984 Stacy Keach went from prime time to doing time. While starring as the tough-guy detective in the TV series Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, the actor got busted in London for drug possession and spent six months in prison. Now, two decades later, he's back behind bars—as warden Henry Pope on the FOX crime drama Prison Break. And even though it's only make-believe, returning to the slammer (Illinois' infamous Joliet prison, closed since 2002, stands in for the show's Fox River State Penitentiary) was still unnerving for Keach. "I had a chill of recognition," he says. "It was 21 years ago, but in some ways it seems like yesterday."

Keach was on his way back from shooting a miniseries in France on April 3,1984, when police at London's Heathrow airport found 1.3 oz. of cocaine in the false bottom of his shaving-cream can. His coke addiction "had been [going on] a couple of years, but I was in total denial," says Keach, 64. Adds his wife Malgosia, a Polish-born actress he was then dating: "I had no idea he was using drugs. It was completely a shock to me."

So was the sentence he received that December. Expecting a slap on the wrist for pleading guilty to a first offense, Keach instead was ordered by the judge to spend nine months at Reading Gaol, an over-crowded Victorian prison some 30 miles west of London. (He would be released after six months for good behavior.) "It was a kick in the gut," recalls Keach. Malgosia, back in L.A., phoned the prison. "I said, 'Is Stacy Keach there? This is his girlfriend. Tell him I love him and I will wait for him.' Stacy says that saved his life."

At Reading "I was not allowed to join the general population for the first four months because of my celebrity," says Keach. "Mike Hammer was well-known [in England]. So I was in solitary confinement in a way." He would still get taunted by fellow convicts who'd mockingly ask, "Want some Charlie [coke], mate?" In fact, scared straight by his arrest, Keach says he had gotten off drugs cold turkey and experienced no physical withdrawal while in prison. But he did witness some physical brutality. One day, he says, "I started hearing screaming outside my cell. This prisoner was obviously out of control, so the guards beat him mercilessly. Right then I realized there was no messing around in there."

Sanitary conditions were no less grim. "There were no toilets in our cells," says Keach, "only plastic buckets. At 6:30 a.m. you'd hear, 'Slop out!' That was the prisoners' cue to carry their own buckets down to the bathroom to dump them out. If yours sloshed onto another prisoner—that's when all the fights broke out. There were fights every morning."

He lived for regular visits from Malgosia, with whom he now shares a house in suburban Warsaw along with son Shannon, 17, and daughter Karolina, 15. "He wrote to me every day," she says.

Put to work in the prison library, Keach befriended other inmates. His most unusual bond, though, was with Reading's warden Brian Hayday. "He was a very compassionate man," says Keach. In the two decades since his release, he and Hayday now retired, have exchanged Christmas cards. "Holidays are a very difficult time in prison," says Keach. "He helped me get through it. Every Christmas I look back on that time and think how lucky I was to have survived it."

Mike Lipton. Kelly Williams in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Kelly Williams.