As An Actor or Oddsmaker, Cagney & Lacey's John Karlen Is Simply Perfecta
12/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
When John Karlen accepted his Emmy this year—for his role as Harv, Tyne Daly's paunchy, steadfast hubby on Cagney & Lacey—he provided the exuberant high point in an otherwise soporific evening. A guy who once earned pin money as a bookie in the barrooms of Brooklyn, Karlen brandished his prize, untied the knot in his throat and after a few preliminary words told the audience: "I need this more than a working man needs a loaf of bread."
Two months later, Karlen, 53, still has an afterglow that would shame an aurora. "It's really nice to get up in the middle of the night and on the way to the bathroom say hello to it," says the actor, gazing at the statuette on the mantelpiece of his Glendale, Calif. home. "It's the best. It's the killer. It's juicy. Getting it was the most power-packed minute and 15 seconds of my life." Karlen is in Hollywood heaven, and he doesn't care who knows it.
In fact if Karlen has a single surpassing charm, it's his sheer, unfettered jubilance—an outlook typical of "the Brooklyn bananas," he says, "the real tough guys of south Brooklyn. When you grow up low-down and crazy, you gotta give yourself a sense of freedom."
Karlen's notion of crazy included "a lot of petty shoplifting" in the tough Red Hook neighborhood where he grew up. Unpampered by four older sisters, Karlen was the only son of Adam and Helen Karlevich. "There were no great laws in our house about come home at this time, do this, do that. Maybe there was supper on the table, maybe there wasn't, but we all had a sense of freedom.
"We were poor but we didn't know it. My father would go down to the Navy yards, then come home and spit rust all night from working in the hold of a ship." His father also spewed plenty of turf lore. "He was a great handicapper, and he taught me everything he knew," says Karlen. "He was a heavyweight in the sense that he also played the violin, spoke half a dozen languages and kept Caruso records under his bed because there was no place else to put them."
After quitting Manual Training High School at 16, Karlen worked as a messenger, a packer in a wedding ring factory and a small-time bookie. "I'm talking mainly $2 betting. Once in a while somebody hit a $60 daily double. That was a big kill in my neighborhood." He logged two years in Korea with the Air Force, then closed out his four-year hitch in Long Beach, Calif., where he joined a drama class to fill off-duty time. His street sense told him, "I can do this stuff. I can't write, I can't paint, I can't lay carpet. But goddammit, I can act." In 1957 Karlen enrolled in New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and by 1960 he was on Broadway, appearing with Geraldine Page and Rip Torn in Sweet Bird of Youth.
In 1963 Karlen married acting teacher Betty Silicato, a prizefighter's daughter from Wilmington, Del., and three years later their son, Adam, was born. (Betty's first guest appearance on Cagney & Lacey airs in December; Adam, meanwhile, works part-time as a waiter in Malibu.)
What Karlen wanted from his career "was huge, instant stardom," he admits, "but it just didn't happen." Instead he coasted along on small parts in plays, TV and film. Yet he had no doubt that he was going to win the Cagney & Lacey role in 1982: Arriving at the audition, he saw that the first two digits on Tyne Daly's license plate, 94, were his lucky numbers. "And I told her—this was the first time I ever met her—'I'm gonna be the guy that gets the part, ba-da-bop, bidda-bip.' "
Today Karlen works an average of one day a week on the show, shooting as many as six scenes at a clip. He and Daly bird-dog each other, tenaciously going over lines. "This woman will not quit," he notes. "She goes on and on and on, and it's always richer, deeper, fuller. I like what I see when I see the two of us working. It's good kitchen drama. I'm proud of it."
The show's handicapper-in-residence, Karlen passes much time at Santa Anita, where he recently pocketed $2,500 on six of eight races. "To me, spending two or three hours with the Daily Racing Form is like reading the Bible or the Koran or the Talmud—total peace and relaxation," he explains. "A winning horse is an explosive moment. You've succeeded, you've reached the altar."
He spends the rest of his time working elsewhere (he and Geraldine Page appear in Native Son, a December film), twinkling around town in his Jag and cultivating maitre d's. A 5'10", 190-lb. fine-food junkie, Karlen has burned through three personal fitness consultants who tried in vain to tame his appetite with morning beach jogs. "Getting the best table at Trumps," he says, means more than a smaller belt size. "It's like they say in Brooklyn," he laughs, "Yah, fungo, who cares?"