Carl Weathers realized while attending San Diego State University that he could never hold a 9 to 5 job.
“I did some jobs in school and every one taught me I really didn’t want to do that,” he recalls, laughing. “I worked at Ford Motor Co. parts division. I worked at the Post Office. I worked at McDonnell Douglas. I worked on campus. I even worked part-time as a bouncer for this giant venue which had acts come in. I helped Stevie Wonder off and on the stage. That’s my claim to fame as a bouncer. But I knew that I could never let that be my life. I couldn’t.”
So Weathers went the untraditional route: He became a football player for the Oakland Raiders and British Columbia Lions and an international movie star thanks to his memorable turn as champion prize-fighter Apollo Creed in four of the “Rocky” films. He also starred in “Predator” and “Action Jackson.”
The 45-year-old Weathers has now joined the cast of the long-running CBS police drama “In the Heat of the Night.” Weathers plays Hampton Forbes, the new police chief of Sparta, Miss. Carroll O’Connor’s Chief Bill Gillespie was fired from the post last season and is now county sheriff.
O’Connor, who also is co-executive producer, called Weathers earlier this year about heating up “Night” for its seventh season. Weathers was just coming off two grueling years as the star of the syndicated cop series “Street Justice.”
“The load that I had on that show,” Weathers recalls over coffee at a Santa Monica cafe. On this windy afternoon, Weathers is casually dressed in blue jeans, a jacket and baseball cap. He’s in a chatty, reflective mood.
“It was just so overwhelming in certain ways that I constantly had to be revved up to performance level,” he says. “That takes a toll on you emotionally, physically, intellectually and psychologically. It really fries you. It was like shell shock.”
Though Weathers had never worked professionally with O’Connor, they knew each other socially from “hanging out at the beach in Malibu.” Two years ago, O’Connor had approached Weathers about joining the series, but he was tied up on “Street Justice.”
“But this year when he called it was like, ‘As a matter of fact, Carroll ... ' " Still, Weathers wanted O’Connor to answer some questions before he committed himself.
“After having gotten off a show where you were, quite frankly, underappreciated for what you have, if I am going to work I certainly want to be paid and to be appreciated,” Weathers told O’Connor. “I think the feeling you are appreciated is really an important feeling for an actor and an artist.”
O’Connor, Weathers says, agreed. “That made me feel good,” he says. “Actors, I think, are notoriously thought of as children and, at best, very dumb children. Being an actor, I think he understood where I’m coming from. That really inspired me to go with it. Very quickly, we had the deal come together. I was off to the Atlanta area where we shoot the show.”
Weathers maintains he’s not replacing former regular Howard Rollins, who has had a run-in with the law as well as substance abuse problems. “He’s not dead,” Weathers says of Rollins’ character Virgil Tibbs. “He has not disappeared. He hasn’t ridden off in the sunset.” In fact, Rollins is supposed to return as a guest-star in a few episodes.
After having filmed 13 episodes, Weathers discovered that the series is a good change of pace and image for him. “I have done so much formula (TV),” he says. “In episodic television, you really don’t have much chance to be an artist. But with this show, the good news is (O’Connor) really tries to expose this community as a group of people who live and work together and who have much in common and various differences.”
Hampton Forbes, Weather says, is a three-dimensional character and not a “device in the sense that he’s not there just to fuel controversy. He comes in to do a job as a professional. He becomes part of the community.”
Weathers strokes the graying stubble on his face. “It’s a good place for me at this particular time,” he reflects. The series has allowed him to make a nice transition both professionally and privately.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” says the divorced father of two sons. “But I know I’m going somewhere. I know this is a very important part of this transition and trip. I feel like it’s allowing me to connect to some things I haven’t been allowed to connect with, and I don’t even know what that means.”
Since joining “In the Heat of the Night,” Weathers has taken up painting. “I’m really enjoying it. I don’t feel like I have enough time to do it. But when I get started, I don’t want to stop. It’s in its infancy. I’m not a great artist by any means, but I have something inside me that wishes to express itself. (A painting) is always a work in progress. It’s kind of the way I look at all our lives. We are all works in progress.”
“In the Heat of the Night” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS; repeats air weekdays at 3 p.m. on KTLA and weeknights at 7 on KTTY.